Nothing sends people to their instinctual and reflexive tribal bunkers like fighting between Israel and Hamas. Sometimes things are complicated and sometimes they are black and white, but it’s difficult to tell what’s what during times like this. When rockets rain down on Israelis forced to flee in the middle of the night to shelters and stairwells in their pajamas, and when entire blocks of Gaza City are reduced to rubble, the market for looking at the wider context is almost non-existent. Nevertheless, let’s give it a shot.
There are two sets of events–tensions over Jerusalem, and fighting between Israel and Hamas–that are barreling out of control, and while they are linked in a few important ways, they should be considered separately. While many would argue that the series of events that unfolded in Jerusalem over the past weeks is complex and the Israel-Hamas contretemps is straightforward, it’s actually the opposite. Both are driven by extremist spoilers, but what’s taking place in Jerusalem is exactly what it appears to be, whereas Hamas sending central Israel into lockdown is not.
Jerusalem is on edge because radicals on both sides want it that way. When Itamar Ben-Gvir sets up a temporary office in a tent in Sheikh Jarrah opposite a large Iftar meal, it’s because he is looking to assert Jewish–not Israeli–supremacy over all of Jerusalem and provoke a riot. When Jewish supremacist Lehava rabble rousers march through the streets of downtown Jerusalem, it is so that they can brawl with Palestinians and police and send the message that Jerusalem is for Jews. When thousands of Palestinians gather in al Aqsa and chant to bomb Tel Aviv and insist that no Jews should be permitted anywhere near the Temple Mount, it is because they do not acknowledge Jewish rights in or connection to the Land of Israel. These are all extremists taking extreme positions and exhibiting indefensible behavior.
The elements of this story that look more complicated are only so at first glance. As attention to the pending evictions in Sheikh Jarrah has reached new heights, with Members of Congress tweeting and diplomats around the world raising the issue with the Israeli government, it has become commonplace to describe the issue as a complicated legal one. Indeed, as my colleague Evan Gottesman exhaustively detailed in his explainer, there is a long and tangled historical and legal background to the ownership of the Sheikh Jarrah properties in question. At the heart of the controversy though is not a complicated legal issue but a very simple political one; as a result of the 1968 Legal and Administrative Matters Law, Jews have the right to reclaim property that they owned in East Jerusalem prior to Jordan’s occupation of the city in 1948, and Arabs do not have the same right in either West Jerusalem or anywhere else in Israel. In effect, Israel has created a right of return for Jews, and only Jews, in Jerusalem that enables Sheikh Jarrah homes to be disputed, which makes calling this a private legal matter between two parties dissembling misdirection. Without the 1968 law, this case would not exist, and if a Palestinian tried to use legal deeds from the same British and Ottoman authorities demonstrating clear legal ownership in Baka or Talbieh before 1948, the law would not allow it. Maybe you think that there is no problem with this, as Israel is a Jewish state and Jewish rights in Jerusalem should not be proscribed in any way, but recognize that this outcome is enabled by a decision of the state to respect Jewish property ownership from the pre-state era but not grant the same to Palestinian property ownership. Call that whatever you like, but it is neither complicated nor a shade of grey.
Moving to the other part of the engulfing chaos, Hamas blanketing Israel with rockets appears as straightforward as it gets. Hamas is a terrorist group, it has no regard for Israeli life and makes no distinction between civilians and combatants, and Israelis have had to deal with rockets from Gaza for years. What makes this time different is that despite its stated ultimatums over Jerusalem in its own attempt to link Sheikh Jarrah and the Temple Mount to what it’s doing, Hamas does not actually want something from Israel. It is seizing upon the current moment as an excuse to capitalize on a unique opportunity within Palestinian politics, and the rockets that Israelis are sheltering from are Hamas’s effort to get a leg up on Fatah.
Hamas has never wanted to limit itself to Gaza. The thrust of the successful security coordination program between Israel and the Palestinian Authority is to prevent Hamas from gaining a real foothold in the West Bank. But in the aftermath of Mahmoud Abbas raising hopes that elections would actually take place–a move that was popular with Palestinians–and then dashing them by postponing them indefinitely, discontent with Abbas and Fatah is reaching new heights. There was already plenty of evidence that Fatah was not going to win the legislative elections outright before Fatah effectively fractured into three lists–one headed by Abbas, one headed by Marwan Barghouti and Nasser al-Qudwa, and one headed by Muhammad Dahlan–and the splits at the top only provided further evidence of Fatah’s ossified fragility. It is not a stretch to say that Fatah, and by extension the Palestinian Authority, is weaker now than at any time during Netanyahu’s tenure.
Hamas saw all this, and viewed the escalating tensions in Jerusalem as a perfect vehicle to make a much bigger move. Hamas is not only playing for the hearts of Palestinians in asserting itself as the ultimate defender of Jerusalem, but trying to ignite an uprising in the West Bank that will lead to the downfall of Fatah there and the assumption of Hamas control. It is also reasonable to assume that the timing was also partially dictated by the possible imminent entry of Mansour Abbas’s Islamist Ra’am party into an Israeli coalition, since Hamas is well aware that can’t happen while there are IDF military operations in Gaza and it does not want to see Israeli Arabs become integrated into Israel even one iota. Israelis are the ones who are now caught in the fallout from Hamas’s larger Palestinian play. What is perhaps most remarkable in all of this is that despite the fact that the West Bank is quieter this week than Gaza or Israel proper, somehow Israeli officials manage to pin the blame on the PA, which would be funny were it not so mind-boggling.
Finally, there is the development that is actually the most worrisome, and that is the ethnic clashes between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel across Lod, Ramle, Akko, and other mixed cities in Israel. It began with Arab mobs burning synagogues, stores, and cars, and regressed to retaliatory attacks by Jews against Arabs, and yesterday deteriorated even further to attempted lynchings by both sides. The initiation of these attacks by Israeli Arabs cannot be divorced from their wider context–though of course none of this justifies actions that look like a civil war–in which despite all of the recent gains and the notion that Israeli Arabs are on the cusp of genuine integration, this comes on the heels of years of destabilizing events. From the nation-state law to the escalating violent crime crisis in Arab municipalities to the focus on demolitions in Bedouin communities to Jewish supremacists being welcomed with open arms into the Knesset by Israel’s prime minister; throw into this powder keg the sparks of Sheikh Jarrah, the closure of the Damascus Gate steps and cutting off the al-Aqsa loudspeakers during Ramadan, and scenes of Israeli police using tear gas on the Temple Mount, and what you have looks not like 2014 but the years leading up to 1948.
In all of this, it is the extremists who win and the extremists who control the narrative. When the rockets and airstrikes end and Gaza has to be rebuilt, there will be no appetite for doing so. The focus on the fundamental inequity in the Sheikh Jarrah situation has been obliterated by the larger violence. The idea of Israeli Arab parties in a government at the moment seems like a fantasy. And the U.S., which always can and always should play a productive role, has been largely absent as the Biden administration holds fast to a policy that amounts to benign neglect and hoping that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict goes away. It is trite to say that nature abhors a vacuum, but there is little question that everywhere you look, it is the most extreme actors on all sides who are taking advantage of the fact that responsible actors are either nowhere to be found or keeping their heads down.