Escalation in Israel

New reports from Israel reach us almost hourly. What started as a series of protests and street fights in East Jerusalem has now escalated into a full-blown crisis, with Hamas firing rockets from the Gaza Strip all the way to Tel Aviv and the Israeli Air Force attacking their buildings in return.

The current spiral of violence began in East Jerusalem, more precisely in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood, long a point of contention between Palestinians and Jews. While the majority of residents in the neighbourhood are Muslims, Jewish settlers repeatedly try to take possession of individual flats from Jewish Israelis. This is justified by various legal interpretations, some of which go back to the time of the Ottoman Empire and are also strongly disputed within Israel. In essence, the idea is to prove that individual houses were Jewish-owned before Israel’s war of independence in 1948, but the owners had to flee in the course of the war. However, there is no similar provision for Palestinian properties lost in the various wars.

An appeal filed against such an eviction was originally scheduled to be decided this Monday. However, it has now been moved to a later date. The choice to announce this decision on this Monday of all days has already been met with incomprehension, as this year on 10 May Jerusalem Day is also celebrated, in which the Jews of Israel celebrate the conquest of East Jerusalem in 1967. They traditionally parade through the Old City, which is seen as a provocation by the Palestinians. And, as the final piece of the puzzle for the escalation, Ramadan also ends this Wednesday. During this time, Muslims in the Arab world are often out of the house, meeting with friends and family. On Thursday, 13 May, the three-day Eid begins, marking the end of the fast.

In addition to these day-to-day conflicts, the current conflict also feeds on the weakness of the actors present. On the Israeli side, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is unable to muster the necessary majority to form a government after the last election, the fourth in just over two years. On top of that, he is under intense personal pressure due to suspicions of nepotism and corruption. But even internationally, Israel is no longer as confident as it was a few months ago. Under US President Donald Trump, Israel’s right could completely rely on his support. The settlement policy was not criticised, the US embassy was moved to Jerusalem and the policy on Iran was in line with Netanyahu. There were also a number of diplomatic rapprochements with Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Sudan, Bahrain and Morocco, but at different levels in each case.

This has changed under Biden. The almost unconditional support for Israeli policy will not be continued under him, and with regard to Saudi Arabia, the mediator of the Israeli-Arab understanding, Washington has sent a clear signal with the publication of a hitherto secret CIA report in which Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is attributed joint responsibility for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, that here too support has its limits. From Israel’s point of view, however, the most devastating effect is likely to come from the resumption of negotiations with Iran on limiting its uranium enrichment.

Thus weakened, the provocative action in East Jerusalem seems rather arrogant, even if a difficult security situation traditionally strengthens right-wing and conservative circles in the country. Be that as it may, the situation is already too far out of control for the Israeli government to simply end it.

The same applies to Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority, who is similarly weak as Netanyahu. Elections were supposed to take place recently, but he cancelled them at short notice. It is obvious that he lacks popular support and the result would almost certainly have done him great harm. So he continues to hold on to his position of power, but has antagonised significant sections of the Palestinians, and in particular the Hamas organisation. And paradoxically, he also has to contend with dwindling international support, as many Arab states have become relatively more reticent on the issue of Palestine since Israel’s integration into Middle Eastern diplomacy. Turkey, under its ambitious President Erdogan, has sided most strongly with the Palestinians in order to strengthen its ideological position in the Muslim world.

One faction, however, is inevitably strengthened in this constellation, and that is Hamas. Already after the cancelled election, which initially deprived them of the opportunity to expand their position in the West Bank, they were able to take advantage of the general rejection of the event and present themselves as an alternative that is tougher on the Israeli state than Abbas, who has distanced himself from terrorism. Hamas is said to have already contributed to the incitement of the growing unrest in Jerusalem. Through its use of rockets, it can now once again position itself as the champion of the Palestinian cause, and there are many Arabs and Muslims in the world who see it as the rightful representative of the Palestinian people. Mention must also be made of the West, which has been relatively unconcerned about the cancelled elections in the West Bank, despite the fact that the area is also kept running by their own financial aid. In this way, he has helped to give Hamas a legitimacy that it did not have before.

The rocket fire from Gaza to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv is an escalation not seen since the 2014 war. After the humiliating strength of the Israeli state in the Trump era, some of the pent-up anger is now being discharged, and Hamas knows how to use this to its advantage. It was also the West, and in particular the US, which prevented any legitimate opposition to this development and, through the cancelled election and its disinterest in this event, brought Hamas to new strength.

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