The threat of war is ever present, but a new and dangerous form of violence has broken out in Israel In January 2020 I crushed into the East Room at the White House in Washington, DC to watch the former president Donald Trump and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu deliver a document called, first almost jokingly and then in deadly earnest, “the deal of the century”. It was a plan, put together by Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, to end the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. It could not be called a peace deal as the Palestinians had not been consulted and were not present.
At the time it was obvious that the Palestinians were being given a surrender document, told to accept that Israel had won and that it would, with its American friends, decide the future. If the Palestinians refused, Israel would still get what it wanted and they would be even worse off. I wrote at the time that the risk was that Palestinians would feel “more anger, despair and hopelessness. In a combustible part of the world, that is dangerous.
Kushner’s work broke records for the fastest time from delivery to a place in the dustbin of history. However weak the Palestinians had become, a supposed peace deal that did not give them any role apart from to sign on the dotted line was fatally flawed. “The deal of the century” was the high point of a fantasy that Trump and Netanyahu had created for themselves. They were saying that a conflict that had lasted in its different forms for around a century was over and their side had won just because that was what they wanted. Israel and the US’s main problem was Iran; Palestinians could be managed. The crisis with Iran is real and dangerous, and not just for Israel and the US. But the idea that the Palestinians would do as they were told was a delusion.
I am writing part of this diary on the Bethlehem side of the wall that separates it from Jerusalem. Israeli security forces have opened great steel gates in the wall to disperse a march heading their way. Big volleys of tear gas and stun grenades are doing the job. Elsewhere in the West Bank I’ve heard there have been exchanges of live fire.
The terrible events of recent days are a reminder of the power Jerusalem has to reignite the conflict. The city’s Muslim and Jewish holy sites are literally on top of each other: Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock stand in a compound that was built for the Jewish Temple in biblical times. But it is not just about religion. They are also national symbols, and when they are drawn into the conflict, things can get much worse very fast. None of the issues that became critical during the month of Ramadan were new. Jewish settler groups had been trying for years to use the Israeli courts to repossess property where Palestinian homes now stand in Sheikh Jarrah, one of the leafiest parts of the east side of Jerusalem, which Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war and then annexed. Heavy-handed policing of Palestinians in the Old City is not exactly a novelty. But when the Israeli security forces burst at the holiest time of Ramadan into the place Palestinians call the Noble Sanctuary and Jews call the Temple Mount it was never going to end well.
When I heard the Hamas ultimatum to Israel to remove its forces from the Al-Aqsa Mosque area and Sheikh Jarrah or face the consequences, I did not think it would launch missiles at Jerusalem. It was a calculated and devastating escalation. The missiles themselves did not kill anyone. Israel has poured billions into defensive measures from the highly effective Iron Dome anti-missile system to old-fashioned concrete shelters. The escalation came with the messages the missiles carried. First to Israel, that Hamas was ready to fight: it was not too worn down by the pressures of running a blockaded Gaza Strip since 2007. The second was to Palestinians. It said that Hamas was now the force that protected their rights in Jerusalem, not the presidency of Mahmoud Abbas and his faction, Fatah. The impact of those two messages has torn apart many assumptions about the state of the conflict.
A war between Hamas and Israel is a disaster, but a familiar one. The sectarian, communal violence that has broken out between Arabs and Jews within Israel is new and dangerous. Around 20 per cent of Israelis are Arabs. They are Palestinians whose families were not expelled or forced to flee during Israel’s independence war in 1948. The other wars since 2008 did not lead to deadly mob violence and arson among Israeli citizens. Israelis from both communities are horrified and alarmed; the fracture in their society is much worse than most were prepared to admit. The truth is that they don’t have much in common apart from the same ID cards. But one reason why things have deteriorated is Netanyahu’s use and abuse of Jewish nationalism as a political tactic to stay in power.
The Hamas-Israel wars cause appalling suffering. Many more Palestinians die than Israelis. There is no equivalence of pain when it comes to numbers. But human beings feel the same fear, and the same grief when people they love get killed or maimed. Waiting at Heathrow to fly to Tel Aviv last week, I was interviewed for a news programme. A presenter asked when I last found any hope about the chances of a peaceful end to the conflict. I had to think hard, and admitted it was probably back in the Nineties when I lived in Jerusalem and there was genuine belief that the Oslo peace process would work. Even then, some said it was flawed, but millions on both sides were backing it. By the end of the century it was collapsing.
I loved living in Jerusalem. It’s a compelling city. But Jerusalem is also full of hate. It is part of its pulse, and when that pulse starts racing, the consequences are tragic.
[See also: Why Netanyahu and Hamas both risk losing control of the conflict]
This article appears in the 19 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, In defence of meritocracy