JERUSALEM – Thousands of rockets in 10 days without a break. The skies in southern and central Israel, above Tel Aviv Ashdod, Ashkelon and Beersheba, lit up by a Hamas missile path followed by Iron Dome missiles, which managed to intercept 90 percent of them. The sirens did not stop whistling. The streets of Tel Aviv were deserted. More than 1.5 million Israelis sat in shelters. Hamas and Islamic Jihad have continued the blitz with the aim of killing, destroying, and terrorizing the people of Israel.
The Israel Defense Forces knows how to deal with rocket terrorism from Gaza. But across Israel the real concern is the internal front. The chaos threatened to disrupt the tense and complicated relationship between Jewish and Arab citizens in Israel.
Lod, Ramla, Acre and Haifa became the scene of battles between young Arab extremists and the Jewish residents. The Arabs received encouragement and moral support from Hamas. The Jews received reinforcements from right-wing activists, mainly from the settlements. The streets of the mixed cities became a battlefield. It was a nightmare, a set of a horror film that no one in Israel imagined.
Bands of young Arabs, driven by collective feelings of hatred, raged in the streets. They lynched Jews who accidentally got in their way. Roads near the Arab settlements were blocked. Light poles were knocked down, power lines were cut off. Buses were set on fire. Plane traffic to Lod Airport was halted. Border Police were called in to take back the streets. In the city of Lod alone, 10 synagogues were set on fire, 70 Jewish homes were damaged and 110 vehicles were set on fire.
Police Commissioner Yaakov Shabtai accused MK Itamar Ben Gvir of lighting a match that ignited the chaos in the mixed cities. Ben Gvir, a student and heir of Rabbi Meir Kahane, moved his office – first to the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem, and then to Lod.
President Reuven Rivlin appeared in front of the cameras, pleading, “Stop the civil war. Stop this crazy madness.”
Only after six days of chaos did the police take over the streets, leading to a lull. The fire subsided. The Arab leadership, for the most part, came out against the chaos on its third and fourth day and called for an end to the violence. Jewish-Arab fraternal demonstrations took place throughout the country. How long the lull will last is unknown.
What is known and that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – by its nature – is now an intractable conflict. The Al-Aqsa Mosque/Temple Mount in Jerusalem is the heart of the conflict – 55 acres that serves as the explosive barrel of the battle. To the Jews, the Temple Mount is sacred by virtue of the faith in which the Divine Presence is forever. For Muslims, Al-Aqsa is the third holiest site after Mecca and Medina, and the location from which the Prophet Muhammad ascended to a heavenly gathering. The violation of the sanctity of the Temple Mount/Al-Aqsa for both religions is a violation of the rules of ethics of society, so the struggle is in the power of “kill and do not pass.” This struggle will continue to be the focus of violence and wars of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Al-Aqsa is one issue that Muslims and Palestinians agree on. For them, the conquest of Al-Aqsa 54 years ago in the 1967 war, and the liberation of the Temple Mount in the eyes of the Jews, is a burning insult that has not been healed to this day. This is the first time since the Muslim warrior Saladin liberated Jerusalem (1187 AD) from the Crusaders that the Al-Aqsa Mosque was occupied by the “Jewish infidels – the new Crusaders.” The conquest of Al-Aqsa is a violation of their cosmic order.
Thus, the mosque in Jerusalem became a symbol of the religious-national patriotism of the Palestinians in their struggle against Zionism and Israel, a factor that unites all Palestinians – religious and secular, including Palestinians who are citizens of the State of Israel.
The explosive for the current round of fighting was the unwise order of the Jerusalem police to close the steps of the Damascus Gate – just days after Palestinians rioted on the Temple Mount. For years, after a day of fasting during Ramadan, the residents of East Jerusalem have spent their nights at the gate. Protests there, and in Sheikh Jarrah, turned into violent riots.
Hamas was swift to take advantage of the civil protest. With Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas fearing that the PLO’s Fatah Party would lose to Hamas, he cancelled the planned elections. For Hamas, it was an opportunity to further solidify its power in the West Bank and remove the Fatah regime.
As Israelis celebrated “Jerusalem Day,” Hamas launched seven missiles at Jerusalem and told the Arab world that they were the protectors of Al-Aqsa and Jerusalem. Ismail Haniyeh, head of the organization’s political bureau, further outlined Hamas’s goals last Thursday: “Jerusalem, Al-Aqsa, Sheikh Jarrah, Palestinian land, the right of return, and the establishment of a Palestinian state over all Palestinian lands and its capital, Jerusalem.”
Israel chose to respond and to respond with great force. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on Friday evening that “the Israeli goal is to collect a price from Hamas and restore deterrence against it.”
Israeli deterrence against Hamas has been severely damaged in the past 10 years, not because of the army and its capabilities, but because of the political echelon and the wrong strategy. Netanyahu has adopted a policy of differentiating between the West Bank and Gaza, in order to prevent Palestinian unity. Palestinian unity, in his view, would force Israel to return to the negotiating table and discuss a political solution with the Palestinians. The distinction included a conciliatory policy toward Hamas and a boycott and a harsh hand toward Abbas and the Palestinian Authority. This strategy enabled the Netanyahu government to strengthen settlements and hold on to the West Bank, and even to plan, with the assistance of his friends and ally President Donald Trump, to annex parts of the West Bank to Israel.
Netanyahu even agreed to cooperate with Qatar, which donated millions of dollars every month to Gaza. The money was transferred to Gaza but not through the banks. Instead, it arrived in suitcases packed with millions of dollars. These funds strengthened Hamas, allowing the radical Islamic government to reduce the burden of dealing with the population.
Israel’s forgiving strategy of the political echelon, not the IDF’s, has allowed Hamas to establish its rule and become a political entity with a military arm – a real army, no longer a terrorist organization or semi-military militias.
Under the auspices of this strategy, Hamas has succeeded in strengthening its rule in Gaza and mobilizing the younger generation for the religious struggle against jihad. Since 2010, every year, about 50,000 teens and boys have passed through Hamas’ “summer camps.” In these camps, military training is conducted, along with intensive indoctrination, brainwashing with religious ideology and slogans such as “the right of return” and “liberation of Jerusalem.” Hamas nurtured the illusion, telling Gazan children that Israel could be wiped off the map, and that as descendants of the 1948 refugees, they would return to the homes of their ancestors, and establish a Palestinian state on Israel’s ruins.
Since the previous round of fighting with Hamas in 2014, the organization’s power has intensified monstrously. Hamas has managed to produce thousands of long- and medium-range rockets; built naval power; and acquired anti-tank- and even anti-aircraft missiles. Dozens of miles of tunnels were built under Gaza, following the Viet Cong model in Vietnam. The tunnel network was dubbed “Metro” in Israel. Earlier this week, the IDF destroyed some 85 miles of those tunnels.
At press time, Hamas continues to launch rockets, and in the background, ceasefire talks are beginning. President Biden, who spoke with Netanyahu, made it clear that he supports a ceasefire. In days, a ceasefire will be likely be implemented. And this time, too, we already know the ending: Hamas’ military infrastructure has been destroyed, but the political entity called Hamas has remained in place. Anyone familiar with Hamas and its Islamist fundamentalist character knows that this tactical solution is a time-out, a test recipe for another round of fighting.
Ronni Shaked is the Middle East and Islam Researcher at the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at Hebrew University. He formerly served as senior correspondent on Palestinian Affairs for the Hebrew daily newspaper Yedioth Aharanoth.