Omri Preiss says this time the war was not what it seemed
The Ella Valley region to the south west of Jerusalem looks exactly like what you imagine the land of the Bible to look like, with rolling hills green with shrubs and light brown shades of land on the edge of the desert. This is where the Bible says David famously fought Goliath. Then, in the first and second centuries, zealot Jewish rebels hid out in these hills as they fought their doomed wars against the Romans. The small villages that dot the landscape look over the hills, and Bedouin shepherds come and go in the valleys with flocks of sheep and goats. This is where I spend time visiting family when I’m in Israel, looking out from the terrace at the world outside.
In evenings of mid-May for two weeks you could see the lights of Iron Dome missiles rising over the hilltops, and hear loud explosions echo as they blow Hamas rockets out of the sky. Overhead, Israeli military jets blare and helicopters fly low. A low rumbling thunder of distant explosions from Gaza and the Israeli coast is heard. The windows shake and the dogs bark towards the noise. This is the soundtrack to a warzone. One can only imagine the angst of living about 40 or 50 kilometres away where the rockets land, and the horror of families seeking shelter inside Gaza.
On the face of it, this looks like yet another bloody round of violence in an age-old conflict. Europeans looking on like to see a story of David versus Goliath. Once upon a time David was the young Israeli state facing its neighbours with its back to the sea. Now, they see Palestinians facing an Israeli Goliath of military might. But look again: this round of fighting was not what it seemed. Something cracked; something was different.
Israel is going through rocky times. The country has been ruled by a far-right nationalist government led by Benjamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu, in some constellation or another, for over a decade. He has fanned the flames of hatred, xenophobia and racism at every turn, and did all he could to undermine the rule of law inside Israel. Bibi currently faces a slew of criminal trials for corruption charges, and he faces significant prison time if convicted. He is clinging on for dear life. In the last two years, Israel has seen four elections, none of which managed to generate a ruling coalition. For the first time, this last election brought into the Knesset (the Israeli parliament) a far-right nationalist religious fundamentalist party, previously banned as a Jewish terrorist organisation. They scraped through after they formed an electoral alliance with Netanyahu.
In the meantime, the Palestinians face their own unique political stasis. The Palestinian Authority, run by the moderate-yet-corrupt Fatah movement, has been made weaker by Bibi’s government. Engaging Fatah means opening up prospects of peace talks and a two-state solution, which Israeli nationalists do not want. In a mirror image to Israel, no elections have been held in Palestine since 2006. Under the ageing leadership of President Mahmoud Abbas, the PA has become less and less relevant. Since the last large-scale round of violence in 2014, Hamas in Gaza has grown stronger, with Bibi’s support. Odd as it sounds, the far-right in Israel have preferred to maintain a frozen status quo with Hamas rather than engage in dialogue with Palestinian moderates. The Israeli government have allowed millions of dollars of Qatari aid to stream in to strengthen Hamas’s rule in Gaza. This is no conspiracy theory: it is the rank cynical absurdity of extremists nurturing each other’s hatreds.
It may seem cynical to say so, but in terms of this bloody age-old conflict, these past few years have been a time of stability. Palestinians in the West Bank remained under occupation, the people of Gaza remained oppressed by Hamas and blockaded by Israel and Egypt, and Israelis near the border saw occasional burst of rockets or mortar fire. But otherwise, things were calm.
At the time that tensions in Jerusalem rose to new dangerous levels, Netanyahu was struggling to form a new coalition. The new Knesset is so fragmented that any coalition would need the support from both Jewish religious nationalists and Arab religious nationalists. It is a circle that’s hard to square. Netanyahu also began to attend hearings of his corruption trial – his time to form a coalition was running out. As the opposition now attempted to form a new, more liberal government, Bibi’s extremist allies began to provoke Palestinians in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of East Jerusalem, and police moved in with heavy-handed tactics. Temperatures began to rise during the holy month of Ramadan, and riots broke out. It was clear that with violence escalating, the range of progressives, centrists, and nationalists would struggle to form a coalition.
At the same time, on the Palestinian side, Hamas and Fatah struggled for dominance. New elections were on the horizon for the first time since 2006, and a Hamas victory was on the cards. President Mahmoud Abbas decided to postpone the elections, a move that undermined Hamas’s relevance for the West Bank. A window of opportunity opened for Hamas to show it still mattered.
When Israeli police broke into the Al-Aqsa Mosque and fired stun grenades inside, it was clear the result would be violence; the question was just how bad it would get. When Hamas gave an ultimatum and then fired rockets at Jerusalem, it was clear that a bombing campaign against Gaza would ensue. These are the tragic clockwork movements of this conflict that rise again and again without fail. All Hamas and Bibi needed to do was to follow the logic of every previous round and do what they had done before.
As Israeli jets, drones and artillery bombarded Gaza, and thousands of rockets rained down on Israel’s cities, the attempts to form a new government in Israel failed. Hamas positioned itself as the defender of Jerusalem. In the meantime, horrific violence broke out on the streets across Israel, and Jewish and Arab extremists roamed the streets, lynching passers by, burning and looting shops. A new and shocking, uglier form of hatred has been unleashed, something never seen before.
This violence was no fight of David against Goliath. It was not the story of a fight for survival. It is the tragic reality of innocent people trapped on both sides by violent extremists and cynical opportunists. It is clear that if hatred and prejudice are cultivated under pressure they explode with fury.
To break this depressing downward spiral, simplistic condemnation will not be enough. There must be real and tangible dialogue between democrats on both sides who choose to live together, and who recognise common humanity. Only an alliance of the sane and compassionate can remove this dangerous band of cynics and fanatics.