Israel-Palestine: Why Netanyahu and Hamas both risk losing control of the conflict

The worst intercommunal clashes in years could mark the start of a new era of decentralised violence between Israelis and Palestinians.

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As Israeli fighter jets sped again towards Gaza on Monday (10 May) and Palestinian rockets rose once more from the besieged self-governing enclave, much of the media debate focused on two wearily familiar questions: who started it, this time? And is this a passing-flare up, or the beginning of another war?

Now, a handful of remarkable days and more than 70 lost lives later, the questions are very different: have we entered an altogether new era of violence, more akin to past conflicts in Yugoslavia or Rwanda, than to any of Israel’s? And nevermind who started it, who can make it stop?

[Hear more on the World Review podcast]

On their own, the rockets Hamas fired towards Jerusalem at 6:02pm on Monday evening needn’t have been a point of no return. The barrage came after days of violence in the city around planned evictions of Palestinian families from the neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah, which culminated in Israeli forces storming the mosques on Temple Mount. (Police claimed they wanted to prevent worshippers from throwing rocks; Palestinians rejected the claim, accusing the officers of a wanton and provocative show of force.) The rockets, sent off after an ultimatum to Israel to withdraw its forces from the Mount went unanswered, were more of a shot across the bow of the Israeli ship of state than a forceful intervention: they fell short of Jerusalem itself and caused no casualties or damage.

In fact, for a brief moment, the attack seemed to have snuffed out the smouldering Jerusalem tinderbox: police finally had an apolitical, public-safety excuse to block the Jewish nationalist march planned for the day; the Supreme Court ruling on the Sheikh Jarrah evictions was delayed. But since in this conflict every action causes an unequal, disproportionate reaction, Israel retaliated almost at once with airstrikes - killing some 24 Palestinians in Gaza, a toll far too high for Hamas not to respond to in turn.

There is also a new, far less predictable dimension to this particular outbreak: a spate of clashes between Palestinian and Israeli civilians, with beatings, shootings, arson and looting spreading across communities up and down the land.

Despite the impression created in the West by 30 years of negotiations for a two-state solution, there isn’t really a geographically distinct Israel and Palestine. All over the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, despite falling under vastly different systems of laws and privilege under a single centralised Israeli rule, Palestinians and Jews live, if not side by side, then within a short drive’s distance of each other. Particularly in Israel proper, this proximity has been more and more on display in recent years, as Palestinian actors and journalists became household names, Palestinian doctors and nurses stepped to the forefront of Israel’s fight against coronavirus, and, perhaps most improbably of all, a Palestinian Islamic party became the magic ingredient required for a right-wing-led coalition to replace Binyamin Netanyahu (after the long-serving prime minister failed to form a government following a fourth general election in two years).

In the past week this tentative and unequal integration has stalled, if not reversed. In major cities such as Jerusalem and Haifa, Jewish and Palestinian mobs through the week were stopping cars, checking drivers' appearances and accents and beating them up if the results were unsatisfactory. In Lod, a Jewish man gunned down a Palestinian man during a clash between two crowds; after the latter’s funeral, a synagogue was set alight. In Bat Yam, a majority-Jewish suburb adjacent to Jaffa, historically a Palestinian city (until the expulsions of 1948), a Jewish mob attempted to march across, chanting “Death to Arabs”. When turned back by police, they attacked Palestinian-owned businesses in Bat Yam itself and tried lynching a passing Palestinian driver, beating him near to death with fists and flag poles. Later on Wednesday night the far-right Jerusalem football fan club La Familia texted its supporters a list of streets with Palestinian residents and urged them to launch an indiscriminate, door-to-door stabbing campaign. In Akko, Jewish-owned businesses were set on fire, despite having many Palestinian employees, and a Jewish driver was attacked in a mob assault chillingly similar to the Bat Yam lynching. Only by sheer fortune was no one killed – but the intercommunal violence shows no signs of abating, either.

Around it all, the Gaza war that no one meant to begin continues. Neither party appears to have a clear goal in mind, so neither do they have an achievement or demand that would lead them to stop. Hamas seems bent on showing how many rockets it can fire on Israeli civilians, how thickly and how far, while Israel is waging an assassination campaign against second-rate paramilitary leaders in the Gaza Strip and, uniquely to this particular round, against residential high-rise blocks, on the pretext that some of the flats are being used for military and logistical purposes by Hamas (the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) Twitter account went to the trouble of turning one such bombardment into a meme).

Total war is probably out of the question: Hamas can’t militarily defeat Israel, and Israel doesn’t want to wipe out Hamas, which has proven a reliable interlocutor and controller of smaller, more extreme paramilitary groups. But both leaderships are gaining something from the current conflict. Hamas is burnishing its credentials as an authentic Palestinian resistance movement, while Netanyahu knows that so long as the country is at war, there is no way for the only government that can supplant him – the magic coalition of his far-right Zionist opponents, centrist Zionist parties and the Islamic movement – to come together. So while neither side is launching ground attacks, which are the traditional boundary between “clashes” and “a war”, neither is talking of ceasefires either.

In the meantime, instead of one tightly controlled front between Israel’s military and Palestinian paramilitary groups – who have in the past eventually come to the table together – the country is on the brink of fragmenting into thousands of frontiers, drawn wherever Jews and Palestinians interact in daily life. The scale, intimacy and decentralisation of the violence this risks engendering is nothing like anything we’ve seen in Israel-Palestine in living memory. The closest comparison would be not even South Africa, but Yugoslavia at the beginning of its civil war, or, at worst, Rwanda.

As of the time of writing, even the most violently-minded politicians appear to be recoiling, and Netanyahu is planning a mass show of force by sending IDF troops into the mixed cities to pry the communities apart and restore order. It may well be that even if the brewing Gaza war doesn’t stop, grass-roots violence will peter out of its own accord: everyone wants some semblance of a normal life back, and, in absolute terms, those actively taking part in the violence remain a tiny minority. But a terrifying new possible future has appeared this week before Israelis and Palestinians – and unless there is fresh thinking to address the divides across the entire territory between the river and the sea, this spectre is not going away any time soon.

[See also: Israel-Palestine: What caused the worst violence in years]

Dimi Reider is the New Statesman's special projects editor. 

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