Not every actor in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict now roiling the Middle East is a villain or victim – the latter including the 52 children and entire families wiped out by bombing in the Gaza Strip.
Across Israel – where 10 people, including two children have died in Hamas rocket attacks – hundreds of Arabs and Jews have taken the initiative to push for peace, reconciliation and solidarity. They’ve gathered together to hand out flowers to passersby and oppose the intercommunal violence that is ripping the country apart. A video circulating on social media shows a montage of clerics of Israel’s various faiths and sects calling for peace in Arabic and Hebrew.
Even some politicians have drawn praise for their words, including Yair Lapid, chairman of the opposition Yesh Atid party, who is now struggling to assemble a government. His 13 May Knesset speech has been hailed for its brutal honesty, acknowledgement of suffering by both Jews and Arabs, and calls to make tough decisions.
“We are on the edge of the abyss,” he said. “We knew it was coming. We have seen this disintegration coming.”
By and large, however, the most important players in the ongoing conflict have performed abysmally. Chief among the culprits is Benjamin Netanyahu. He did not create the Arab-Israeli conflict, nor the Jewish claim on East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood which sparked the latest round of violence.
But Bibi has been Israel’s prime minister for the last 12 years, and 15 years of the last quarter of a century. For better or worse, he has shaped contemporary Israel. And during that time, he allowed for and encouraged encroachments on Arab properties in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Israel proper as well as a deterioration of rights of Palestinian rights.
“It’s been systematic,” says Dahlia Scheindlin, an Israel-based pollster and political analyst at The Century Foundation. “It started long before Netanyahu. Israel has taken an expansionist policy with respect to Palestinians to put pressure on people to leave.”
Few would likely consider it a coincidence that the ongoing fighting comes at the precise moment when Netanyahu’s political fortunes are at a low, with his opponents tasked with forming a government and the judiciary cornering him on corruption charges (which Netanyahu denies). Employing national security threats to retain power is a page out of the Netanyahu playbook.
“Every moment he can stay in office is a victory for him,” says Tamara Coffman Wittes, a Middle East expert and former US State Department official now at the Brookings Institute.
Predictably, Hamas too sees gains in escalating the conflict. The Islamist militant group and others inside the Gaza Strip hijacked the crisis over Jerusalem to pursue their own political agenda after Palestinian elections scheduled for May and July were postponed by Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas.
“Their chances for legitimately making gains were thwarted,” says Scheindlin. “But Hamas now is completely at the centre of Palestinian politics.”
As has been the case for more than a century, international players have also played a largely negative role in the conflict over the eastern Mediterranean, especially the United States, Israel’s patron. The administration of Joe Biden came into office promising a new era of adherence to international law and universal norms. America’s longtime coddling of Israel at the United Nations Security Council, where Washington alone has prevented a joint statement on the conflict, effectively gives Israel carte blanche as it pummels Gaza with airstrikes and artillery rounds.
For years, world powers including the United Kingdom and the European Union have turned a blind eye to the conflict. They issue anodyne statements of “concern” and urge “restraint” on “both sides”, effectively normalising systematic Israeli dispossession of Palestinians. The signing of accords between Israel and a few other Arab states last year convinced some that the Palestinian issue could be shelved.
“There were a lot of actors both inside and outside the region who had other priorities and thought they could backburner this,” says Wittes.
As with previous conflicts between Israel and Gaza, Egypt or other intermediaries will negotiate a ceasefire in a few days, and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict with settle into another lull – before it explodes again in a few months or years. As Lapid said in his speech, “The situation will not change if we do not change it. Reality will not improve by itself.”