The latest flare-up between Israel and Hamas has once again brought focus of the world on one of the longest outstanding feuds in the post-world war era. The flare-up has come up at a time when Israel is undergoing its politically most destabilising phase, after four back-to-back inconclusive general elections that have failed to throw up a clear majority. On the face of it, the latest confrontation may look like a new chapter in the old story book of historical Jewish & Palestinian hostility, but once the surface is scratched, more political shenanigans emerge on both sides as probable reasons for the escalation of a small confrontation into a full-fledged battle and military crisis.
A precursor to the latest dispute was the fractured outcome of the general elections in March this year, which like the previous three general elections did not give majority to any political alliance. The caretaker Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was unable to gather the necessary number of members of Knesset (the Israeli Parliament) and form the government largely because his far-right Israeli political partners refused to participate in a coalition government with an Israeli Arab party called United Arab List of Mansur Abbas.
It is speculated that Prime Minister Netanyahu himself was not in favour of Mansur Abbas joining any prospective coalition government. He is believed to have favoured continuing to serve as caretaker Prime Minister until a new general election was held with his improved chance of winning it, a strategy which would additionally give him time to postpone his trial for corruption.
This is where the theatre of politics shifts to East Jerusalem, the focal point of the current flare-up, from where the whole thing began. The Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of East Jerusalem is inhabited predominantly by Palestinian families. Sheikh Jarrah is also located a mile away from Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third holiest shrine. Towards the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan, the Israeli police force began using unnecessary restrictions against Palestinian worshippers in East Jerusalem. First, it prevented them from customary gathering at Damascus gate, and then beat up protestors at Sheikh Jarrah, where six Palestinian families were facing legal eviction from their homes. Tensions soon boiled over when Israeli forces stormed the Al-Aqsa mosque using stun grenades and rubber bullets, which left hundreds of people wounded.
This is where the politics begins at both sides.
Hamas, a Palestinian military cum political organisation based in the Gaza strip, retaliated by firing a barrage of rockets into Israel, prompting retaliatory air strikes from Israel. Many political analysts believe that Hamas saw this as an opportunity to redeem itself from its dwindling popularity among Palestinians and to present itself as the defender of Palestinian rights. Furthermore, analysts also believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s over enthusiastic military strike at Hamas is fed by his own opportunistic desire to use war against Hamas as a rallying point around Israeli Nationalism and win a decisive victory in next general elections.
So far, the international reaction to the fast-escalating conflict has been mixed as nations around the world continue to grapple with the deadly consequences of the Coronavirus pandemic. The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has expectedly strongly condemned the bombing of Gaza by Israel and demanded a complete and immediate stoppage of the air strikes. Israel on the other hand has been supported by its historical and traditional ally the United States, with the newly elected US President Joe Biden throwing his weight behind Israel and supporting what he describes as Israel’s “right to defend”.
India has continued with its traditional support to the Palestinian people and government, despite what many thought would not be the case. India’s permanent representative to the UN, T S Tirumurti, made a statement at the UN Security Council’s “open debate” implicitly holding Israel responsible for triggering the current cycle of violence. India requested both sides to refrain from “attempts to unilaterally change the existing status quo including in East Jerusalem and its neighbourhoods”. India further reiterated that “the historic status quo at the holy places of Jerusalem including the Haram al Sharif/Temple Mount must be respected”.
At the international level, the Joe Biden administration has been trying to broker a ceasefire by flying its officials to hold talks with the Israeli government, but so far all mediation efforts by the US, the Egyptians and some Gulf nations have been unsuccessful.
There is danger of the violence escalating and spreading to previously relatively peaceful areas in West Bank and other towns in Israel that have mixed Arab-Jewish population. Already, the situation is said to be worsening in most Israeli towns with the Arab population staging mass protests and the fear of a third Palestinian “intifada” rising.
In the end, it is the ordinary people of Israel and Palestinian territories who will collectively pay a price for the efforts at self-preservation by PM Netanyahu and the desire of Hamas to not only gain back its foothold in Gaza but also increase its influence in West Bank.
The writer is State Secretary of People’s Democratic Front. He can be reached @javedbeigh across social media platforms. Views are personal.