I was asked by family abroad what is going on so I decided to write it out. It may help me make sense for myself also. I’ll start with a general disclaimer that this is not meant to be a comprehensive history leading up to the current situation. Rather, it is an overview of internal and external factors that were influencing the fighting we just experienced. I will be going through a variety of aspects here. It is the total sum of it all that gives this round its character. Some things are more significant than others. Make no mistake this was not spontaneous.
For those who might read this and not know me, I am an American born Israeli (here since 1969), a Jew, have spent 45 years dealing with security mainly in the IDF reserves and the Police, and have 30 years of experience practicing and teaching conflict resolution, peace education, second track diplomacy and development. I have developed and implemented many Israeli Palestinian projects and multi-national peace projects. Projects for youth and adults, projects implemented in Gaza and the West Bank and around the world. Projects for women’s empowerment through micro financing, projects in sports, music, academia, and myriad other methodologies.
Very briefly the main players are: Mahmoud Abbas, better known as Abu Mazen who is the successor of Yasser Arafat. He leads the Fatah faction which is the largest faction of the Palestinian Liberation Organization – PLO. It is a secular, socialist party. They control the West Bank. Hamas which controls Gaza – is a theocratic political party affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Palestinian National Authority = PNA
Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the PNA called for elections in Palestine. Elections that are over a decade overdue. He then cancelled them. Why? Officially because Israel would not let the Palestinians in Jerusalem participate (the blame Israel tactic). From a practical point of view, it’s because he understood he would lose. Hamas thought they could win in the West Bank, as they did in Gaza in 2006, and are frustrated that this has been taken from them. Hamas complained but utilized the opportunity to claim the title of the protector of Jerusalem.
On Thursday May 8th I listened to a podcast by Elior HaLevi, a political analyst who explained what the course of action of Hamas would be the following week and the connection to the dates of Lil al Qadr, which coincides with Jerusalem day, and the holiday of Id el Fitir. For those not familiar with the religious meaning in Islam, the days from Lil Al Qadr till the end of Ramadan are days during which the heavens open, sins are forgiven and wishes granted, these days are the peak of Ramadan. Hamas planned to utilize all this symbolism to garnish political support. Hamas shot seven missiles at Jerusalem and miscalculated Israel’s response. The podcast was 90% correct from the point of view that it was planned and what it goals were, but wrong in Israel’s response and Hamas’s response to that. The Hamas end game is not clear, even if 100% of its rockets hit Israel, then what? What does it want to achieve, realistically?
The Arab World:
If you have been following the politics in the Middle East over the last few months, you probably know that Gulf States have signed agreements with Israel and have started diplomatic and economic relations. The Palestinians have realized that they are being sidelined and are no longer the focal point of the political process in the Middle East. This undercuts the power and economic base of all Palestinian politicians, and they are eager to change this process. Fatah has a greater chance of merging into the process since it is a secular political movement, Hamas cannot and will not join such a process as it is dedicated to the destruction of the State of Israel and is a religious fundamentalist party. This flare-up serves Hamas’s wider Arab political agenda.
Iran manifests its will via proxies as can be seen in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Argentina and Gaza. Iran just had joint exercises with Russia and China and signed a very large military agreement with China. Iran is like-minded to Hamas in that it is a theocratic, totalitarian regime and its whole frame of reference is such. Its interest is twofold. First, it gets the support of the Arab body politic, the masses. Why? Because Shia Islam sees itself as the rightful leader of the Muslim world and for that to happen they need the support of the Arab masses. Supporting Hamas which is fighting Israel and inserting Jerusalem in the equation gives it some leverage. The second is the negotiations with the West. Iran needs the West to understand that no one will sleep well if they don’t get what they want.
This security situation plays into the hands of Bibi Netanyahu. He did not create it, but he benefits from it in the short run. Netanyahu has invested great efforts in persuading the Israeli public that he is “The Protector of Israel”. His electoral base is right wing and nationalist. He has managed to alienate himself from some natural political partners, right wing parties that are fed up with him and his style of leadership, which has created the political stalemate that is actually threatening his rule, and extrapolated from that, brings him closer to a full investigation and maybe a conviction. Over the years, Netanyahu has played an elaborate game of sleight of hand. On one hand exacerbating ethnic discord and disregard for the police and the judicial system while not outright calling for civil disobedience and insurrection. On the other hand, he came very close to making a deal with the Islamist Arab political party Ra’am, that some of his supporters saw as betrayal, as he has told them thousands of times that Arabs cannot be trusted. This in-fighting serves Bibi well. I do not want to think he orchestrated it with intention, but it seems like each side maneuvered in such a way as to help create this mess.
The region saw Donald Trump’s administration change the rules of the local political game. It provided some benefits, such as speeding up the Abraham Accords, which would have happened anyhow, although within a different construct, and taking Iran to task not just for its nuclear program but for its involvement in regional destabilization. Joe Biden’s presidency seems to be perceived as a return to the Obama legacy, which the more moderate west leaning countries of the Middle East saw as abandonment and exposed the fickleness of US support. Iran itself, and through its more expendable proxies, is literally testing the waters, as can been seen through the violent naval encounter between the US Navy and Iranian boats and the seizing of weapons sent by Iran to Yemen. From the Iranian point of view, Hamas is more expendable than Hezbollah. The first is Sunni, the latter Shia, like Iran. Hezbollah is in a precarious situation in Lebanon as the port explosion has angered the average Lebanese populace, and Iran “owes” Hezbollah for its service in the Syrian civil war. Hezbollah is the poster child of exporting the revolution. This is all part of the Middle East chess game and this round is part and parcel of all sides trying to see if there is a true realignment or just a little shuffle of the chairs.
The Changing Nature of Warfare:
Anyone who reads military or defense journals will know that one of the biggest issues facing militaries around the world is the changing nature of warfare. Some of the jargon is familiar such as “shock and awe” or “multi-dimensional or multi domain warfare,” “low intensity conflict,” “asymmetric warfare,” and “war amongst the people”. The last, coined by General Sir Rupert Smith, speaks of moving the conflict into the cities where the weaker side has an advantage. Militaries around the world have different ways of dealing with it. Russia just flattens whatever it deems necessary. Syria uses everything at its disposal with complete disregard for casualties. The western democracies are struggling. They are struggling because they would like to uphold the laws of warfare. They are democracies and are under scrutiny of their public. Because the media has become a defining part of the battlefield. What we are witnessing now is the latest stage in developing strategies. The fighting in 2014 escalated over a period of time and lasted 51 days. This implies a lot more room for error and misery on all sides as the fighting drags on. Israel this time decided to do the opposite. Hamas started shooting and Israel responded with 100% effort. The reasoning behind it is to destroy assets, destroy command and control centers, take out the major players and the fighting will end quicker with less overall damage. Those readers who follow military issues, understand the equation. For those of you less familiar with military issues, the use of overwhelming force (or threat of force) is what ends a conflict. Think of the Cold War – no one started a nuclear war since everyone understood what the result would be.
I would like to mention two more issues. The first is the search for a balance in casualties, as heard in the press and social media. This is an interesting concept but not really a valid one. All militaries in any and all conflicts in history prefer that the opposing combatant force suffer more than their own. The parents of the sons and daughters of any given force expect their commanders to impose more damage on the enemy than on their children and no one would accept an explanation that your son died because we had to keep an even score. But if we look at just one prolonged battle, the battle of Fallujah in 2004, the US suffered 27 fatalities, the insurgents 200 and about 600 civilians. In the second battle the numbers rose to coalition 110, insurgents 3,000 and thousands of civilians. That’s what happens when a militia challenges an army. Israel has a law that every building being built in Israel must have a safe room. Hamas has dug scores of kilometers of military tunnels in Gaza. If they are so busy digging tunnels why not designate some of them as civilian bomb shelters? Israel warns people by cell phone, by ‘roof knocking” with an inert projectile and only then attacks buildings where civilians are not likely to be present. This is a particular and peculiar IDF methodology.
The second, which relates to the first, is the issue of targeting. Hamas clearly states that it is aiming at Israeli cities, which means, by definition, the desire to indiscriminately kill Israeli civilians. Hamas does not claim to be shooting at military targets. Israel is using precision munitions and while there is collateral damage and casualties, that is exactly what it is: collateral unintended damage, which is very regrettable. Anyone who adds the word “but” to Hamas targeting of its missiles, is bending the rules of logic and morality and loses any moral high ground they might think they occupy.
One of the most disturbing aspects of this conflict is the civil unrest and rioting in the streets by both Jewish and Muslim youth. First let’s acknowledge that anyone who perpetrates indiscriminate violence on any one else is a thug. Period.
The Arab Israeli conflict is a century old and has left many deep scars on both populations. Riots occurred before in 1921, 1929 and the great Arab Revolt against the British in 1936-39. In all the past eruptions of hostilities in 67, 73, 82 and so on, the local Arab public, citizens of Israel, did not riot. So what’s new? For the past 20 years, more or less, we have had a right wing nationalist government that either tolerated racism or encouraged it. The symbolic apex was the Nation State Law passed in 2018. Into the cauldron of a society on the verge, pour in the fact that the police, since the first Intifada have been overextended and enforcement of normal law and order has been sporadic and in some areas, like the Negev, nonexistent. Then add the fact that the Israel Police Force were – solely for political reasons – without a chief for over a year and the country has not had a budget for two years. The same government has been screaming in the media and demonstrations that the police are the tool of the ruling elites (neglecting to remember who has been in power almost two decades) and are trying to topple an elected government along with accusing the judicial system of being biased. This is a recipe for social unrest and a weakened enforcement system. The Arab body politic, which has been marginalized in the political process, saw a glimmer of hope with all political sides willing to negotiate with Ra’am and maybe get real political clout; expectations were raised, only to be dashed.
Last but not least, COVID-19. People have been locked up for a year and a half. Many aspects of society and the social contract that we took for granted have become almost irrelevant. Take frustration, unclear perspectives for the future, mix in fear with incitement on social media and voila! You have social unrest. Make no mistake – every single last one of those people should be arrested and have the maximum penalty under the law “awarded” them regardless of their religious background or ethnicity. I would add that every one of them that wrapped themselves in an Israeli flag while rioting and attacking random people should be tried for desecration of national symbols. I have not fought for 45 years for the flag for a hoodlum to use it as an excuse for delinquency.
Now to all the above add:
The issue of Sheikh Jarrah, which has been going on since 1875 and is a hot issue, so hot in fact that it has been in the courts for decades. It is a legal issue. An issue of ownership and who gets to claim ownership within this conflict, of rent not paid for decades and of interested parties adding a nationalistic narrative.
For more information you might want to look at: https://www.wsj.com/articles/almost-nothing-youve-heard-about-evictions-in-jerusalem-is-true-11621019410?st=l06gfjdr48p09fg
It is being cynically used for political gain, as is the tension around Jerusalem on Ramadan and Jerusalem day, with political players trying to gain points in the Middle East chess game for the internal politics of the Palestinians and the Israeli coalition government as it is being negotiated.
Social media played a significant part as a “TikTok” challenge that was going around with young Arabs beating up Jews in Jerusalem while filming and sharing it on TikTok. The response came in the form of street fights with extreme radical Jewish Lahava group. Hamas called on young Muslims to barricade themselves on Haram El Sharif/Temple Mount and then a baseless rumor spread that radical Jews were about to storm the hill. This incited the Arabs on the hill who started to throw stones at the police who responded with riot control measures such as tear gas and flash bang grenades. In order to calm down the storm, the Israeli police forbid any Jews from going up to the Temple Mount on Jerusalem day. But the fumes were present in the air and all converged to create this perfect storm.
So what can be done?
- Arrest all those involved in the riots.
- Reassert the role of the police in society, and provide them political and budgetary support.
- Israel needs to decide who it wants to be when it grows up. If it wants to live up to its Declaration of Independence and offer true equal citizenship to all its citizens, then it needs to take the plunge.
- Hamas needs to be taken to task on its allocation of resources. Either it wants carnage or development, but both will not work.
- If Hamas wants to indiscriminately advance the population of Gaza, not just its supporters, implement a “Marshal Plan” of development managed not by Hamas but by an outside entity. An idea suggested by Dennis Ross.
- Education, education, education. A massive effort needs to be done in all segments of society to educate towards democratic values and inclusion. The State of Israel and the PNA need to include each other’s narrative to enhance mutual understanding and be monitored towards this end.