Columna World Politics Review, 13.05.2021 Barnaby Papadopulos, periodista independiente y columnista
Israeli forces and Palestinian militant factions in the Gaza Strip have been engaged in their heaviest exchange of fire this week since the 2014 Gaza War. A heavy barrage of Israeli airstrikes has killed at least 83 people thus far in Gaza, including 17 children, while authorities in Israel have reported seven fatalities due to Palestinian rocket attacks. Among them was a 6-year-old child. Qatar, Egypt and the United Nations are all working to broker a cease-fire, but there is no indication yet of an end to the violence, with potentially far-reaching implications across the region.
The conflict follows weeks of escalating tensions in anticipation of a now-delayed Israeli Supreme Court ruling on whether six Palestinian families could be evicted from their homes in the historic Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem to make way for Israeli settlers.
The case had sparked daily mass protests, which often turned violent as Israeli police forcibly dispersed the crowds. Last Friday, more than 170 Palestinians were injured as security forces broke up a demonstration at Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque compound, the third-holiest site in Islam. Israeli police raided the mosque again in the early morning hours of Monday, one of the final days of Ramadan, injuring hundreds more protesters, many of whom fought back by throwing stones and other objects. Hamas, the Islamist militant group that controls Gaza, responded by launching rockets at Israeli cities.
Fayrouz Sharqawi, the head of the Palestinian advocacy group Grassroots al-Quds, was at al-Aqsa when it was raided Monday. In a phone call from the scene, she told me police officers used sound bombs, tear gas and rubber-coated bullets, in addition to beating the protesters.
“It was a really violent attack,” she said. “We haven’t seen such violence inside al-Aqsa mosque in many years.”
The Palestinian Red Crescent, which said Israeli authorities had initially denied it access to the al-Aqsa compound, has since reported that over 500 Palestinians were injured that day, more than 200 of whom required hospitalization.
Like the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the dispute that prompted the recent spike in violence has deep historical roots. The Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, like others in East Jerusalem, has been disputed between Palestinians and Jews for centuries. In 1956, Jordan, which then governed the West Bank and East Jerusalem, built houses in Sheikh Jarrah to resettle 28 families that had been expelled from their homes by Zionist militias during the 1948 war that culminated in the establishment of the state of Israel. Palestinians refer to the resulting mass displacement of their people as the nakba, or “catastrophe.”
In the 1960s, the Jordanians agreed to grant official land deeds to the Palestinian residents of Sheikh Jarrah after a period of three years, but the deal was interrupted by the six-day war of 1967, which saw Israel occupy the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Since then, a number of Palestinian residents have been evicted from their homes in East Jerusalem. Palestinian families were ordered to leave Sheikh Jarrah in 2002, 2009 and 2017. And last November, the Supreme Court ruled that 87 Palestinians must be removed from the Silwan neighborhood, just outside the old city. The case had been brought by an Israeli settler group that sued the Palestinian residents, claiming they were living on Jewish land.
In a statement last Friday, the U.N. human rights office condemned the planned evictions of the families in Sheikh Jarrah. “The transfer of parts of an occupying Power’s civilian population into the territory that it occupies is prohibited under international humanitarian law and may amount to a war crime,” said Rupert Colville, a spokesperson for the agency.
Ilan Pappe, a U.K.-based Israeli historian who has written several books on the conflict, goes further. He told WPR that the planned expulsion in Sheikh Jarrah fits into a pattern of “ethnic cleansing” of the Palestinians that has “never stopped since 1948.”
Jewish pro-settler groups have been bolstered by a government that backs their claims. In January, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that 800 new homes for settlers would be built in the occupied West Bank. Indeed, on Sunday, Netanyahu stood firm against the growing international outcry, saying that Israel “firmly rejects the pressure not to build in Jerusalem.”
“This whole thing has been going on for almost 50 years now,” said Jeff Halper, an Israeli activist who campaigns against the occupation. “But it’s reaching a height now. These are some of the last families in the area who are expecting to be removed.”
“There’s no legal appeal,” he added. “This is the Supreme Court, after all… The only recourse the residents and the Palestinians have right now is to protest, to resist, to raise the political price that Israel has to pay.”
The protests, costly though they have been, may have worked by forcing the court to delay the evictions for 30 days. Amid the outbreak of violence, it’s possible the eviction could be further suspended to avoid further escalation. But not everyone agrees with that assessment. A spokesperson for B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights organization, told WPR that it views the judicial delay as only a “tactical step,” and that “the cleansing efforts will resume.”
On Wednesday, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz said that “Israel is not preparing for a cease-fire,” and pledged to continue military operations in Gaza until there was “complete quiet.” Thousands of ground troops have been mobilized, with local television networks showing tanks massing at the Gaza border. Despite Israel’s insistence that it is striking military targets, reports of civilian casualties have continued to emerge. One woman in Gaza, who said she was unable to speak over the phone due to the noise of the bombardment, said in a text message to WPR that the bombing campaign “targets the homes of defenseless citizens and crowded residential neighborhoods.”
The current crisis comes at a time when both Netanyahu and the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, are under immense political pressure. Netanyahu is currently on trial for corruption while leading a caretaker government. Opposition parties are trying to form a coalition to replace him, following Israel’s fourth election in two years, in March. Netanyahu may be betting that a forceful response to Hamas could boost his approval ratings and shore up his support among right-wing Israelis, as well as moderates who are concerned by the violence. A prolonged conflict could also drive a wedge between his ideologically diverse opponents.
Abbas, meanwhile, sparked an uproar in late-April when he suspended plans to hold the first Palestinian elections in 15 years. Dogged by allegations of corruption and mismanagement, he may have feared that he would be ousted in favor of Hamas.
The current situation could still redound to his political advantage: As bombs continue to fall on Gaza, Palestinians may turn away from Hamas and its aggressive stance toward Israel. Alternatively, a quick end to this outbreak of violence could boost Hamas’ image and paint Abbas as unwilling to stand up to Israeli aggression. Either way, the fighting makes the potential of a Palestinian unity government ever more distant.
The violent flare-up could also affect the geopolitics of the wider region. While the Arab League has released a statement condemning the bombing of Gaza, it remains to be seen how this will affect Israel’s relationship with the Arab countries with which it recently signed normalization deals—especially the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. If the fighting continues and the death toll continues to mount, those countries’ leaders may come under pressure to scale back some aspects of their planned engagements with Israel.
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has called on Palestinians to respond to Israel’s “brutality”, saying that Israelis “only understand the language of force.” This inflammatory language could inspire Iranian proxies in Lebanon and Syria to action, adding another dimension to the conflict. It may also become a sticking point in Iran’s talks with Saudi Arabia, which aim to lower the tensions between the two rivals but are at a very preliminary stage. Saudi Arabia itself has been edging toward closer ties with Israel for months, but could now face a domestic backlash to those efforts.
It is not yet clear how long this current outbreak of violence will last. But amid domestic political instability in Israel and the Palestinian territories, as well as a climate of uncertainty across the Middle East, the events of this week could haunt the region for many months to come.