The latest stage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict erupted in Jerusalem. First, on 6 May 2021, protests and clashes started over a decision by Israel’s Supreme Court regarding the eviction of Palestinian residents in Sheikh Jarrah, a neighbourhood in East Jerusalem. The ruling was followed by clashes between Palestinians and gangs of Israeli youths in front of the Damascus Gate, and a police assault on Arab protesters who had barricaded themselves inside the Al Aksa mosque, on the esplanade in the heart of the ancient city. And finally, the explosion that surprised even the secret services of Tel Aviv: Hamas, from Gaza, after threatening to intervene militarily if the siege to the holy places of Islam was not “lifted”, launched two missiles in the direction of Jerusalem and other rockets against the Israeli communities along the Strip. The extreme response was highly predictable. The war continued until 21 May with an exchange of devastating bombardments on Gaza and rockets and missiles, most of which were intercepted, on Israel. Then, the truce. Among the Palestinians, 256 were killed (including 66 minors). Among the Israelis, 13 civilians (2 children).
The picture that emerged from the operation, which the Israeli military called “Guardians of the walls”, is one of great uncertainty on many fronts. At the beginning of the fighting, the war resembled many previous clashes in and around Gaza. However, it soon became clear that something important had happened inside Israel among the Israeli Palestinians. For the first time, they protested in support of their brothers in East Jerusalem, the occupied West Bank and Gaza and against their status as ‘second class citizens’. For many analysts, this was an important generational shift with possible consequences – positive, negative? – on their Jewish peers.
Another element under analysis: the caution showed by part of the American Jewish community and by many members of the American Democratic Party regarding their, usually uncritical, support of Israel. All this reflects on the uncertain Israeli political order and the direction the new US administration will want to take after the failed approach to the Middle East of the Trump presidency, with (above all) its “Abrahamic Accords”, which sought to reward Israel and formalise “bantustans” in the occupied territories that many international organisations have described as similar to those that existed when apartheid reigned in racist South Africa.
What is being fought for
Two peoples, fighting for the same land: a tiny strip of the Near East, 26,625.600 km². The origins of the current conflict are rooted in the birth of the Zionist movement as a response to the growing anti-Semitism against Jews in Europe at the end of the 10th century. With the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the Great War, the spoils – lands and peoples – were divided among the colonial powers and the Sykes-Picot Agreements (named after the representatives from London and Paris) of 1916 established the British Mandate over Palestine, which allowed the United Kingdom to rule over that Territory between 1920 and 1948. On 2 November 1947, the British government issued a brief statement, known as the statement of Foreign Minister Arthur James Balfour, pledging to support the establishment of a ‘national homeland’ for the Jewish people in Palestine: a European power, in the colonial logic of the time, was deciding the fate of land where a Jewish minority lived. The European justified sense of guilt for its anti-Semitism, for the Holocaust and the death of six million Jews in Nazi camps, led the UN (with 33 nations voting in favour, 13 against, including the Arab states, and 10 nations abstaining) to decide on the partition of Palestine into two states (one Arab and one Jewish), UN control over Jerusalem and the end of the British mandate by 1 August 1948.
When the American administration led by then-President Trump recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017, it was clear to leaders as well as the Palestinian population that Washington had espoused Israeli expansionist policy. The rest of the world, including the Arab world, remained silent. Old documents that have been declassified in recent years have confirmed that, on the eve of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, Tel Aviv had drawn up plans to retain and manage the territories that would ‘surely’ be conquered given the superiority of its armed forces. The documents show how the project of a Jewish state from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River (which until recently were part of Likud’s platform) was also in the mind of the Israeli Labour leadership.
The West Bank, then, hosted a population of one million Arabs. The few Jews who had settled there before the founding of Israel were forced to flee in 1948 or were driven out, as happened to hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in the lands conquered by Jewish troops. With the consent of the then Labour government (1968), a group of Messianic Jews established the first colony there. Today, some 430,000 Jews live in 132 officially recognised settlements and 121 unofficial outposts.
For the UN Security Council, the International Court of Justice in The Hague, the European Union, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, the settlements are a violation of international law. According to the Fourth Geneva Convention, “the occupying power shall never deport or transfer any part of its civilian population into the territory it occupies”.
In 1987, the Palestinian popular uprising, which started in the Gaza Strip (a then- occupied territory with 10,000 Israeli settlers) and spread to the West Bank, brought the issue to the forefront. A step towards an Israeli acceptance of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza was taken with the Oslo Accords in 1993. Signed on the White House lawn by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and, for the Palestine Liberation Organisation, historic leader Yasser Arafat, the pacts offered a road map for peace. The Palestinian National Authority was created. Arafat and the other leaders returned from exile to a situation that was already explosive, following an attack by a Jewish fanatic on Muslims praying at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron and the start of a Hamas terrorist campaign in Israeli settlements. The Israeli centre-right, with the future Prime Ministers Ariel Sharon and Binjamin Netanyahu in the lead, mobilised against the Labour ‘traitors’. On the 4th November, 1995, at the end of a demonstration in favour of the Oslo Agreements, Rabin was assassinated by Yigal Amir, a young extremist Jewish settler.
The second Intifada began in September 2000 after a controversial visit by Sharon to the Esplanade of the Mosques, a holy place for both Muslims and Jews. Considered a hawk, Sharon was elected Prime Minister, said he was ready to resume negotiations and in 2003 surprised everyone by declaring that ‘the occupation of the Palestinian territories could not continue without end’. Arafat died a year later and Sharon decided the unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. The new Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), begged him for the operation to be agreed upon with the Palestinian National Authority, but Sharon would not listen to reason, so much so that the end of the military occupation and of the Israeli settlements in the Strip consolidated the image of Hamas.
With a clear split between the Islamic movement and the secularists of the National Authority, Israel, in the hands of the Zionist right wing, was able to reject any new negotiations and increase the settlements. Numerous attacks (mainly rockets and missiles) were launched from besieged Gaza. Israel responded with massive bombardments and armed actions on the ground, but avoided mortally hitting the Hamas structure, which in the meantime had found support (both in funding and weapons) in the Iranian Regime.
In the West Bank, the Palestinian National Authority, supported by the international community, has lost credibility: by many it is considered corrupt and at the service of Israel. Political elections have been postponed several times due to the justified fear of a Hamas victory.
Key figure or organization – Hamas
Ḥamas stands for Ḥaraka al-muqāwama al-islāmiyya (‘Islamic Resistance Movement’). For at least ten years, between 1978 and 1987, this rib of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood managed to develop a formidable base of support in the Gaza Strip, thanks also to the Tel Aviv secret services, which saw it as a way to divide the Palestinian world and weaken the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organisation) secularists led by Yasser Arafat. Sceik Yassin, the founder of the movement (whose declared aim is to liberate Palestine, eliminate Israel and establish an Islamic state), was assassinated by Israel in a rocket raid in 2004. Today, the leader of Hamas is Ismail Haniyeh (he has always avoided calling for the destruction of Israel) who has lost much credibility in favour of Mohammed Deif, leader of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the movement’s military wing.
FOCUS 1 – International Jerusalem
With the partition plan for Palestine in 1949, the UN General Assembly proclaimed the internationalisation of the holy city to the three monotheistic religions: Jerusalem was to remain under UN control, like Bethlehem. The decision was rejected by all, and the Jewish armed forces conquered the western part of the city while Jordan, with troops of the Arab Legion, took control of the eastern part, including the old city and almost all the holy sites. In 1949, Jerusalem was proclaimed the capital of Israel. In 1967, during the Six-Day War, Israeli troops took over the entire city along with the territories of Palestine up to the Jordan River. The Israeli authorities expanded the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem to include numerous Arab villages. The unilateral move was condemned by the UN and never accepted by the international community, which is opposed to the use of force in resolving disputes.
Only a few mini-states and the US, under President Trump, have moved their embassies out of Tel Aviv. At the end of 2020, Jerusalem had a population of 952,000, of which over 300,000 were Palestinians
FOCUS 2 – The powerful Jewish diaspora
For the first time in history, the Jewish diaspora (especially in the US) is starting to distance itself from the policies of Israeli leaders, especially on the Palestinian issue. It is an important signal that already sees great divisions and new manoeuvres. Some figures: the Jews in Israel are about 6,900,000; in the world, about 14,707,000; the US, according to demographers, host between 5,700,000 and 6,700,000. AIPAC is the largest Jewish lobby in the USA: it promotes the demands of the Israeli government, especially, but not only, regarding economic aid and weapons. “J Street” is its (increasingly growing) counterpart, promoting a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.