It has been a year since the most recent war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza broke out. It was preceded by deadly clashes between Arabs and Jews in East Jerusalem and inside Israel, and proceeded to cause immense suffering.
And now, once again we can see all the familiar hallmarks of two sides on the brink of renewing large-scale violence and with no obvious will to hit the brakes, even though no one is interested in such an escalation and neither side can benefit from another round of bloodshed.
Despite some similarities to the events of last spring, including tensions and clashes at Al-Haram Al-Sharif, there is also a strong element of spontaneity evident in the current wave of attacks by Palestinians on mainly Israeli citizens, which have so far claimed the lives of 19 people and injured many more. As a result of the Israeli security forces stepping up their West Bank operations in response to the increased levels of violence, at least 26 Palestinians have been killed, including the tragic shooting this week of renowned Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh.
Most of the perpetrators of the attacks are not affiliated with any known Palestinian organizations; it is more a case of Hamas, for instance, giving its unhelpful retrospective blessing to killings of Israelis, rather than actively initiating them. On this occasion, the group’s leaders might well be dragged into a violent confrontation with Israel, and vice-versa, with no strategic objective in mind.
In this current state of affairs between the Israelis and Palestinians, and in the absence of any diplomatic-political horizon of peace, developments are being dictated by events and not by the leaderships of Israel or the Palestinians in Ramallah and Gaza respectively. They are reacting to events they did not necessarily initiate — but they are still the actors responsible for circumstances that are conducive to violence rather than peace between the two peoples.
As a result, the unorganized and diverse sources of the current flashpoints are perplexing them and they are being sucked into a dynamic that could lead them into new and potentially bloody confrontations, instead of pulling back from the abyss.
Israel’s working assumption is that what looks like a random wave of terrorism with no specific group or groups behind it will continue. The security forces have no solution beyond killing or capturing the perpetrators in the aftermath of the attacks and, in the absence of enough intelligence to prevent them, attempting to restore some degree of deterrence, or even fear, by using excessive force and collective punishment against Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
There is also a hope, which is not necessarily substantiated, that the increase in violence over the past few weeks was linked to the holy month of Ramadan and now that it has ended, things will calm down.
The root causes are, first and foremost, the occupation and the worsening political and economic conditions Palestinians are living under.
Anniversaries and holidays might be contributing to the political violence but the root causes are, first and foremost, the occupation and the worsening political and economic conditions Palestinians, including those inside Israel, are living under and which, tragically, motivate some to resort to violence. More than anything else, it shows the level of despair among so many Palestinians who are being forced to live in unacceptable conditions.
In a situation that requires the leaderships on both sides to calm things down, irresponsible politicians instead are fanning the flames and raising the political temperature. Hamas and its leader, Yahya Sinwar, are embracing and congratulating those who indiscriminately kill Israelis, taking some sort of ownership of these acts to position Hamas at the forefront of the armed struggle against Israel.
By doing so, Sinwar is risking the relative calm along the border with Israel and the improvements, albeit insufficient, resulting from Israel’s easing of some restrictions on the movement of goods and people to and from Gaza, and on access to the sea.
Exploiting the volatile situation at Al-Haram Al-Sharif and stating that “the battle to protect Al-Aqsa Mosque will begin after the month of Ramadan because the Zionists have a number of dates when they will try to breach the mosque” not only inflames the situation but plays into the hands of those in Israel who think that the only way to deal with Gaza is to economically strangle it. It has also led to suggestions that Israel might directly target Sinwar himself which, of course, could only lead to a fully fledged confrontation between Israel and Hamas.
In the absence of a clear location to target with the aim of restoring some level of deterrence against terrorist attacks, Israeli authorities are shooting in the dark. They are resorting to old methods, not only the use of excessive force but also collective punishment, that are bound to exacerbate the situation, leading to greater malaise and anger among Palestinians and yet more violence. After all, since 1967 the very nature of the occupation has created a framework of relations between Israelis and Palestinians that is essentially violent and continues to breed violence.
Entering Israeli towns and cities and randomly killing people can never be justified and it does not serve the Palestinian cause, either. Instead, it serves only those who oppose peace, coexistence and reconciliation between the two peoples, as it feeds hatred and fear and empowers those who believe in maximalist objectives in this conflict.
However, the character of the ongoing occupation, with all its harshness, does exactly the same thing. The actions of the Israeli Defense Forces in rescinding work permits for Palestinians or closing crossings into Gaza are acts of collective punishment that are certain to worsen the poverty and general misery among those who live under occupation or blockade, and they will not prevent even a single act of terrorism. Demolishing the homes of the families of terrorists is not justice, nor is it deterrence; it is the punishment of innocent people with no due legal process and will only serve as a recruiting call for joining the armed struggle against Israel.
Next month, US President Joe Biden is scheduled to visit Israel and it has been suggested he will also visit East Jerusalem, unaccompanied by Israeli officials. Let us hope so. If in the midst of global turmoil the leader of the free world finds the time to visit the Holy Land he should make his trip count.
First and foremost, he must demonstrate American commitment and leadership in brokering a fair and just peace that ensures the security of every Israeli and Palestinian citizen, their well-being and their human and political rights. Otherwise, the path to endless rounds of hostilities and loss of life is almost guaranteed.
Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg