by Alessandro De Pascale
According to the Palestinian Ministry of Health, 2023 is the deadliest year in the last 23 years: 96 people have been killed by Israeli forces since January, including 16 children, at a rate of almost one death a day (data released on 11 April). These are the numbers of the sixth Netanyahu government, in office since 29 December with the most right-wing cabinet in Israel’s 75-year history. Throughout the Jewish State, as well as in the West Bank, it is a particularly tense period. Muslims celebrate the holy month of Ramadan (due to end tomorrow, 21 April), the Jews celebrate the Pesach (Passover), which coincides this year on the very same date. There were constant clashes between Tel Aviv security forces and Palestinians, as well as terrorist attacks by the latter, while the cities of the Jewish State were criss-crossed by protests against the justice reform, described as the most impressive and widespread ever seen in Israel.
On 31 March, Israeli security forces killed a 26-year-old Palestinian worshipper in front of the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Esplanade of Mosques (the Temple Mount for Jews, depicted in the cover image) in occupied East Jerusalem. A few days later, on 4 April, police raided it, assaulting Muslim worshippers. Clashes ensued, with 190 injured and over 350 arrested. The scene was repeated the following day, with six more injured and about 150 Muslim worshippers barricaded in the Qibli prayer hall to prevent the Israeli police from forcibly taking them away. These actions aroused international outrage (from the UN to the Arab League, via the US) and triggered the launching of rockets towards Israel from the Gaza Strip, northern Lebanon and Syria (where the Jewish State has occupied since 1967 and annexed the Golan Heights), with subsequent Israeli air raids in retaliation on those territories.
At the Al-Aqsa Mosque, visits, prayers and rituals, by non-Muslims are forbidden unless requested, according to decades of international agreements. But Israeli security forces regularly entered it to escort worshippers out, especially during the night (the Jewish State does not allow the religious practice of Itikaf outside the last ten days of Ramadan) and after the customary dawn prayer, to ensure the daily influx of settlers onto the Esplanade, which takes place early in the morning.
“The Jews must be allowed to go up to the Temple Mount, which is not only for the Arabs but the most important place for the State of Israel,” thundered National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party in a television interview urging the raids. For Palestinians, Israel prevents their religious freedom. While for extremist orthodox Jewish groups, such as the Temple Mount Faithful, the Al-Aqsa mosque should even be razed to the ground, as they believe it was once the site of two of their historic temples.
Once again, violence is rampant throughout Israel and Palestine. On 7 April, in a terrorist attack on the waterfront of the capital Tel Aviv, an Italian citizen was killed and seven other tourists were injured. A few hours earlier, the same fate befell two Israeli-British sisters and their mother, who lost their lives in an attack in the north of the West Bank. On 10 April, a 15-year-old Palestinian was the victim of an Israeli army raid on the Aqabat Jabr refugee camp, near Jericho (in the centre of the West Bank). All this while almost 20,000 settlers, led by seven ministers (including Ben Gvir himself) and 20 deputies protected by 1,000 soldiers, marched towards the illegal outpost of Evyatar (on Mount Sabih), in the heart of the occupied Palestinian West Bank, to ask the government to legalise it. The next day, Israeli forces then killed two more Palestinian teenagers near the Elon Moreh settlement, still in the occupied West Bank.
“What we are witnessing is the high point of an Israeli policy towards the Palestinians,” historian and essayist, Paola Caridi, points out to Atlas. “It has been going on for years, however, and is not only attributable to the latest Netanyahu government, which, however, being an extreme right-wing government, takes to the extreme consequences some dynamics already present in the previous period, well described also in Amnesty International’s report on Israel-Palestine,” continues the writer, former correspondent from Cairo on events in the Arab world, then in Jerusalem for ten years, author among others of the essay “Hamas” (2009) now also out in English.
“Let me give an example, which might make the situation a little clearer. Many of the attacks by the Israeli armed forces in the West Bank, particularly in the northern area (i.e. in the area of Nablus and Jenin), were not carried out during the sixth Netanyahu government – recalls Cariddi – but in the previous one, led by Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz, which seemed to be a centrist executive. I refer, for example, to the targeted assassinations of exponents of armed groups increasingly distant from the classic Palestinian factions, such as the Lion’s Pit’.
In the meantime, also on the domestic front, the protests against the justice reform go on. “The demonstrations in Israel,” resumes historian and essayist Cariddi, “are due to the fact that religious Zionism now has a fundamental specific weight within the sixth Netanyahu government. The premier, under investigation and with ongoing proceedings, manages to keep the coalition standing precisely because he accepts their requests and demands. So it is not he who is strong, but a piece of the executive to which he must be accountable in order to be able to save his individual destiny and the idea of Israel that I mentioned earlier’. Among the demands was that Minister Ben Gvir establish a National Guard, a demand promptly approved by the government on 2 April.
After three months of protests, the President of the Republic, Isaac Herzog, imposed a halt on the judicial reform. “Now there is a suspension, a pause, the Netanyahu government has not yielded to the square,” warns Charybdis. “Until May-June everything is frozen, then we will see if this executive wants to launch the issue of judicial reform and Israel again. Because this is a comprehensive reform, very deep, of the Jewish state and its structure’. At the end of Ramadan, according to the historian and essayist who is an expert on the Middle East, ‘when the Al-Aqsa issue will no longer have so much of a presence, all the scenarios will reopen. But this does not mean that Israeli settlers and members of the two extreme right-wing parties will not continue to climb the Esplanade of Mosques. It does not mean that while such a protest is going on, the two fronts, northern from Lebanon and southern from Gaza, will not be opened. And for Netanyahu, three open fronts are as many as for anyone, including this government. This does not mean, moreover, that they cannot think, as there were already some signs, of other operations. Like the reopening of the Iranian front’.
Meanwhile, even in the United States, discontent is growing. “A substantial part of American Jewry feels that this is no longer the Israel they have supported. So there is not only a problem in the relations between this government and the US Biden administration,’ Cariddi concludes, ‘but also with American Judaism, which then supports the strength of the US president in warning them of the very serious problems with the very concept of democracy that the Netanyahu executive wants to lead and achieve. What is happening is the Jewish state in the mirror: looking at itself and trying to understand what democracy means in Israel’. All this in an outlaw state, because it does not respect UN resolutions, in which the Palestinians, on the basis of international law, are allowed to defend themselves against the occupier.
Cover image: Andrew Shiva / Wikipedia