By Ilan Fuchs, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, Legal Studies
The past few days have seen a renewal of the violence that had been brewing for a month and finally boiled over with clashes in Jerusalem at the culmination of the Muslim month of Ramadan. Overnight on Wednesday several hundred missiles were launched from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip into Israel. The Israeli army retaliated by launching air strikes at various targets in Gaza.
What Brought This Newest Cycle of Violence?
Historical events have triggers and causes. As I like to explain it to my undergraduate students, triggers are like the straw that broke the camel’s back. It was the final push that had a direct effect, but it could only occur after a complex process took place creating that weight on the camel’s back. In this case, there is so much background.
The root causes of the Arab-Israeli conflict are complex as we discuss in our course, IRLS463 Arab-Israeli Conflict: Contemporary Politics & Diplomacy at AMU.
In the specific current flashpoint, the trigger was the clashes between the Israeli police and Palestinians in East Jerusalem around the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Tension was rising for the past month in Jerusalem when social media videos began showing Palestinian youths attacking Orthodox Jews in the areas where East and West Jerusalem meet.
When the Israeli police increased its presence, tensions in the area rose further coinciding with Ramadan. Last Friday, the last Friday of Ramadan, saw tens of thousands of men coming to pray in Al-Aqsa who were prompted to protect the site from the Israeli police. The clashes erupted quickly and the crowd, mainly young men throwing rocks and bottles, clashed with the police. The policy fired back with concussion grenades and the videos were broadcasted all over the region.
The Effects of the Clash on Palestinian and Israeli Politics
This was the trigger but the cause has to do with the Palestinian elections. The Palestinian Authority was scheduled to conduct elections for the Palestinian Parliament for the first time since 2006 on May 22.
Mahmud Abbas decided to postpone the elections indefinitely since he rightfully suspected Hamas would win and he would lose control over the West Bank. The attacks show two things: One, dissatisfaction with the decision to postpone the elections and, two, that the leadership in the West Bank is weak and control should move to Gaza and Hamas.
The clashes also have some significant potential effects on Israeli politics. The rightwing parties that are essential for a government without Benjamin Netanyahu will have a hard time in the coming few weeks.
Can Naftali Bennet and his Yamina party and Gideon Sa’ar and his Tikvah Chadasha join a coalition with the left after this week? Possibly, but I would not bet on it. Their constituencies would have a hard time doing so. Avigdor Liberman, leader of rightist Yisrael Beiteinu party and former foreign minister, could pull that off since his base votes squarely for him as the embodiment of the party. But at the same time he would push for more aggressive moves vis-à-vis Hamas. So how long would that coalition survive?
It is worthwhile remembering that this is not the first clash between Hamas and Israel. They fought several times in 2005, when Israel left the Gaza Strip and destroyed all the Israeli settlements in the area. This unilateral move was criticized at the time as a tactic that will lead to attacks on Israeli cities; and 15 years after the fact it seems it was indeed a bad move. This latest clash will most likely simply end with another hiatus for a few years just like the last clash in 2016.
The Real Game Changer Here Is Not in Gaza but in Israel Itself
The real game changer here is not in Gaza but in Israel itself. Israel has a population of 1.9 million Arab citizens. They constitute almost 21% of the population and their relationship with the Jewish majority has always been complicated. In the recent past there were many signs of the integration of Arab youth into Israeli society.
Arab students in Israeli universities and their high rate of participation in the Israeli economy and in the medical fields, which was highly felt during the Covid-19 crisis, brought about a clear sense of change when it came to the role of the Arab population in Israel.
Last month saw this process culminate when an Arab party, “The Joint Arab Party,” an Islamist party with a clear ideological nexus with the Muslim Brotherhood, decided it would be willing for the first time to join a coalition government in Israel. The party and its leader, Mansur Abbas, met with representatives from Likud and Lapid and with Bennett. It seemed as if we were on a threshold of significant change in Israel.
This process was scaled back, perhaps for decades, after the past few days when Arab youths attacked Jewish citizens mainly in cities that have both Jewish and Arab neighborhoods such as Lod, Acre, Haifa, Ramallah and Jaffa. Mobs of predominantly young Arab men threw stones at cars driven by Jews, burned Jewish-owned businesses, cars and synagogues and clashed with police.
The very fragile fabric of Arab-Jewish relations in Israel has suffered a serious blow and it is more than likely the results will be serious. First and foremost, it seems that Jews might begin boycotting Arab owned businesses and the chance an Arab party finally joining an Israeli coalition government seems now highly unlikely.
This is simply another flashpoint in the long history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and there is no reason to think it will bring about a fundamental change in the region. Most likely it will change the dynamic of the Jewish-Arab relations in Israel itself and considerably slow the process of change that has been taking place.