We don’t know if it will take days or weeks, but eventually Hamas will be put back in their box in Gaza. The militant group would prefer it ends with a negotiated ceasefire rather than through the bludgeoning of the Israeli Defence Forces. Not only could they then claim to remain undefeated, but that outcome would spare the poor civilian population at least to some extent. This is the fourth war Israel has fought with Hamas since Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007. Every time the militants get better at waging it.
The rocket barrages aimed at Tel Aviv and Ben Gurion airport on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning were unparalleled in Israel’s history. Without the genius that is the Iron Dome missile defence system the death toll could have been horrendous. That a militant group operating in a blockaded enclave can turn irrigation tubing and fertilizer into rockets that can shock all of Israel. These are unguided indiscriminate weapons. Hezbollah in south Lebanon have a more extensive and advanced rocket arsenal and the events of the last week explain why the Israeli Air Force has been hammering Iranian and Syrian targets inside Syria to prevent guidance systems and guided missiles from reaching Hezbollah. But currently Israel has a far bigger problem. The violence that has erupted inside its own borders.
The vicious in-fighting that has engulfed mixed communities is a nightmare scenario. Marauding gangs compelled by fanatical intolerance are nigh on impossible to contain completely. The Israelis will no doubt try aiming anti-riot weaponry at the Palestinians in particular. I’m being kind when I say there are huge question marks over the commitment of the Israeli security forces when it comes to cracking down on Jewish supremacists. What the Israelis seem unable to recognise is that there is no security solution to what is a political problem. They’ve been behaving as if the Palestinian issue had been consigned to the history books.
Donald Trump showed them the way by ignoring the Palestinians and making several Israeli dreams come true. He moved the US Embassy to disputed Jerusalem; published a peace plan hopelessly lopsided in Israel’s favour; helped Israel make new Arab friends in the Gulf. All of those steps left the Palestinians seething with anger. The result was complacency and the sort of over-confidence that had the Israelis coming awfully close to annexing parts of the West Bank. They were bought off on that one by the Abraham Accords, the normalising of relations with the Bahrainis and Emiratis who must now be red faced indeed as they watch their fellow Arabs in Gaza suffer so much. Coming from Belfast I’m not unfamiliar with what’s going on here. When my then boss sent me to live in Jerusalem in 2000 he said I was familiar with religious/territorial conflicts. I quipped - “same story, better weather”. Back then, Northern Ireland’s Good Friday Agreement was just two years old and there were murmurings about it being a template for Middle East peace. Now, as was the case then, there are profound differences. In Northern Ireland, there were enough people sharing the sense of victimhood. Any murder was a loss for everyone regardless of sides. Everyone was losing and in the event of peace everyone would win. That commonality presented extremely able politicians with the opportunity to lead Northern Ireland out of the darkness and come blinking into the light to make compromises. For the most part there is no sense of shared victimhood between Israelis and Palestinians. Each side sees itself exclusively as the righteous victim and the other as the guilty antagonist. There’s also a paucity of level-headed leadership. The secular Palestinian Authority just called off the first election in 15 years because it was going to do badly.
By comparison the Israelis can’t have enough elections. There have been four in two years and the Palestinian question wasn’t an issue in any of them. Benjamin Netanyahu managed to sideline the Palestinians and Arab-Israelis completely. Back in 2018 he promoted the Jewish Nation-State Law, which saw Arabic relegated in status. It’s no longer an official language in Israel. Did the passing of that law legitimise Jewish supremacy? Mr Netanyahu’s words and deeds have left Arabs with the impression that he is Prime Minister for Israeli Jews only. Now threats to Jerusalem have united the Palestinian people and he has to figure out a way to quell the violence that he has helped to foment. In the run-up to the most recent election it was Mr Netanyahu who pressed three openly racist and homophobic factions to unite as the Religious Zionist Party so they would reach the electoral threshold to win seats in the Knesset. And that they did. Their success represents another lurch to the right in Israeli politics. Jewish supremacists are well armed and so too are many in the crime-ridden Israeli-Arab communities. A bloodbath is now the great fear. As members of the divided Knesset try to avoid a fifth election by forming a new coalition they should be considering bringing Arab members into a government for the first time ever. They were tantalizingly close to doing just that before the violence forced a halt to the negotiations. Letting Israeli-Arab politicians into the tent would surely help prevent an apocalyptic societal breakdown.