Bad Actors, Same Script: Israeli-Palestinian Tragedy Plays On
The current spiral in the Middle East is a stinging reminder for the world, and particularly the United States under Joe Biden, that the violence will always return.
Violence, rockets, sirens, airstrikes. Shared fear. Israeli shelters, gutted buildings in Gaza. Deaths on both sides. Concerned communiqués from abroad calling for deescalation. The usual script of the Israeli-Palestinian drama advances in proper order. Each actor returns to his role, with no certainty of tomorrow or long-term plan, with no other acceptable recourse than lethal force, while waiting for a future return to a precarious, necessarily precarious, calm.
A "perfect storm" is an aggregate of meteorological circumstances that leads to an extraordinary event. No one knows at this moment if it will happen. But the quantity of rockets fired on May 11, with absolute cynicism, by armed Palestinian factions in Gaza, and the clashes between Jews and Arabs in several Israeli cities, have no precedent in the last 20 years.
The current spiral in the Middle East is a stinging reminder of reality. A reality that many countries — in particular Joe Biden's United States — had chosen to detest, by calculation or weariness, as one longs of getting rid of an antique.
But a seemingly insoluble conflict is not dissolvable. Over the decades, Palestinians have been stripped of their political rights, their freedom of movement, their land. The recent expropriations by settlers in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah are just one episode in a long policy.
The dream of a Palestinian state has faded, and the hopes raised by the 1993 Oslo Accords are a small pile of ashes. The political issue has been replaced by that of living conditions, turning Palestinians into demoralized and divided needy people. Yet every time the Palestinians protest, throw stones, fire rockets, the Israelis seem surprised at their lack of docility.
This is to forget too quickly the notion of dignity, which Hamas and Islamic Jihad instrumentalize, by linking their fight to Jerusalem. The Esplanade of the Mosques (Temple Mount for the Jews). in the occupied Old City, is the most sensitive location in the Middle East. The Al-Aqsa Mosque remains the beating heart of Palestinian identity. Its photos and posters adorn almost every Arab living room in East Jerusalem. As a place of worship and socialization, Al-Aqsa brings people together, while everything else falls apart. One would have to be clueless to ignore it.
The Palestinian youth, unlike their elders, no longer believe in the fable of a state.
Despite this, in the middle of Ramadan, the Israeli police restricted access to the site. Repressive reflexes take over when Israel's political future is uncertain. The country is in the midst of a political stalemate, without a coalition after the fourth national election in two years, and as Benjamin Netanyahu's corruption trial continues. The prime minister has plenty of experience of such feverish moments and does not like the military ordeal. However, the show of force by the Palestinian factions is pushing him to outdo himself.
To survive politically, "Bibi" has sold the soul of Israeli democracy to the xenophobic far right. He has whitewashed it, turned it into a coalition partner. He has encouraged the stigmatization of the Arab minority. The religious nationalist camp, on the other hand, sees Palestinians as violent and hostile by nature, not by historical circumstances: Arabs among others, who would do better to leave Israel. It is therefore astonishing that we are surprised by the radicalization, in mirror image, of a part of the Palestinian youth, who, unlike their elders, no longer believe in the fable of a state.
Clashing with police forces May 10 — Photo: Europa Press/ZUMA
But the Israelis do not like to talk about all this. Netanyahu has engaged them in a double illusion: the end of the Palestinian question and the great reconciliation with the Sunni Arab countries.
For a long time, there was a consensus on one idea: Only the end of the conflict would allow regional normalization for the Jewish state. But the transactional and pro-Israeli commitment of the Trump administration was met with the weariness of the Arab countries, otherwise focused on Iran. Thus, the Abraham Accords were concluded with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan.
When he arrived at the White House, Joe Biden unconvincingly took up the language of Oslo, on the two-state solution. He has reopened the floodgates of funding for UNRWA, the aid mission for Palestinian refugees. But he also assumed the Trump legacy: the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital, and the Abraham Accords. Above all, he has made it clear that he does not intend to devote any effort to resolving an exhausting conflict, so far removed from the 21st century's challenges his country faces. A terrible clue of priorities in Washington: There is still no designated American ambassador or consul general in Israel.
And the Europeans? Inaudible, for lack of room to maneuver. A purely verbal watchdog role, with endlessly repeating communiqués.
This crisis allows Hamas to remind itself that it still holds a power of nuisance.
The last element of the perfect storm is the Palestinian democratic denial. It is a co-production. Legislative and then presidential elections were to be held by July, while the political apparatus is deprived of legitimacy, ossified and fragmented.
Mahmoud Abbas, 85 years old, has claimed that he is in favor of this exercise. And once again, he used a pretext — the non-holding of the vote in East Jerusalem due to the lack of an Israeli agreement — to cancel the vote.
Did Hamas believe that the aging "raïs' would agree to submit to the popular will, taking the risk of a high turnout for the enemy movement in the West Bank? In reality, no one, and especially not the Americans, wanted an unpredictable election. They want to keep the conflict under wraps.
For its part, Hamas has found itself in its usual configuration: isolated, ruling over the great slum that is Gaza and its distressed population. While the lines are moving in the Middle East, and Saudi Arabia is talking to Iran and Qatar, the Palestinian Islamic movement is holding onto old grudges. This crisis allows Hamas to remind itself that it still holds a power of nuisance, causing mostly material damage with its only currency, rockets. Meanwhile, two million people in Gaza are held hostage.