News from May 10 to May 16
Israel and Hamas trading blows after tensions reach a boiling point
Hey everyone. I know this past week was emotional, scary, and confusing for many of you. I’m going to do my best to explain what is happening, why it is happening, and give you various perspectives and related news items to read for your edification. Hopefully, you will have a better idea of what’s going on and how everything transpired after today’s newsletter. For those of you in Israel, Gaza, or the West Bank, I hope you stay safe and that calm is restored imminently. As always, feel free to reach out to me with comments, questions, or concerns at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also find me on Twitter @skaps1.
A quick note before I start: Please forgive me if I miss a story or leave out some context you feel is critical to explaining the situation. I have been following the news constantly, but there is just so much you can include in a weekly newsletter. On the context bit, regardless of how you feel about him or his beliefs, Trevor Noah made a good point in a segment this week that all sides will always feel that some context is missing during these types of conversations. I will do my best to capture the totality of the situation but cut me (and other authors you will read this week and always) some slack if I missed something here or there.
What happened between Israel and Hamas? It’s tough to nail down an exact start point for what happened, in part because last week’s events are the culmination of years of Israeli and Palestinian actions and policies. For the sake of brevity, I’ll skip to a few weeks ago. As I wrote last week, East Jerusalem Palestinians have been protesting and at times clashing with Israeli police over a court case that could lead to the evictions of 12 families in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem. I won’t go into too much detail here to save space, but I covered the case in last week’s newsletter if you want some background. Significantly, the leader of Hamas’ armed wing threatened “a heavy price” if Israel evicted the Palestinian families from Sheikh Jarrah. The Israeli High Court delayed the case’s hearing.
Sheikh Jarrah was hardly the only source of tension in Jerusalem. As I wrote about a few weeks ago, tensions were high after Israeli police set up barricades that restricted Palestinian gatherings after Ramadan prayers and religious Jews were attacked by Arab Youth as part of a Tik Tok trend. Several Gazan terror groups fired rockets at civilian populations in Israel to voice their opposition to Israeli policy in East Jerusalem, and the IDF struck sites in Gaza in response.
Then, last week, Israeli police clashed with Palestinians on the Temple Mount around and inside the Al-Aqsa mosque. Al-Aqsa is the third holiest site in Islam and it sits upon the Temple Mount, which is the holiest site in Judaism, so it is a particularly sensitive place. Although it is unclear what prompted the clashes, Israeli police shot rubber bullets and stun grenades to disperse the crowds. The Israeli police said that worshippers at Al-Aqsa threw rocks and chairs at the police. Hundreds of Palestinians and at least 17 Israeli police officers were injured in the skirmish. On social media, videos showing Israeli police firing stun grenades inside Al-Aqsa (!) and Palestinians clashing with Israeli police circulated widely. Here’s a good example.
Hamas launched several rockets and floating incendiary balloons into Israel sporadically throughout the weekend. Each time Hamas launched a rocket, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) would respond with airstrikes on Hamas facilities. On Tuesday, Hamas started launching hundreds of rockets per day, including 137 in under five minutes in one barrage. At first, the launches targeted areas in or around the so-called “Gaza Envelope” (cities and towns directly adjacent), but later in the week, Hamas started launching rockets toward Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Israel was able to intercept 85-90% of the rockets aimed at population centers using its Iron Dome missile defense system (Here’s a good explainer of the Iron Dome and how Israel uses it tactically and strategically). Still, Hamas has launched over 3,100 rockets, many of which have landed in Israel, killing at least 10 Israelis as of Sunday evening. There have also been several instances of Hamas rockets falling short of Israel and striking Gazan civilians (The IDF says the misfire rate is as high as 15%). It is worth noting that firing rockets indiscriminately at civilians is a war crime.
Israel’s Iron Dome intercepting Hamas’ rockets. Source: IDF
In retaliation for Hamas’ rocket launches, the IDF has carried out heavy airstrikes on the Gaza Strip to degrade Hamas’ militant capabilities. Avoiding civilian casualties in the Gaza Strip is difficult because Hamas is known to keep terror equipment in or near civilian areas to deter the IDF. Though the IDF attempts to limit casualties using tools like “roof knocks” (bombs that make a loud noise on the ceiling of buildings to warn residents to leave) and text messages, the Gazan death toll was approaching 200 as of Sunday evening. Israel says it has targeted terror infrastructure like Hamas’ sprawling underground tunnel system (dubbed “the metro”) and weapons like rockets and explosive underwater drones. Still, the human cost has been immense; tragically, 42 people–including several children–were killed in just one airstrike on Sunday when the IDF targeted military infrastructure under homes in Gaza city.
Several of Israel’s military actions have made international news over the past week. In one instance, the IDF is believed to have deceived foreign reporters into reporting that Israeli ground troops had entered Gaza so Hamas militants would enter underground tunnels near the border with Israel and become easy targets. While the incident seemingly benefited Israel tactically, it eroded journalists’ trust in the IDF Spokesman. In another controversial move, the IDF destroyed a tower in Gaza that housed offices for the Associated Press and Al Jazeera. Although the IDF has since said that Hamas used the office building for terror purposes, Israel’s military has not provided any evidence to back up its claim. The Associated Press has said it was not aware of Hamas activity in the building. On Sunday, media reports claimed that Israel has provided the United States with intelligence to back up its claims. Either way, the IDF has demonstrated an ability to hit targets with extreme precision, apparently wilfully misled journalists earlier in the week, and has not released evidence of a Hamas presence, so it is certainly fair to question the operational necessity of the strike.
It is essential to remember that the casualties here are real people. They are not just numbers. Every Israeli and Palestinian civilian killed had family, friends, and a future. Don’t be numbed by text on a screen. Remember them and grieve for their loss.
What happened between Jews and Arabs in Israel? Israel was not only rocked by an external threat last week; inside Israel, Arab-Jewish relations deteriorated in a scary, scary way. In “mixed” Arab-Jewish cities across Israel–notably, Lod, Ramle, Haifa, Jaffa, and Acre, among others–Arab and Jewish extremists have resorted to rioting and violence to express political grievances. The consequences have been dire; a 12-year-old child was severely burnt when someone threw a Molotov cocktail through a family’s window, multiple people have been shot and killed, and synagogues have been burned down. In this case, the violence is not limited to one ethnic group or one religion. Words like “lynching,” “pogrom,” and “Kristallnacht” have been used commonly in the media to describe last week’s events.
Israeli leaders have attempted to get control of the situation through statements and an increased police presence. Mayors imposed curfews in cities around the country. Defense Minister Benny Gantz authorized the reinforcement of police in “mixed” cities with border police. Arab-Israeli politicians like Ayman Odeh and Mansour Abbas made public statements pleading for calm (Abbas said he would help rebuild one of the destroyed synagogues). Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid did not mince words in his rebuke of roving Jewish gangs, calling them “a bunch of pathetic racists who don’t represent Israel’s Jews.”
Ultimately, what’s happening is in many ways the product of serious neglect by the Israeli government of Arab-Israelis. For years, Arab-Israelis have faced substantial inequalities in areas like education and housing (among many others). What makes the situation so tragic (other than the obvious reasons) is that before last week’s events, Israel was on the brink of having a government supported by Ra’am, an Arab-Israeli party that campaigned on better integrating Arab-Israelis into Israeli society. Now, as you will read in a few paragraphs, that reality is looking uncertain if not impossible.
Why did the conflict with Hamas and the situation inside Israel escalate? There are so many reasons, but I’ll attempt to condense it down into a list (not ordered in any specific way):
Hamas took advantage of the instability in Jerusalem for political gain. As you may recall, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas recently postponed Palestinian elections, citing Israel’s refusal to hold them in East Jerusalem. Many experts believe the true reason was because Fatah was divided and Hamas would likely win the election. With the election canceled and a democratic path to power eliminated, Hamas violently exploited the Jerusalem situation to gain popularity. However, if Hamas truly cared about Jerusalem, it would not launch hundreds of rockets at the holy city. One rocket reportedly landed in Abu Ghosh, an Arab-Israeli town near Jerusalem. Hamas does not care about peace; Hamas cares about hurting civilians, killing Jews, and maintaining a chokehold on Gaza.
The solar and lunar calendars aligned in an unfortunate way. The dates of Ramadan are determined by the lunar calendar, which means its dates vary every year. This year, Ramadan aligned with Jerusalem Day, which is when many Israelis celebrate the unification of East and West Jerusalem following the 1967 War. Jerusalem Day tends to bring out provocative far-right demonstrations throughout the city, which occurred as huge numbers of Muslim worshipers flocked to holy sites in Jerusalem to observe their faith. Let me be clear here–the fact that Jews and Muslims were together in Jerusalem did not and does not cause conflict. The fact that tensions were high from the barricade incident and the antisemitic Tik Tok trend, combined with provocative demonstrations and large numbers of people moving throughout sensitive parts of the city, likely led to Jerusalem reaching its boiling point.
Extremism in Israeli society is growing. Earlier this year, Netanyahu coaxed the far-right Religious Zionist Party to merge with Otzma Yehudit, an extreme, racist, anti-Arab party in a successful bid to get both elected to the Knesset. Otzma Yehudit draws its ideological roots back to Meir Kahane, who was banned from the Knesset for racism and whose party, Kach, is currently designated a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the United States. The ascension of Kahanist leaders like Itamar Ben-Gvir to the Knesset has seemingly emboldened Israel’s far-right extremists to provoke Arabs in Jerusalem and “mixed” cities around Israel.
The occupation of the West Bank and the blockade of Gaza have reduced economic opportunities, denied dignity, and bred discontent among Palestinians. This is obviously a complicated subject and it deserves robust discussion, but I just do not have space here. Still, it should not be surprising that individuals resort to violence when they have little to no prospect for economic advancement and have seen violence for most of their life (The median age in Gaza is 18!). In case it needs to be said, this is not a justification for the rocket fire. It’s an explanation for how Israeli policy may contribute to the ongoing cycle of violence.
There is so much more, but I simply cannot include everything in this post. Other triggers include domestic political considerations, severe neglect for the Arab sector in Israel, opportunists taking advantage of an opportunity to put the Palestinian cause in the international spotlight, Palestinian frustration with the Abraham Accords, and others. I encourage you to check out the related headlines for some more information on the events of last week.
Will these clashes end soon? Hopefully. The airstrikes and rockets may end sooner than you may think. Hamas has reportedly been ready for a cease-fire for days, which makes sense from its perspective. By agreeing to a cease-fire, the terror group can claim responsibility for protecting Jerusalem, shutting down Ben Gurion airport, and igniting protests throughout Israel while protecting its weaponry and terror infrastructure for future use. Israeli leaders, on the other hand, are not quite ready for a cease-fire. In their view, Israel must eliminate Hamas’ ability to launch rockets and terrorize civilians. If that means a few more days of strikes, they believe it will be worth the continued rocket fire and casualties. Still, all reports indicate there is a flurry of activity among American, Russian, Egyptian, Qatari, Saudi, and UN envoys to get a cease-fire in place. I’ll be praying for an end to the violence as soon as possible.
How will this affect Israeli and Palestinian politics? I’ll start with Israeli politics. After President Reuven Rivlin gave Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid the mandate to form a government, I wrote this in the “what to watch for” section of last week’s newsletter: “The storyline to watch is whether Netanyahu will be able to convince Yamina MKs to vote against the coalition proposal. If he cannot, and Lapid and Bennett successfully negotiate a coalition deal, Prime Minister Netanyahu will become Opposition Leader Netanyahu by next week’s newsletter.” Reports suggested that Lapid and Bennett were on track to form a government as early as last Thursday.
One week later, the prospect of replacing Netanyahu has diminished. As the rockets were falling and Jewish-Arab clashes broke out across Israel, Naftali Bennett and his Yamina party ruled out forming a coalition with the “change camp” that consisted of Yesh Atid, Blue and White (Gantz), New Hope (Sa’ar), Labor (Michaeli), Meretz (Horowitz), Yisrael Beitenu (Liberman), and Ra’am (Abbas). Among his reasons for ditching the bloc, Bennett reportedly believed a government backed by an Arab party (Ra’am) would not be able to handle the crises Israel faces from within and without. Lapid has until June 2 to form a government, and he will likely attempt to coax the remaining members of the change camp and the Joint List to form a government. If he cannot, Israel is likely headed to another election in the fall.
It remains to be seen how the clashes will affect Palestinian politics. Many had already expected Hamas to win the Palestinian presidential election, and the clashes have likely only reinforced Hamas’ popularity. The Washington Post described the situation well: “the Islamist Hamas group, which last month was denied an opportunity to take over leadership of the Palestinian movement when secular rival Mahmoud Abbas postponed a promised election, sought to accomplish the same end by other means—firing rockets at Jerusalem and deliberately crossing an Israeli red line.”
In sum, Hamas and Netanyahu stand to gain from this conflict. Netanyahu escapes a likely ouster by Israel’s opposition, and Hamas can assert itself as a more capable “defender of Jerusalem.” That is not to say that Netanyahu purposefully instigated the rocket fire, but he certainly will benefit politically. Moving forward, we can probably expect more of the same in both Israel and Palestine, with the exception, perhaps, of an emboldened Hamas.
Perspectives from around the ideological landscape:
I started this newsletter because I felt my community lacked a source of digestible news that provided nuance to complex topics, not because I wanted to tell people how to feel. Accordingly, as I have with previous controversial and complex topics, I want to provide you with a range of well-written perspectives from across the ideological spectrum so you can make up your own mind. I will, however, challenge you to read some of the articles whose headlines make you uncomfortable. We get nowhere when we retreat to our echo chambers and fail to understand others.
“Bernie Sanders: The U.S. Must Stop Being an Apologist for the Netanyahu Government” by Bernie Sanders (NYT)
“For the Sake of Peace, Israel Must Rout Hamas” by Bret Stephens (NYT)
“Don’t Take the Narrow View of What’s Happening in Gaza” by Shadi Hamid (The Atlantic)
“We on the Left Need to Fix our Broken Israel/Palestine Politics” by Aziz Arashi (Newsweek)
“When Hamas fires missiles at Israeli homes, forget nuance” by Jonathan S. Tobin (JNS)
“Teshuvah: A Jewish Case for Palestinian Refugee Return” by Peter Beinart (Jewish Currents)
“Lies & Libels Are Again Fueling Attacks Against Jews” by Micha Danzig (Jewish Journal)
“This Must End: Open letter from the director of Gaza Community Mental Health Programme” by Yasser Abu Jamei (Middle East Monitor)
“Israeli and Palestinian Lives Come Before Land” by Hen Mazzig (Newsweek)
“The Palestinian Dispossession at the Heart of the Gaza Conflict” by Diana Buttu (Newlines Magazine)
“The Bad Optics of Fighting for Your Life” by Bari Weiss (Substack)
“With Andrew Yang tweet, Israeli-Palestinian conflict spills into New York City mayoral race” by Andrew Silow-Carroll (JTA)
“As conflict in Gaza rages again, a shift in the American Jewish response” by Arno Rosenfeld (Forward)
“The Violence in Jerusalem Started With Children. Then the Sirens Began to Wail” by Anshel Pfeffer and Yanal Jabareen (Haaretz)
“Israeli Arabs remain divided over how to handle riots, political participation” by Ariel Ben Solomon (JNS)
“Mass protests against Israel; riots break out in Berlin, Paris and London” by Cnaan Liphshiz (JTA)
“Gaza’s Rockets: A Replenished Arsenal That Vexes Israel” by Mona El-Naggar (NYT)
“From Gal Gadot to Trevor Noah, here’s what celebrities are saying about the Israel-Gaza violence” by Gabe Friedman (JTA)
“Tensions Among Democrats Grow Over Israel as the Left Defends Palestinians” by Lisa Lerer and Jennifer Medina (NYT)
“TikTok and Twitter videos bring images of Israel-Gaza conflict home to American Jews” by Shira Hanau (JTA)
Take care of each other, hug your loved ones, and remember that most people want peace. Also, Chag Sameach to all those celebrating Shavuot.