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The Middle-East conflict is perhaps the most intractable in the world. Israelis and Palestinians have been fighting for nearly a century over the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. The world has witnessed a never-ending cycle of tension and conflict, including a number of full-scale wars, with immense suffering on both sides.
In recent years, particularly in the context of Gaza, every component of the cycle is familiar: Palestinian deaths far outnumber Israeli ones; dismaying images of flattened buildings; the grief of those who have lost loved ones. Outside the Middle East, reporters, politicians, and community leaders present their arguments, often ignoring the losses of those on the other side.
Next comes the ceasefire, mediated by some combination of the United States, Egypt, and Qatar. Quiet returns. Hamas – the militant Islamist faction that took control of Gaza in a bloody coup from its Palestinian rivals, Fatah, in 2007 – is satisfied that it has asserted itself once more as the leader of the Palestinians. Israel is satisfied that it has ‘mown the lawn’, cutting back Hamas’s military capability. Things return to the status quo – until the next outbreak.
This time the cycle erupted in May, rapidly escalating into the most intense flare-up since the 2014 Gaza war. Hamas in Gaza fired rockets indiscriminately at Israeli cities and Israel responded with massive airstrikes. As I write, a ceasefire is expected at any moment, but so far 232 Palestinians in Gaza have been killed in Israeli airstrikes and twelve people in Israel by rocket barrages fired by Palestinian militants.
The storm of Hamas rockets is aimed only at civilians; it has been criticised by Human Rights Watch, alleging it is a war crime, and is part of an investigation underway at the International Criminal Court. Israel targets military and terrorist installations, but due to Gaza’s density and the immense power of the airstrikes, the civilian toll is massive. On this occasion the Associated Press and Al Jazeera’s offices were also bombed; Israel claimed the building served as a Hamas intelligence post. Israel’s previous actions have also been the subject of HRW reports and ICC investigations.
The violence erupted after growing tension in Jerusalem. At the start of Ramadan in April, Israeli police placed barricades outside the Old City’s Damascus Gate, one of the few public spaces available to Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem. Although Israel removed the barriers, those initial confrontations led to more widespread violence in Jerusalem and along the border with Gaza.
The conflagration continued into May leading up to Jerusalem Day, which typically results in violence as Jewish nationalists march through the Muslim Quarter. To avert confrontations in an already incendiary situation, Israeli security agencies rerouted the march and forbade Jewish worshipers from visiting the Temple Mount. The Flag Parade was finally dispersed by police after sirens sounded over Jerusalem as Hamas launched rockets at the city and southern Israel. At the same time, heightened tension in Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem, where Palestinian families face eviction from their homes due to legal claims by Jewish settlers, contributed to the escalation of violence in the city. The case led to clashes between activists and police that garnered international attention. Israel’s High Court of Justice recently postponed a hearing on the eviction of three families who will remain in their homes until a new hearing date is set.
What makes this latest flare-up radically different and far more frightening than prior rounds of conflict is the increase in intercommunal violence within the mixed Jewish-Arab Israeli cities. The intercommunal violence has pitted Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel against one another on streets where they have lived side by side for decades. It’s neighbour against neighbour now. This has shocked many Jewish Israelis who have told themselves that Arab citizens are not like other Palestinians, that they do not have the same sense of national identity, that their goal is to enjoy economic parity with the eighty per cent of the population who are Jewish. But the current violence has shattered that illusion. Some observers are calling the past few weeks of unprecedented violence in Lod, Acre, Ramle, and Haifa a civil war within Israel itself.
The more than one million Palestinians who live inside Israel have Israeli citizenship. They vote in Israeli elections and work side by side with Jewish Israelis, but they experience inequality, racism, and discrimination on a daily basis. There can be no doubt that the identity of Palestinians inside Israel is deeply connected to those in Gaza, the West Bank, and elsewhere.
Perhaps this was inevitable, but it is nonetheless shocking to see video images of lynch mobs roaming the streets of Israel’s cities chanting ‘Death to Arabs’. Young Jewish men in a neighbourhood of Tel Aviv surrounded a car and assaulted the Arab driver, with no police in sight. An Arab man was shot dead in Lod, a mixed city near Tel Aviv. Arab rioters in Lod set fire to synagogues and burned cars. In mixed towns all around Israel, the violence has become one of ethnic conflict. The streets in cities like Jaffa remain almost empty, with people afraid to walk outside alone. For many, the past weeks have been a reminder of the fragile basis of Jewish-Arab coexistence.
Part of the explanation is that in Israel it is the Jewish Israelis who have the most power and influence: they control the government, the news, the army experience and the education system that shape the world view of all Israelis. Another part of the explanation is the dissemination of hatred towards Israel’s Arab citizens by many of Israel’s leaders.
In 2009, Avigdor Lieberman ran a political campaign with the slogan ‘No loyalty, no citizenship’. In 2013, Naftali Bennett called Palestinians under occupation a matter of ‘shrapnel in the rear’, arguing that it would be more painful to remove them, thereby justifying his annexation policies. And in 2019, Bezalel Smotrich compared Palestinians to mosquitoes, urging the country to ‘dry the swamp’. Bennett and Smotrich were talking about the Palestinians in the occupied territories, but this distinction would not have comforted Palestinian citizens of Israel. Most significantly, in 2018 Israel passed the quasi-constitutional Nation-State Law that enshrined the secondary status of Palestinian Israelis and the Arab language.
Since resuming office as prime minister in 2009, Benjamin Netanyahu has warned of the danger of Arab citizens participating in elections – ‘Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves’ – calling Arab politicians an existential threat. Netanyahu has cultivated politicians such as Bennett and Smotrich. Indeed, Bennett might have become Israel’s next prime minister had this crisis not occurred.
Netanyahu has facilitated the revival of Kahanism – an alt-right Jewish supremacy ideology – in Israeli politics. Until recently, Itamar Ben-Gvir, a Kahanist in Israel’s parliament, had a portrait on his wall of Kahane disciple Baruch Goldstein, who murdered twenty-nine Muslims and wounded 125 in Hebron in 1994 as they prayed in a mosque. These politicians have unleashed the violence by spreading hatred. Their racist views, amplified in the media and legitimised by the political leadership, reached its inevitable next stage – widespread violence – as Israel’s mixed cities with large Jewish and Arab populations became scenes of mobs and riots. Israel’s police chief blamed the Kahanist Ben-Gvir for stoking the flames of an ‘internal intifada’, first with anti-miscegenationist marches through Jerusalem, then in Sheikh Jarrah, and now in the mixed cities.
This violent upheaval within the shared cities and towns represents a critical historical juncture in Jewish-Arab relations in Israel. While shared Jewish-Arab society has grown in importance in liberal democratic circles, it has not broken through to the rest of society in a sustainable way. Israel’s conflict with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza requires a diplomatic solution between two geopolitical entities. Even Israel’s army knows there is no military solution to the conflict. Inside Israel, the answer must be communal.
The conflicts between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, and between Jews and Palestinians inside Israel, are two sides of the same coin. As long as root causes – racism and hatred from both Jewish and Arab extremists, and the inequality and humiliation of half a century of Israeli occupation – remain unaddressed, violence will continue to emerge. Justice for the Palestinians is a precondition for peace.
Although a deepening of the military conflict is still possible, the tide may be turning inside Israel. Jews and Palestinians are already harnessing their shared political power and showing the rest of the country they refuse to succumb to narratives of hatred and fear.
The violence against Palestinians in Israel led to a refusal to go back to normal, with Palestinians across Israel and the occupied territories taking part in a general strike, possibly the beginning of a mass civil rights movement that Israel’s leadership has been trying to frustrate for decades. At the same time, hundreds of Jewish Israelis held solidarity protests in cities across the country, calling for an end to the violence in Gaza and a stop to the racist incitement by the government and the media. There are always people ready to fight for civil society.
Organisations such as Omdim Beyachad (Standing Together) have mobilised thousands of Jewish and Arab Israelis to show the rest of Israeli society what a shared democratic future can look like. In one action, twenty-five simultaneous rallies were held across the country, drawing artists, politicians, and citizens alike. Its social media pages have swelled with new followers, propelled by stars, including actor Natalie Portman, as Israelis seek ways to shift the narrative of the moment and to start a process of national healing.
To avoid future violence, a proper reckoning is required to solve the conflict as a whole – presumably through two states for two peoples and a commitment to peace and human rights. In the meantime, the efforts of Jewish and Palestinian Israelis to build civil society based on inclusion, equality, and justice for all of Israel’s citizens provide hope for a better future.