Hamas and Netanyahu Are Gambling Dangerously in Jerusalem
Forces in Israel and in Gaza are seeking to exploit the polarizing violence.
By Bernard AvishaiMay 13, 2021
At 6:03 P.M. on Monday, right on time, air-raid sirens sounded over Jerusalem. Hamas’s normally secretive military head, Mohammed Deif, abetted by a spokesman for the Qassam Brigades, which Deif commands, had issued a warning. If, by 6 P.M., Israel did not remove its forces from the al-Aqsa Mosque, and, notably, the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, in East Jerusalem, where Jewish settlers are trying to evict Palestinian families, Israel would pay a “heavy price.” His only means to exact a price were rockets, launched from Gaza.
Deif had inserted himself into a troubled moment. Last Friday, three days after he issued his statement, more than two hundred Palestinians were injured at the al-Aqsa Mosque, as police using stun grenades dispersed rock-throwing protesters, who were incensed, in part, by the presence of police during Ramadan. During the same period, the police violently dispersed hundreds of Palestinians and their Israeli-Jewish supporters who were demonstrating in Sheikh Jarrah, with tear gas and skunk water, a foul-smelling liquid developed for that purpose. By late afternoon on Monday, the city was bracing for a march by rightist youth, who typically taunt Palestinians with nationalist slogans, in celebration of Jerusalem Day. This event commemorates the Israeli conquest of the city in 1967, and its route passes through the Nablus Gate, itself the site of protests two weeks before, when police—unaccountably and, owing to the protests, temporarily—barred Palestinians from socializing on the steps of the gate’s plaza after breaking the Ramadan fast.
Few people living where I do, in the part of the city known as the German Colony, just a mile and a half from the Old City, scrambled to shelters when the sirens sounded. We reckoned that, as in 2012, Hamas rockets, not known for their accuracy, would land short. Indeed, of the half-dozen rockets launched at Jerusalem, one landed in Kiryat Anavim, a kibbutz nine miles to the west of the city, hitting a home; others went similarly astray. Nevertheless, and in spite of Israel’s provocations, Deif’s rockets were an obvious escalation. By morning, Israel had escalated further, with air strikes, reportedly killing twenty or more people, including at least nine children. By Thursday evening, more than seventeen hundred Hamas rockets, aiming to overwhelm Israel’s Iron Dome air defenses, and targeting the cities of Ashkelon, Lod, and Tel Aviv, among others, had killed seven Israelis, including a young boy. Israeli strikes in Gaza have now killed eighty-seven people, assassinated Hamas leaders, and levelled a multistory apartment block. Defense Minister Benny Gantz announced that the purpose of the strikes was to make Hamas “regret its decision.” Meanwhile, clashes in the cities of Lod and Ramla have led to more than twenty arrests, the burning of three synagogues, street attacks on Palestinians, and the trashing of homes in both communities. “We will not tolerate this. We need to restore calm,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, during a nighttime visit to Lod. “If this isn’t an emergency situation, I don’t know what is. We are talking about life and death here.” Other mixed Jewish-Arab cities also reported widespread violence.
Who benefits from this violence? Given how standard Deif’s and Netanyahu’s claims are, it may seem superfluous to ask. Palestinian grievances almost always attach the charge of Zionist displacement, such as that occurring in Sheikh Jarrah, to the fear of losing custodianship of the Haram al-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary, where al-Aqsa stands on the site of the ancient Jewish Temple. In 1920, Zionists began to purchase large swaths of land throughout Mandatory Palestine, in a process that often led to the eviction of tenant farmers; in May, 1921—exactly a hundred years ago—bloody attacks and counterattacks erupted in Jaffa, leaving scores dead on both sides. By 1929, when riots broke out in Jerusalem, it had become common wisdom among Palestinian leaders that supplanting the Palestinian poor was a prelude to supplanting Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem. Indeed, there are radicals studying in the Jewish Quarter a few hundred yards from al-Aqsa who are committed to building a “third” temple on the Temple Mount.
And Sheikh Jarrah, Deif knows, exposes the asymmetry of ordinary life under the occupation. Before 1948, Sheikh Jarrah was a mixed neighborhood, including the homes of leading Arab families, and some pietistic Jewish communities, drawn to the cave assumed to be the tomb of Shimon the Just, a priest from Hellenic times. In 1956, after Jordan and the United Nations had reached an agreement, twenty-eight Palestinian refugee families who had been displaced from their homes were housed in a residential compound in the neighborhood, some on land once owned or claimed by Jews—though the rights to at least a portion of the land were subsequently challenged by an Arab Jerusalem resident who claimed to have found documents proving long-standing title to it. In exchange for the small houses, the refugees were required to relinquish ration cards that had qualified them for material assistance from the U.N. Relief and Works Association. The property was controlled by Jordan, which promised, in effect, perpetual renewal, and, over time, families built onto their homes.
After the 1967 war, however, Israel moved quickly to claim custodianship of Jordanian-administered land in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, including the land under these compounds. And, in 1972, the land was signed over to two Jewish trusts purporting to be the representatives of the dispossessed communities. Ten years later, they sued to evict twenty-three Palestinian families, who, owing allegedly to their attorney’s carelessness, were subsequently registered as recognizing the trusts’ ownership. Serial court cases were launched from there, with the trusts demanding rent, and filing for eviction of families who could be shown not to have fully paid it. The trusts, upping the ante, then sold the land for three million dollars to a wealthy settlers’ organization, which planned to move the families out. Finally, in 2008 and 2009, in the face of mounting protests by East Jerusalem Palestinians and sympathetic Jewish-Israeli activists, dozens of residents were forcibly evicted by police. A number of Jewish families and a few young zealots moved in. Now the settler organization is pressing for seventy more Palestinian residents to be thrown out of their homes. The settlers’ obvious hope is to do in Sheikh Jarrah what other settlers have done in the Hebron Casbah: empty it of Palestinian residents and businesses. In recent weeks, Netanyahu’s ultra-right allies in the Knesset, including the Kahanist Itamar Ben-Gvir, have made brazen, carefully publicized appearances outside the al-Aqsa compound and at the Nablus Gate and Sheikh Jarrah. (On Monday, coincidentally, the Supreme Court was scheduled to have heard, in effect, the residents’ appeals. The hearing was postponed.)
So, the case is complex, but the larger provocation is simple. After 1948, many Arab lands and residences on the Israeli side, including the house that I live in, were legally declared to have been abandoned, and thus available to the Israeli government to lease or sell to Israeli Jews. Jordan did the same regarding Jewish property on its side of the city. Israel is now in charge on both sides, and in recent years courts have allowed the enforcement of old Jewish claims, but not those of Arabs. Within blocks of my home are three houses once owned by the families of a friend, Yasir Barakat, an antiquities merchant in the Old City, who is now a resident of Sheikh Jarrah. Barakat told me, “My family, thank God, had the means to remake our lives after the war”—they had to leave their home in 1948—“and I don’t claim those houses, which I pass when I drive to yours. But now they throw these poor people out. And I could smell the stink from the police water cannons from my window.”
Yet Deif is unquestionably playing a morbid game of politics. Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority, has postponed, indefinitely, parliamentary elections scheduled for May 22nd, fearing that forces arrayed against him may win. His prestige has not recovered since Netanyahu and Donald Trump ganged up to promote an illusion of normalcy, spurning any serious engagement with the P.A., and degrading Abbas’s prior commitment to a negotiated peace process. Abbas tried to use the tensions in Jerusalem to mask his apprehensions, claiming that elections could not be held because it seemed that Israel would not allow Jerusalem Palestinians to vote in them. Hamas apparently believes that, by firing rockets, it can supersede him. “Hamas leaders want to show that they are the real defenders of Jerusalem, and that Abbas is just a tool of the other side,” the opinion researcher Khalil Shikaki told me by phone from Ramallah.
Netanyahu is similarly trafficking in the most familiar Israeli Zionist narrative. He is ubiquitous in the media, brashly advancing the idea of Jewish resistance to existential threats both from Gaza and in Lod. Meanwhile, Hamas, in launching rockets at Israeli cities, is honing its real weapon: the Jewish-Palestinian polarization that it is prompting in Israel. Israel’s President, Reuven Rivlin, usually someone to cool tempers, denounced the attacks on homes and synagogues in Lod as a “pogrom.” The former Education Minister Shai Piron argued on a panel that aired on television that none of the leaders of the Arab parties in the Knesset have condemned the attacks in Lod and other mixed cities. Issawi Frej, an Israeli-Arab member of the Knesset from the left-wing Meretz Party, appearing on the same panel, agreed, and reproved other Israeli-Arab leaders, which brought Piron to tears and to his feet: he walked over to Frej and the two embraced. On Wednesday night, by contrast, rightist Jews beat senseless a man they presumed to be Arab who was simply driving through a suburb south of Tel Aviv. And Arab demonstrators attacked a Jew in Acre. “We are dealing with a civil war between us without any reason. Please stop this madness,” Rivlin pleaded late Wednesday night.
Yet this polarization is just what Netanyahu needs right now. Eight days ago, Yair Lapid, of the Yesh Atid Party, was given a Presidential mandate to try to form a government—it would likely be an odd fusing of left-wing, right-wing, centrist, and Arab parties. Netanyahu knew very well that his only chance to preëmpt this government, whose members would be united mainly in opposition to him, was to create an atmosphere that made the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a central issue. “The latest escalation started at Nablus Gate weeks ago,” the journalist Danny Rubinstein told me. “Here at the gate,” he said, “after Ramadan, many hundreds traditionally sit and eat.” But the gate is also where many Haredi Jews enter the Old City to get to the Western Wall. “So, the police, reporting to Bibi sycophant Amir Ohana”—the Minister of Public Security—“tried to clear them off the steps. That was the match. The fuel is that Arabs are forty per cent of the city and have no rights.”
Things got seriously worse for Netanyahu with the approach of Jerusalem Day, which happened to coincide with Lapid’s getting the mandate; Lapid and Naftali Bennett, the leader of the rightist Yamina Party, were advancing toward a rotation agreement in which Bennett might serve as premier first. “Lapid and Bennett were supposed to present a government this week,” the former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who was the mayor of Jerusalem from 1993 to 2003, told me. “But now we don’t know what will happen—if the right now says that we can’t form a coalition with an Arab party. Or how does the Islamist party leader join anything while we are attacking Hamas?” The leader of the Islamist Ra’am Party, Mansour Abbas, subsequently committed to returning to coalition talks “after the fire subsides.” But Olmert is right that the tensions work for Netanyahu—and that he helped foment them. (By Thursday evening, Bennett was reportedly back in talks with the Prime Minister, and had said that a government with Lapid is “off the table.”) “In Sheikh Jarrah and Nablus Gate, the inciter Ben-Gvir, whom Bibi brought into the mainstream, was showing up,” he said. “With these anxieties, you march thousands through Nablus Gate on Jerusalem Day?” At the last minute, on Monday, Netanyahu changed the route of the march. But, “by then, we had both capitulation and rockets firing. You lost twice.” Perhaps Netanyahu didn’t want war, Olmert said. “But he wanted passions to rise just to a boil.”
.Bernard Avishai teaches political economy at Dartmouth and is the author of “The Tragedy of Zionism,” “The Hebrew Republic,” and “Promiscuous,” among other books. He was selected as a Guggenheim fellow in 1987.