Barely a fortnight ago, few Israelis would have queried one of the crowning achievements of Benjamin Netanyahu’s three-decade political career: the prime minister’s capacity to keep the Palestinians cornered while cementing Israel’s best relations with its Arab neighbours in the country’s 73-year existence.
Through his laser sharp-focus on Iran, Netanyahu last year reached a historic peace agreement with the United Arab Emirates, the influential Gulf state, and there were signs of a move towards more open ties with the prize catch, Saudi Arabia.
Israelis were safe and prosperous at home, Netanyahu told voters, and welcomed among neighbours who were once foes.
But he had not counted on Mustafa Jaber and thousands of young Palestinian men in occupied East Jerusalem, the crucible of Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians. By early May, Jaber, a garrulous musician from the Old City’s Muslim quarter, was facing off against Israeli police in the compound of the third holiest site in Islam, al-Aqsa mosque.
It was the holy month of Ramadan, and Israel’s extremist rightwing, egged on by Netanyahu’s allies, was particularly aggressive, repeating vows to evict Arabs from East Jerusalem, and to assert Israeli dominance over the compound that houses the mosque, which is revered by Jews as the Temple Mount.
Three nights in a row, Jaber slept inside the grounds, collecting rocks and building barricades. In the mornings, he fought riot police trying to clear him and hundreds of his friends out. In the blaze of stun grenades, tear gas and police beatings, Jaber says he finally found purpose in his hitherto aimless life: “To protect al-Aqsa from the occupation,” he says, bleary-eyed on his Jewish fiancé’s terrace, his twin brother hospitalised by a rubber bullet.
As the clarion call to protect al-Aqsa, one of the most emotive and symbolic sites of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, resonated across all the land that Israel controls, Netanyahu’s illusion — that the country can be at peace without resolving the Palestinian conflict — was shattered.
Suddenly, Israel was fighting a Palestinian revolt on three different fronts: Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza was firing thousands of rockets at Israeli cities and towns; widespread communal strife erupted between Palestinians with Israeli nationality and their Jewish neighbours; and in the occupied West Bank, thousands of protesters clashed with Israeli soldiers.
The ferocity of the Palestinian anger caught Israel by surprise. As late as April, much of the military and diplomatic establishment was focused on Iran, especially as US President Joe Biden had pledged to rejoin the 2015 nuclear accord Tehran signed with world powers.
For four years during Donald Trump’s presidency, Netanyahu basked in the support of an unabashedly pro-Israeli US administration that isolated the Palestinians while pursuing the most aggressive policies against Iran in decades.
Throughout, the West Bank was quiet. Factional infighting and inertia dulled a Palestinian leadership that appeared impotent while Trump tacitly supported Netanyahu’s threats to annex swaths of the occupied territory. The last Palestinian election was in 2006 and Mahmoud Abbas, the 85-year-old head of the Palestinian Authority, postponed this month’s planned poll.
“Israel thought they will ‘Israelise’ the Palestinians inside and they will domesticate the Palestinians in the West Bank under occupation and that they will separate Gaza forever,” says Mustafa Barghouti, an influential member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. “They failed in all three facts, and now the Palestinians all over now have one goal — the end of Israeli apartheid — which is unprecedented since 1948.”
After 11 days of violence, any Israeli hopes that the Palestinian issue could be contained behind walls and barriers as Israel expanded settlements — which most of the world consider illegal — in the West Bank and kept impoverished Gaza isolated under a blockade have been dashed.
“The Palestinian issue must be resolved on merit but also because there is a strategic and political carry-over. If Palestinians obtain their state and their rights, you also take away oxygen from some of the most explosive issues in the region. Israel rejects this perspective,” says Emile Hokayem, a Middle East expert at the International Institute for Security Studies. “It’s a fallacy to pretend Iran is the only strategic concern, just as it is a fallacy to say that this conflict proves that Iran is a secondary matter.”
With a tentative ceasefire in place with Hamas on Friday, the Israeli military is left questioning its own assessments that it had deterred the militants from ever launching barrages of long-range rockets into Israel. For seven years it relied on a policy dubbed “mowing the lawn”, where Israel delivered warnings to the militant group with limited, strategic air strikes every time an escalation loomed.
But Hamas, which has capitalised on Abbas’s unpopularity and the PA’s weakness to broaden its support, once again proved it was willing to take on one of the world’s best equipped militaries as the most ferocious fighting since 2014 broke out.
In Gaza, Palestinians experienced the terrifying might of Israel’s air force. Bombs toppled multi-story buildings. Missiles targeted what the military described as networks of tunnels built underneath roads and homes, devastating infrastructure already decrepit after more than a decade of a blockade and three wars.
More than 240 Palestinians were killed, more than 100 of them women and children, according to health officials. Forty-two died in a single incident where three buildings collapsed. Israel said their deaths were “unintended”, saying the apartment buildings crumbled after their foundations were weakened by an air strike targeting tunnels.
But victory has proven elusive, as in previous wars. Israel was unable to stop Hamas from launching more than 4,000 homemade rockets deep into the Jewish state. The Knesset was briefly shuttered, flights rerouted to an airport far from Hamas’ reach, and the streets of Tel Aviv, the financial capital, were deserted for days. Twelve Israelis, including two children, were killed by Hamas rocket fire.
“How do you measure success or failure? On one hand, you have the most powerful military empire in the entire region, and on the other hand, a terrorist organisation that has only one thing — rockets, and rather primitive ones,” says Ehud Olmert, the former Israeli prime minister, who sent ground troops into Gaza in 2009. “The fact is that Hamas successfully intimidated almost the entire country — we were sitting in the middle of the night in Tel Aviv in shelters.”
For Hamas, the relentless Israeli bombardment may prove to be a tactical setback. Much of its network of tunnels, dubbed the Gaza Metro and designed to shuttle fighters and weapons around undetected, has been destroyed.
Israel also killed several senior commanders. But it failed to net its most wanted target, Hamas’ military chief Mohammed Deif. He had already lost his wife, two children, an eye and a hand to eight failed assassination attempts — and survived two more this week.
Yet Israel has no good options to deal with Hamas, says David Makovsky, expert on Arab-Israel relations at The Washington Institute. “The Israelis have not wanted to go in there because it’s bloody work, and they don’t want to lose a lot of people [or have] house-to-house conflict,” he says.
Israel may have reinforced its deterrence for a while, but conflict will erupt again in the future, he adds. “It’s bound to keep reoccurring.” Makovsky says.
Although battered and bloodied, Hamas is claiming the symbolic victory of dealing a blow to the Jewish state, reinforcing its boasts of being the leader of the Palestinian struggle as more moderate voices are dimmed by internal squabbles and Israel’s actions.
‘I thought we were safe’
With Operation Guardians of the Wall, the Israeli military’s nickname for its air campaign, on hold, Netanyahu must now turn to the risks within Israel’s walls. The rallying cry of “Protect al-Aqsa” sparked a phenomenon the Jewish state had never encountered on such a scale — Jews and minority Israeli Arabs turning on their neighbours.
In communal violence that spread to nearly all of Israel’s mixed cities, Jewish and Arab mobs took over the streets at night, burning cars and homes, assaulting each other and, in scattered cases, innocent passers-by.
“I don’t know what to think — the people in our building tried to kill us,” says Keren Eschar, a Jewish mother in the city of Lod, the epicentre of the violence. Arab men burnt her children’s kindergarten and synagogue. “We were good neighbours, but now, I don’t know any more — we were never scared of them,” she says. “I always thought we were safe.”
Police struggled to restore order, even as thousands of reinforcements were deployed.
Rightwing Jewish settlers streamed in from the West Bank carrying weapons, their chants of “Death to Arabs” broadcast live on social media. Arabs knocked on car windows in Jaffa and East Jerusalem, asking an ominous question: “Jew or Arab?”
At least two people were killed, an Arab and a Jew, in separate incidents. Dozens were hospitalised, hundreds arrested. Israeli police said eight in 10 of those detained were Arabs, who make up a fifth of the population, a statistic that will fuel the sense of discrimination the minority group has long complained of.
The trigger for the Arab-Israeli anger was al-Aqsa, where Jaber, the musician, and his friends were holed up for days. Just as images of the police’s heavy-handed tactics against Palestinians in East Jerusalem flooded the news, Arab-Israelis were starting their annual pilgrimage to the mosque for the holiest night of Ramadan, Laylat al-Qadr.
As their buses drove up the hills to Jerusalem, police set up roadblocks, saying they were looking for agitators. About 90,000 made it to the mosque, some of them walking up the steep slopes. The rest fumed.
“The reason that the protests were so wide is because they touched upon religion during the holiest month, and on top of that, the holiest day,” says Diana Buttu, a Palestinian citizen of Israel who worked on past, failed peace talks. “That’s why we are seeing these protests spread so fast, and so far — just like they did in 2000.” That was the year of former prime minister Ariel Sharon’s provocative walk on the Temple Mount that triggered the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising.
With tension soaring, Hamas fired rockets towards Jerusalem. Israel responded with force. As Israel bombed Gaza, the communal violence in Israel erupted and Palestinians in the West Bank staged their largest protests in years. “I don’t like to use the word ‘intifada’, but we are seeing things close to spiralling out of control,” an Israeli security official said this week.
Just two days later, as the ceasefire with Hamas was being hammered out, with Israel under mounting pressure from the Biden administration, Netanyahu sought to move the conversation back to Iran. “While we’re fighting on various fronts, the true backer of much of this aggression is Iran,” he told Heiko Maas, Germany’s foreign minister.
But that does not wash with Palestinians who insist they are fighting their struggle, one which will only end when they have their rights, the occupation is lifted and their nation is born.
“We are reclaiming our voice and narrative,” says Mariam Barghouti, an activist in the West Bank. “Before you speak about any diplomatic solution [to the conflict], address the apartheid, address the military violence, address the settler violence, address the Gaza siege . . . Before those are addressed, you are just talking.”
Additional reporting by Katrina Manson in Washington