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Markus Bickel, director of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung’s Tel Aviv Office, on the escalation in Gaza and Israel



Markus Bickel,

Raketen werden am frühen Morgen des 19.5.2021 aus Gaza Stadt Richtung Isreal abgeschossen. picture alliance / | Bashar Taleb

With the new war in Gaza, Hamas is emerging as the Palestinian protector of Jerusalem—and ensuring Netanyahu another few weeks at the helm of an eroding Israeli government.

My second-floor neighbour had been sound asleep when we met in the stairwell at 3:00 in the morning. She covered her eyes and ears in her son’s arms before the two of them slipped back into her apartment ten minutes after the sirens died down. I found no peace after that, the first Hamas rocket attack I experienced at home in Israel. Since Tuesday, 10 May, I have spent a few such minutes with my neighbours on the second floor landing five or six times. The last rocket alarm was more than 100 hours ago. We have now been able to sleep through five nights in Tel Aviv—the people in and around the Gaza Strip cannot.

Markus Bickel works as the director of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung’s Israel Office in Tel Aviv.

Translation by Loren Balhorn.

Fifteen years ago, the impact of Israeli bombs roused me out of my sleep. July 2006, Beirut: I was reporting from Lebanon as a Middle East correspondent when, by kidnapping two Israeli soldiers, Hezbollah triggered a war that would last 34 days. The explosions were just as loud, the situation just as tense. Although Lebanon, unlike Israel, does not have a high-tech Iron Dome defence system that intercepts 90 percent of missiles, after three nights of bombing I no longer felt personally in danger, even in Beirut. The projectiles were striking four kilometres southwest of our neighbourhood, in Hezbollah-controlled Haret Hreik.

From the Bar into the Bunker

Thus, in this text, my memory of the last Israeli war against Hezbollah in the summer of 2006 intermingles with the current, certainly not the last war against Hamas, which began eleven days ago today. Tel Aviv was just about to get going four weeks after the end of the last lockdown, with the coronavirus defeated after 15 months and Israel the world champion in vaccination. And then, out of the blue, the Hamas rockets on Jerusalem, followed a night later by the shelling of the Mediterranean metropolis. From the bar straight into the bunker, somehow routine. Welcome to Tel Aviv, my friend!

In July 2006 in Beirut it was similar, the city was in a World Cup frenzy, with whole streets full of German flags, in others Argentinean, French, or Italian ones, thanks to the cosmopolitan Lebanese. Then, two nights after Italy’s victory over France in Berlin’s Olympic Stadium, the dream of a record number of summer visitors in Beirut’s hotels and bars came to an end: after a 15-month assassination spree that began with the murder of long-time Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri in February 2005, Lebanon’s national crisis only deepened. Hezbollah stormed West Beirut in 2008, followed by years without a democratically elected parliament, without a head of state.

These constitute the ingredients for ongoing violent conflicts in the fragile political systems of multi-confessional societies. Israel has externalized them into the occupied Palestinian territories since 1967, and also into southern Lebanon from 1978 to 2000, but now the colony is striking back. The country is mired in a deep institutional crisis, while the war against Hamas is waged by a government that no longer enjoys parliamentary legitimacy. Following four elections in two years, Israel is still significantly more stable than Lebanon, which oscillates between a “failing” and “failed” state. Nevertheless, trust in the political class has dwindled massively, which will make governing difficult for any possible successor to Benjamin Netanyahu.

Ingredients of a Civil War

There are also parallels between Lebanon and Israel that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago: all over the country, Arab and Jewish mobs were smashing up shops, setting fire to homes and synagogues, and going at it as if a civil war were to begin the next day. The one in Lebanon took place between 1975 and 1990, whereas tensions between the population groups in the Israeli heartland have been largely muted since 1948—the Second Intifada and its suicide bombings was terrorist in nature, the conflict of the 2000s was fought over land and rights, but was not ethno-confessionally motivated like the riots last week in Haifa, Jaffa, Akko, and other cities with Arab and Jewish populations.

Thus, Israel is suddenly showing the world a face that it itself did not know. Nothing frightens my colleagues more than the riots in their cities, the fear that right-wing attackers could storm into Arab neighbourhoods again. Wars in Gaza are an almost perennial occurrence, whereas shocks to the fragile balance between the two largest population groups in this form are happening for many for the first time. Once again, the nearly two million Arab Israelis feel they are treated like second-class citizens: by the beginning of the week, the public prosecutor’s office had filed 116 charges against rioters—exclusively against Arabs, not a single charge against a Jewish citizen.

The ethnically and confessionally charged riots are the result of a decade of right-wing agitation promoted by Netanyahu. The cabinets he assembled in the absence of a parliamentary majority for his Likud party became increasingly intolerant. But the head of the government himself also poured oil on the fire: in the past, he has described Israeli-Arab politicians as an “existential threat” who pursue the goal of “wiping us all out”. Most recently, while campaigning for the fourth Knesset in two years, Netanyahu even supported members of the ultra-right Kahanist movement.

A Decade of Right-Wing Agitation

As a result, MKs such as right-wing extremist Itamar Ben Gvir of the Jewish Strength party, who openly advocates for the expulsion of Arab Israelis “who are not loyal to the state”, now sit in parliament. And the man who just ten days ago looked like the future head of government, the leader of the right-wing Yamina party, Naftali Bennett, compared Palestinians to mosquitoes as recently as 2018: “If you kill them, you will succeed in killing 99 of them, and the hundredth mosquito you don’t kill will kill you. The real solution, therefore, is to drain the whole swamp.”

But five decades of occupation have shown that this is not possible. Now in its eleventh day, the escalation in Gaza is just the latest example: the military confrontation between these unequal opponents, which although did not begin during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan had, in retrospect, been building up politically—in Jerusalem.

On the one hand, in the annexed east of the divided city, in the Palestinian neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah, where several families are threatened with forced evictions as a result of lawsuits filed by Jewish settler organizations. On the other, on the Temple Mount/Haram Al-Sharif (meaning “noble sanctuary”), where Israeli security forces invaded the Dome of the Rock in Laylat al Qadr, of all places, to disperse Muslim worshippers. According to tradition, the Koran was revealed to the Prophet Mohammed that night. This constituted an unparalleled provocation in one of Islam’s most important sites.

Provocations in Jerusalem

The closure of the square in front of the Damascus Gate at the beginning of Ramadan, where believers traditionally gather in the evening to break their fast, and the Israeli action in Sheikh Jarrah had already united the Palestinian population in the weeks before as they had not been for a long time. Fifteen years after the last elections in the occupied territories, a new parliament was supposed to be elected on 22 May—millions of people would have been able to cast their votes for the first time. But Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas cancelled the election in early May.

The Israeli authorities’ refusal to allow the residents of annexed East Jerusalem to vote served as a welcome excuse. The real reason is likely different: Hamas, the Palestinian offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, had a good chance of ousting Fatah from power in the West Bank.

Against this backdrop, Hamas issued an ultimatum to the Israeli government on what is known as Jerusalem Day, on which the recapture of East Jerusalem by the Israeli army a year earlier has been commemorated since 1968. A patriotic march by Jewish nationalists was not cancelled, even after the tensions on the Temple Mount, but only when Hamas demanded the complete withdrawal of Israeli security forces in the afternoon. Netanyahu neglected to comply with this ultimatum. What followed were the first rockets fired on Jerusalem since 2014 and retaliation by the Israeli Air Force that same night.

Crushing Civilian Protest

The military escalation instigated by Hamas and responded to with unrelenting force by the Israeli Air Force accomplished one thing above all else: the civil protest with which the Palestinian population, not only in the West Bank but also in Israeli cities, expressed their outrage at the continuing occupation was abruptly silenced. Once again, the world’s attention is focused exclusively on Gaza and the armed confrontation between an Islamist militia and one of the best-equipped armies in the world. Reports of peaceful demonstrations being suppressed in Israeli and Palestinian cities are largely obscured by the fog of war.

Thus, for the time being, Netanyahu and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh have emerged victorious from this new Gaza war, in which 227 Palestinians and twelve Israelis have been killed so far. Neither is interested in a lasting solution to the conflict: Netanyahu is not because he can continue to reject negotiations over a two-state solution by pointing to the split between Hamas and Fatah. Haniyeh is not because renewed attacks on Israeli communities keep alive the myth of the effectiveness of military resistance against the occupying power.

Everyday life under the occupation, however, remains marked by exploitation, humiliation, and a perfidious system of elaborate transit permits for more than half a century now. At the same time, the number of Israeli settlements is growing—one million Israelis are to live in the occupied territories by 2030 if right-wing politicians have their way. It is already the case that Israeli settlement policy has ensured that these territories are cut up and fragmented. The hopes that the Oslo Accords of 1993 and 1995 contained the blueprint for an independent state have long since been dashed. Instead, Palestine resembles a patchwork quilt composed of 160 barely economically viable, politically highly volatile enclaves.

This is a reality that hardly anyone in Tel Aviv registers anymore, with the noble exception of demonstrations by civil society groups such as Standing Together and Peace Now. In the Knesset, only members of the socialist Hadash alliance and the odd Meretz deputy have spoken out against the war. The occupation was not an issue during the four election campaigns of the past two years. Meanwhile, Israeli airstrikes continue, as they did in Lebanon in 2006: the drone of F-16 fighter jets in the skies over Tel Aviv provides the soundtrack to a war that has terrified people in and around Gaza for eleven days. Every further day is one too many.