A person stands by his burning car during clashes with Israeli Arabs and police in the Israeli mixed city of Lod on May 11,2021 (Image: AP Photo/Heidi Levine)
Amidst a pandemic, if there is something which could force global news media eyeballs off it, it would be news about some good old fashioned West Asian conflict. The explanation for the enduring conflict between Israel and the Palestinians differs based on who you talk to and what timeline one uses.
Much of the blame should go to the West, which allowed a foreign State to be created in 1948. Unfortunately, despite the claims of being “a land without a people for a people without a land”, this land was populated with Palestinians who obviously did not want to leave their land for other people. Since 1948, Israel has been expanding its boundaries far beyond what was originally envisaged. This lies at the root of this intractable conflict.
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In the latest episode, tensions between Israel and Palestinians have been building up for over a month and escalated into a conflict resulting in the deaths of over 200 people. There has also been mob violence within Israel.
Tensions began on the first day of Ramadan when Israeli forces cut electricity to loudspeakers in the Al Aqsa mosque over concerns that the prayers would drown out the speech by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin at the Western Wall, on Memorial Day. Soon after, Israeli forces set up metal barricades around Damascus Gate, a social hub for Palestinians, leading to protests. Though the barricades were removed later, the stage had been set for further clashes. A week later, the Jewish supremacist group, Lehava, marched through central Jerusalem, chanting “Death to Arabs” and attacking Palestinians.
The second trigger for the protests by Palestinians was the impending eviction of some families from Sheikh Jarrah, a Palestinian neighbourhood outside the walls of the Old City. In East Jerusalem, Israeli law gives Jews the right to reclaim land that was owned by them before 1948, irrespective of whether there are people living there now. This is what happened in Sheikh Jarrah, where the Palestinian families were ordered to leave by an Israeli court (they have appealed to the Supreme Court). Anger was building up over this.
The next trigger was the May 7 raid on Al Aqsa mosque by Israeli forces due to stone throwing from the mosque, restricting access to it and causing more clashes. The immediate trigger was on May 10, i.e. Jerusalem Day, when Jewish nationalists usually march through the Arab Quarters of the Old City and try to visit the Temple Mount, on which the Al Aqsa mosque is built. Incidentally, this was also the day the Supreme Court was to pronounce its verdict on the Sheikh Jarrah case.
Though Israel tried to prevent further escalation of tensions by postponing the date of the verdict, stopping marchers from entering the mosque’s compound and changing the route of the march, it was too late. Muslim worshippers had entered the mosque with stones to fight against the marchers and the Israeli police. The police raided the mosque once again alleging stone-throwing and things spiralled out of control since then.
Hamas, the Islamist organisation which rules Gaza, seeing an opportunity to shore up its popularity, issued an ultimatum to Israel to remove its forces from the mosque’s compound and Sheikh Jarrah. When Israel paid no heed, Hamas launched rockets and Israel responded with airstrikes, both inflicting deaths and injuries on civilians. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, overwhelmed with domestic issues, allowed the situation to slide though arguably the clashes have been a useful domestic distraction for him.
Israel’s use of disproportionate force will probably solidify support for Hamas and rekindle anti-Israel sentiments among Arabs.
There are no surprises in the global reaction to the conflict. Most countries have called for an end to the violence. Israel’s western backers have supported it, with the United States supporting its right to self-defence. The United Nations Security Council has met four times to discuss the crisis, but has not been able to even issue a joint statement. India issued a carefully-worded statement expressing its support for a two state solution, but without condemning Israeli action. There is little India can do in this situation though as PR Kumaraswamy argues, the time may have come for India for limited engagement with Hamas as it has become an unavoidable player in Palestinian politics.
Meanwhile, unless sensible and sensitive leaders emerge on both sides, it looks like the conflict could go on for many more decades though the current clashes might die out after a while.