Civil war in Israel?
It is too early to say how the latest clash between Israel and the Palestinians is going to end. Many questions have been asked in the wake of this dangerous escalation. Perhaps the most difficult to answer is how the US will respond. President Joe Biden is keen to differentiate himself from the policies of his disruptive predecessor Donald Trump. But he seems unwilling to apply sufficient pressure on Israel.
Biden wants better relations with the Palestinian Authority under President Mahmoud Abbas. He has pledged to restore aid to UNRWA and reopen the Palestinian mission in Washington. He has dispatched the special envoy Hady Amr to Israel, but the post of US ambassador to Israel remains vacant. Biden has also made clear, however, that he will not reverse Trump’s controversial decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel or move the US embassy back to Tel Aviv.
Preoccupied as Biden and the rest of the world is by the devastating human and economic impact of the covid pandemic, this conflagration is simply too important to ignore. The US needs to engage more strongly with both sides and recognize that this may also be an opportunity to relaunch some kind of peace process. It needs to think about the Middle East beyond Iran and the challenge of returning to the 2015 nuclear deal.
Internationally, more EU member states could follow Sweden and recognize the state of Palestine. Regionally, Arab countries need to do more to try to promote reconciliation between Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Fatah in the West Bank. Egypt and Jordan, which have their own long-standing peace treaties with IsraeI, could assist too. The UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco, which decided last year to normalize relations with Israel, are potentially well-placed to help. Saudi Arabia, Oman and Qatar, all closer to Israel than in the past, could also promote de-escalation.
The Israel government – and there is only a temporary one following yet another inconclusive election in March – also needs to understand that it must do far more than rely on its unchallenged military superiority over Hamas. The actions of Israeli police during Ramadan on the Haram al-Sharif have been widely condemned globally and also criticized at home. The legal dispute over evictions from the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah must be seen in the wider context of this intractable conflict: Palestinians do not have the right to reclaim property in West Jerusalem or elsewhere in Israel.
Perhaps both sides will tire – in the coming days or weeks - of this asymmetrical, and grimly familiar confrontation over Gaza, and agree on a ceasefire. But Israelis are more alarmed by what President Reuben Rivlin has warned might be “a civil war (that would) be a danger to our existence, more than all the dangers we have from the outside.”
Indeed, a worrying innovation of this round is that communal tensions between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel (21% of the total population) have exploded into riots and attacks. As Gaza was being bombarded, violence was happening from Beersheba in the south, Ramle, Lod and Jerusalem in the centre, and Tiberias and Haifa in the north. Stabbings, arson, home invasions and shootings all took place, some of it captured in detail on social media.
It is not the first time that there has been solidarity between Palestinian-Israelis (the “Arabs of 1948”) and their compatriots across the pre-1967 “Green Line” border. At the beginning of the second intifada in 2000 – ignited by Ariel Sharon’s provocative visit to what Jews call the Temple Mount (Haram al-Sharif) 13 Palestinian-Israelis were shot dead in protests.
But the scale of what has been happening in recent days is unprecedented. The alarm has been enough to prompt editorials, for example in the Jerusalem Post, which warned that “the delicate and vastly imperfect coexistence that has existed between Jewish and Arab Israelis for the last 73 years now risks fraying beyond recognition”. The timing too was an ironic reminder of the sheer length of this conflict: May 15 is Nakba day, the date in 1948 on which Israel was created, creating a “catastrophe” for the Palestinians. Binyamin Netanyahu, prime minister for the last 12 years, referred ominously to violence by Arabs in Israel as "terror," saying "anyone who acts like a terrorist will be handled like one."
The broader context, as ever, is part of this grim story and necessary to understand its significance. The shift to the right amongst Israeli Jews in recent years witnessed the Nation State law of 2018, which was seen as an act of anti-Palestinian discrimination by defining Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people and downgrading the official status of Arabic.
Hopefully, in the wake of this latest bout, the world will become more aware of the urgency of trying to resolve this most intractable of conflicts in a manner that respects the rights of both Palestinians and Israelis. Neither people – like it or not (and many of course, do not) – is going to go away, nor will they give up their right to justice, freedom and self-determination.