With several hundred rockets being fired from Gaza targeting Israel’s towns, Israel and Palestinians are once again locked in the worst-ever conflict in recent times. The Israeli response has been robust, as it has always been, launching hundreds of air missile strikes into Gaza. Civilian casualties on both sides are mounting, with Palestinian casualties in Gaza climbing above a hundred dead and hundreds injured. Israeli deaths have been in single digits, with scores injured.
Riots and physical confrontation between Israelis and Arabs have broken out in several Israeli towns, prompting caretaker PM Benjamin Netanyahu to call in the Army to stamp out the violence. An Indian national, working as a caregiver in the Israeli town of Ashkelon, close to Gaza, died in one of the rocket attacks. Her body is being flown back and will be received personally by Shri V Murleedharan, MoS, External Affairs.
Conflict Over Jerusalem as the Capital City — And How the Escalation Began
The escalation began in Jerusalem, where tensions rose when Palestinians were injured in a police raid and stampede at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the 3rd holiest site in Islam after Makkah and Madinah. The Jewish people call this site the ‘Temple Mount’, where the Jewish Temple was located and which was destroyed when this region was part of the Roman Empire in the first century CE.
This historical claim has made the site of the Western Wall of the original Jewish temple the holiest Jewish site. Palestinians had congregated at the Mosque for Ramzan prayers.
Clashes spilled over into the streets, as Israeli far-right religious groups and Palestinians clashed. One major cause for further escalation was the rockets fired from Gaza towards Jerusalem, an attack that had not happened for many years.
Israeli right wingers provoked the Palestinians by organising a flag-weaving march on ‘Jerusalem Day’, usually accompanied by anti-Arab slogans. The route of this march passed via the Damascus Gate, one of several gates in the old walled city of Jerusalem, a popular venue for Palestinians to gather during Ramzan evenings to socialise. Israel had imposed curbs on such gatherings, resulting in protests and clashes with the Israeli Police.
Israel claims the whole of Jerusalem as its capital city, whereas the Palestinians lay claim to East Jerusalem as their capital for Palestine. East Jerusalem was under Jordanian rule, before Israel captured it and the West Bank in the 1967 war. The final status of Jerusalem has to be agreed upon between the two sides.
The Clash with Hamas
The Israeli Police ordered the march by right wing Jewish groups to change their route which led to its cancelling but this did not prevent Jewish marchers from entering the mosque’s premises and Palestinian neighbourhoods, where Israeli-Palestinian clashes have occurred periodically, over evictions by hard-line Jewish settlers, determined to take over Palestinian land.
Many Arabs were settled in this neighbourhood after they fled from their villages in Israel and took refuge in pre-1967 East Jerusalem. The Palestinian extremist group Harakat ul-Muqāwama al-Islāmiyya (Hamas), which Israel regards as a ‘terrorist’ organisation, controls Gaza. It threatened to launch rocket attacks, if the Jewish settlers did not retreat.
The inevitable happened and the conflict escalated into retaliatory exchanges of rockets and air strikes that have continued for over a week. Hamas, not surprisingly, has blamed Israel for the provocation and escalation. While Israel’s high-tech anti rocket system, the ‘Iron Dome’ has managed to intercept rockets and destroy many among the several hundred fired from Gaza, several landed on civilian homes.
Israel’s Governance Crisis
Some are blaming caretaker PM Benjamin Netanyahu for the escalation as he faces corruption charges which will dog him if he loses power.
He is also allied to the extreme right-wing Jewish settler groups which provoked the confrontation with the Palestinians. After the recent election, the fourth in 2 years, Israel is still grappling with government formation.
Netanyahu’s Likud Party had won the maximum number of seats in the Knesset in another inconclusive election. He was given the first go at forming the government by Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin. Netanyahu failed to cobble together the required numbers for a working coalition within the 30-day period. Centrist opposition leader Yair Lapid, a former journalist and a former Finance Minister has now been invited to form a government. If he succeeds, he will break Netanyahu’s record of holding the PM’s position for straight 12 years. Lapid is engaged in forming a national unity government which may enlist the support of the Arab parties.
How the Palestinian Struggle Has Been ‘Undermined’
The Palestinians have been waging a long and protracted struggle for their future for an independent and sovereign Palestine, as promised in the UN Resolution of 1948 which created the two states of Israel and Palestine. Palestinians want East Jerusalem as their capital, an end to Israeli occupation, stoppage of eviction of Palestinians from their homes and land and removal of Jewish settlements from Palestinian territory. Israel controls the whole of Jerusalem and regards it as its unified capital, though the city is segregated between its Jewish and Arab populations.
The political cleavage between the Palestinian Authority, based in Ramallah in the West Bank and the Hamas, entrenched in Gaza, has divided the Palestinians and undermined their struggle.
Arab citizens of Israel, numbering over a million, have come out in solidarity with their Palestinian brethren. Palestinians are nervous about Israel’s growing ties with other Arab nations which have established formal diplomatic ties with Israel and view this trend as undermining their struggle. Gaza has been under virtual siege for several years even since HAMAS captured power.
Why India Can’t ‘Risk’ a Decisive Stance Against Israel
As the conflict shows no sign of abating, Israel has brought up troops around Gaza in preparation for a ground assault codenamed ‘Guardians of the Wall’. Hamas and Islamic Jihad are bearing the brunt of Israeli air strikes. Both these organisations, operating out of Gaza, have built tunnels, nicknamed ‘Metro’, for storing weapons, use as bomb shelters and infiltration into Israel. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) are masters of deception. They tweeted that ground forces were attacking Gaza. The news spread like wildfire across major media channels and social media.
But there was no ground offensive and the news led Hamas and Islamic Jihad operatives — who had taken shelter in the Metro — to come out to confront a potential IDF ground offensive. Instead, they were picked up by Israeli aircraft which targeted the Metro.
International opinion has varied from outright condemnation of Israel to calls for exercising restraint. The USA has pressed for a quick ceasefire and India has called for restraint and talks.
While India’s traditional support for the Palestinian cause is an old one, strategic ties with Israel have reached levels that are far too dominant for India to take any leading role in defusing this conflict which comes at an awkward time, when the world is engrossed in combatting the COVID-19 pandemic.
International attention is focussed on the pandemic, the Indo-Pacific and Iran. The Biden Administration has to first rectify the damage done to American policy by former President Trump.
What is the Way Forward?
The enfeebled United Nations will remain ineffective, since the US will not permit any international action against Israel. Iran, which has supported Hamas and Islamic Jihad, may not want to risk negotiations with the US on the JCPOA (Nuclear Deal). The future of this round of conflict has potential for escalation, with Hezbollah in Lebanon joining the fray.
The bottom line, however, is that Israel is far too strong for Palestinians to hope that using force will help them achieve their cherished objectives.
Perhaps, a new centrist government in Israel may agree to concessions, but at best it can halt further settler activities but cannot reverse facts on the ground that have been created by the Netanyahu government.
(The author is a former Secretary in MEA and Ambassador; a founder Director of DeepStrat, a think tank, he has served as DCM in Israel and is currently, a Visiting Fellow at ORF, Delhi. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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