Thursday, May 13, 2021

2021 - Gaza War, Intifada, Civil War or Peace?


This week, a perfect storm of long running political events converged to spark a widespread and complex conflict in Israel, The West Bank and the Gaza Strip.  My teenage children's social media is full of anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist rhetoric without any depth of knowledge of the current conflict or its players. We absolutely must be fully informed as to what is actually happening, and why. Then - only then - can we stand in front of the noise and the fray and reasonably, calmly speak truth over chaos.

Here are the factors that contribute to the current equation.

1) Hamas is the legitimate voice of the Palestinian people in Gaza, and has become that voice on a platform of social services to its people, religious fervor, and violent resistance to any expression of Israeli sovereignty anywhere.  Any opportunity to amplify their voice in those three areas will be taken advantage of.  The current conflict provided a stage for the second and third items of their power base.

2) The PLO, in leadership of the Oslo Accord's domestic Palestinian Authority, is one of several political organizations leading a peaceful infrastructure in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The head of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas is a rapidly fading star.  Abbas cancelled PA elections in the last few weeks, knowing that Hamas and other opponents stood to oust his leadership in the polls.  This created anger and frustration from all parts of the Palestinian political spectrum, who were actively engaged in criticism of Abbas when the conflict broke out.

3) Internal conflict between Hamas and Abbas is real, has been violent in the past, and is as important or more important to both of them than their actual conflict with Zionism.

4) Israel, under PM Netanyahu in particular, has given up on the Oslo Accords, worked to consolidate its security control at the Gaza Border and in the West Bank, and has methodically grown the habitation of Israeli towns and villages in and around Jerusalem and its other major settlements in the West Bank.  Israel is accurately viewed as engaged in military occupation of Palestinian population centers, West Bank roads and commerce, and growth of settlements.  However, it is not involved in the direct military rule of Palestinian towns - which is what that word "occupation" would typically mean.

5) In recent years, various private and public entities have purchased and expanded Jewish ownership in largely Palestinian-Israeli neighborhoods near the Old City, such as the City of David.  This legal process is resented by, and highly symbolic for, the local Palestinian population, who are citizens of Israel.  Land owners do get to choose their tenants, but the resulting evictions contribute to the broader conflict's rhetoric of "stealing land," "ethnic cleansing," or "apartheid."  None of these accusations are factually correct in this context, but they are politically powerful.

6) Israel just had its fourth deadlocked election, and one week prior to the conflict Netanyahu failed to form a coalition government.  President Rivlin gave Yair Lapid, an opposition leader, the task of forming a left-wing government coalition.  This would, however, have to include Naftali Bennet's right wing party (not loyal to Netanyahu) and probably the Ra'am Islamic Religious party in the new coalition! If successful in joining the government and leading significant cabinet positions, Ra'am would undermine Hamas' main point that only violent resistance can produce results for the Palestinian People. While improbable, the common desire not to have Netanyahu had been leading them towards the first realistic scenario for Netanyahu to lose the PM's chair in years.

In summary, 

  1. Abbas has lost the faith and support of his people in the West Bank, and is vulnerable. 
  2. Hamas needs to continue to separate from Abbas, preferably showing him weak in their three areas of power (social services, religious fervor, violent resistance), if they are to take over the West Bank's Palestinian Authority.  
  3. Ra'am is an Islamist alternative to Hamas for Israeli Arab citizens, and therefore a threat to Hamas.
  4. Even legal removal of Palestinians from their homes is a trigger for political manipulation.
  5. Netanyahu has been the leader of strength in the face of threats to Israel, but is vulnerable in times of peace.  He is currently at risk of losing his position to the left.

Here are the sparks:

A small number of Palestinian families are living in Jewishly owned buildings in the Sheikh Jarah neighborhood, just north and a little bit east of the Old City of Jerusalem.  The Jewish legal ownership was recently confirmed in the courts, and the owners began charging rent. Those families refusing to pay rent, are being evicted (others are not).  This is a very Palestinian neighborhood, though they are also Israeli citizens.  It is socially and culturally part of "East Jerusalem."  These evictions are being politically amplified with accusations of ethnic cleansing, apartheid and racism - which resonates strongly after the removal of Palestinians in the City of David in recent years.  At first, the protests were typical - marches, slogans and some rock throwing and burning of barricades in front of riot police.  

It is Ramadan, just ending today with the festive celebration of Eid al-Fatir.  During Ramadan, fasting each day ends with family and communal celebrations.  Gatherings in homes, community centers and mosques swell at this time of year, and opportunities to communicate and organize abound.  The amplification of both the discontent with Abbas and the anger at the Sheikh Jarad court case grew exponentially as a result.  The nightly post-meal protests in Jerusalem swelled proportionally and garnered international news attention, further growing the flare up.  But these protests provided Abbas a platform to be a leader against Israeli "occupation."  Hamas can not afford to permit that.

Netanyahu was engaged in a full blitz against Naftali Bennet for considering joining a left-wing coalition, and the most ardent right-wing members of his party, and the other right wing parties, were using every tool to marginalize and shame them - forcing Bennet into a position of asserting his pro-settler, pro-strength credentials as the conflict grew.  In an open conflict against Jewish settlement, Bennet can not afford to separate from Netanyahu and the coalition to the left becomes impossible.

Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem unification day from the 1967 war was last week.  The very predictable protest/counter-protest, riot/rock throwing/police response played out according to script.  However, during this time Hamas also began organizing on the Temple Mount, stockpiling rocks, etc., and sleeping over in the Al-Aksa to avoid the growing Israeli barricades and road blocks.  The Israel police entered the Temple Mount, breaking up the growing platform for violence - but symbolically invading/desecrating an Islamic Religious site at a peak religious observance.  Ra'am can not support the Israeli government, if it is oppressing Islamic Religion, and their participation in the coalition becomes impossible. Hamas knows this too.

How it became a war.

Once the symbolic issue of the Al-Aksa Mosque was added to the symbolic issue of "stealing" Palestinian homes, Hamas is left with two options:  1) stay on the sidelines and watch Abbas slowly consolidate his power, perhaps even holding those elections and winning; or 2) Dramatically escalate their violent resistance in defence of the Al-Aksa, applified by the end of Ramadan and the Israeli celebration of Yom Yerushalayim.  It is clear that firing off every rocket they own before Israel could destroy them was the easy conclusion.  Chaos reigns, and Hamas wins.

What is happening now:

Prepare for enormous saber rattling, and a limited Israeli invasion of Gaza to knock out remaining Hamas military infrastructure.  If Netanyahu does not prove military victory over Hamas' ability to strike Israel, he will lose.

We saw a similar situation in 2014, with PM Netanyahu calling up reserves (check), mobilizing tanks towards Gaza (check) and invading Gaza in a harsh and unsavory urban war with devastating effect.  The outcome for Israel was the discovery of tunnels, munition factories, and more, and they left only when every piece of military potential to attack Israel had been destroyed.  The buildup last time took about 2 weeks. We are right now in that 2 week window, when a street fight with tanks can yet be avoided or not.

Winners and Losers:

Winner:    Hamas.  Clear and unmitigated.

Winner:    Netanyahu.  No coalition can form against him in this circumstance, and he remains the caretaker PM in the meantime.

Loser:    Ra'am.  With the collateral damage of civil conflict in mixed Jewish/Arab Israeli towns like Lod and Acco, "working as Israeli Arabs in peace" is a hard sell.  If Israel moves to a fifth election, which it must by law in the absence of a majorty coalition, Ra'am stands to lose a great deal.

Loser:    Naftali Bennet.  How can he maintain his right-wing credentials in this scenario?  Only by pulling back and regrouping, which is not a path to greater enthusiasm for him at the ballot box.

Winner:    Benny Ganz.  Ganz still is in line for a rotation into the PM chair, based on the last coalition agreement.  While I seriously doubt Netanyahu will ever allow it, the failure of Lapid to coalesce a government, Ganz's military leadership credentials in war, and the possibility that he may actually become PM during the next election is revitalizing his failing stock.

I will be speaking on the topic this Shabbat morning, May 15, 2021 at Bnai Shalom.  Please join us.


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  2. Thank you for this. The most concise description I've seen that gives the whole story.