The long-simmering conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has boiled over once more as Israeli jets pound the hemmed-in Gaza Strip and Palestinian militants launch hundreds of rockets into the Jewish state. A repeat of the 2014 Gaza war, when more than 2,000 Palestinians and 73 Israelis, mostly soldiers, were killed, is a real threat. Both sides need to de-escalate and avoid a conflict that will serve hardliners in each camp, heap more misery on long-suffering Palestinians trapped in Gaza and expose Israelis’ vulnerability.
The latest violence did not begin in Gaza, controlled by Hamas, the militant group. Instead its roots are in Jerusalem where Israeli police entered the compound that houses al-Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third holiest site, using rubber bullets and “skunk” gas against stone-throwing Palestinian protesters.
The compound, known to Muslims as the Haram ash-Sharif or Noble Sanctuary and Jews as Temple Mount, is sacred to both religions and one of the conflict’s most emotive flashpoints. Tempers were already inflamed over Israeli plans to evict Palestinians from their homes in occupied East Jerusalem to make way for Jewish settlers. Images of Israeli police using force against Palestinians protesting at restrictions near al-Aqsa mosque in the holy month of Ramadan were always going to further incite tensions. Hamas sought to capitalise on the anger and fired rockets towards Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Israeli cities close to Gaza.
For Israelis, the worst violence in seven years should shatter the perception fostered by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the occupation of the West Bank and the siege of Gaza do not have consequences for Israel’s security. Netanyahu has spent a decade convincing voters that Israel can be safe and enjoy healthy international relations without making concessions to Palestinians. It is a strategy that enabled him to become Israel’s longest serving prime minister, while steering the country to the right.
He has been aided by the meek responses of the US and European capitals to the creeping colonisation of the West Bank, as well as Gulf states that engaged with Israel to serve their own interests of countering Iran. The United Arab Emirates’ decision to normalise diplomatic ties with Israel last year formalised the Middle East’s worst-kept secret. The so-called Abraham accords — Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco followed the UAE’s lead — were sealed in the final throes of Donald Trump’s presidency, during which he pursued an unabashedly pro-Israeli stance towards the conflict.
Palestinians are now more marginalised than ever. Lingering hopes of a two-state solution have been dashed. But there is no victory for Israel. Instead, its actions trickle fuel into a highly combustible environment. Explosions can happen any time. And, as the rapid escalation proves, Hamas will be quick to exploit crises as it seeks to bolster its claims of Palestinian leadership. But riots by Arabs in Israeli towns also underscore the pent-up anger of ordinary Palestinians.
When the Abraham accords were signed they were hailed in Israel and western capitals as representing a significant step towards ending the protracted Arab-Israeli conflict. Yet this week’s violence shows there can be no peace as long as the Palestinians are sidelined and under occupation.
The Biden administration has sought to reverse Trump’s pro-Israeli bias. Now it and its allies must exert pressure on Israel and the Palestinians to end the killing. The tougher challenge is to find a viable way to revive the moribund peace process. The status quo only promises bloodshed.