While Israel and Hamas are trading bombs and rockets, some Israeli commentators cite examples of Arab-Israeli coexistence.
There was the Palestinian head nurse in the Israeli town of Afula (a substantial number of Israeli doctors and nurses are Arabs) who recited the holy “Shema Yisrael” prayer to a religious Jew dying of COVID-19 whose family couldn’t reach him. And the Jewish trauma surgeon in Tel Aviv who praised his mixed team of doctors and nurses who treated Arabs wounded by Jewish extremists and Jews wounded by Hamas rockets with the same professionalism. (The wife of one of the Palestinian doctors had had her car set on fire by Jewish extremists in Lod, a mixed Arab-Jewish town now wracked by inter-communal violence.)
Such Arab-Jewish cooperation is what should be encouraged by the Israeli government. Yet these examples obscure the realities on the ground.
The current crisis grew out of Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu’s apparent belief that he could ignore Palestinian rights, whether those of West Bankers, Gazans, or Israeli citizens. Under Netanyahu, Jewish settlements have expanded on the occupied West Bank to the point where Palestinians are mostly confined to chunks of unconnected territory with no prospect of future statehood.
Encouraged by Donald Trump, Bibi mistakenly believed that deals with peacemaking Gulf Arabs made the needs of the Palestinians irrelevant. This approach collapsed this past week.
Writes columnist Jack Khoury in the Israeli paper Ha’aretz: “The Israeli government, which has become used to treating the Palestinians as a divided and spineless people, will have to change its approach — or else what happened over the past week will look like just a preview.
“It’s possible: it only has to see them as human beings.”
The violence traces back to Netanyahu’s declaration that all of Jerusalem will remain under Israeli control, including the Arab neighborhoods in the east of the city. (Proponents of a two-state solution had imagined an open Jerusalem that would be capital to both Israel and a disarmed Palestinian state.)
The latest Israeli effort to evict 169 residents from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem to make way for far-right Jewish settlers — part of an unending series of evictions and demolition of Arab homes without compensation — was already roiling the city’s Arab residents.
The tinder was lit when Israeli police officers raided the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City on May 7. The police pretext was that stones were being thrown. But who in their right minds attacks the third holiest mosque of Islam with bullets, tear gas, and stun grenades on one of the holiest nights of Ramadan? Who pulls such a dangerous stunt at a time when Jerusalem’s Palestinians are convinced by the evictions — and by Israeli far-right marchers shouting “Death to Arabs” — that Israel wants to kick all Arabs out of the city.
There is some speculation that Bibi greenlit the operation in order to (successfully) bury an opposition effort to displace him as prime minister after an inconclusive election. Perhaps. Or perhaps the reason for the attack was simply that Netanyahu believes the concerns of Palestinians are irrelevant. Perhaps he assumed police could suppress any protests if worshippers were gassed or wounded. He didn’t even act to prevent a second, similar raid on the mosque a few days later.
Instead, the mosque attack gave Gaza’s radical Hamas movement — which was floundering — the perfect excuse to claim it was the defender of Jerusalem and fire rockets at Israeli towns and cities. Never mind the war crime of attacking Israeli civilians and the cost to its own people, who have no control over the Hamas rockets. Trading on Palestinian anger over Jerusalem, Hamas promoted itself as superior to the aging leadership of its rival for leadership, the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.
So by treating Palestinians as irrelevant, Bibi pulled off a nasty trifecta: He strengthened Hamas, provoked violence that has killed hundreds of (mostly Palestinian) civilians and threatened Israeli cities, while improving his political prospects.
But he also provoked an Arab-Jewish civil war inside pre-1967 Israel. And among the many tragedies of the past week’s fighting, this is one of the saddest. Because instead of building on the many areas of coexistence, Netanyahu has treated Arab citizens with the same indifference he has shown to Palestinians on the West Bank.
On Bibi’s watch, a “Jewish nation-state law” made clear that Arabs were viewed as second-class citizens of Israel. Also on his watch, substantial numbers of far-right religious-nationalist Jews have been moving into mixed Arab-Jewish cities such as Lod, building large apartment complexes, and creating fears they mean to drive the Arab residents out.
And on Bibi’s watch, Israeli Arab political parties that have been electing growing numbers of Knesset (parliament) members have been repeatedly rejected as coalition partners — because of their ethnicity. What could have been an experiment in real coexistence has been lost.
Sooner rather than later there will be an Israel-Hamas ceasefire. But the violence will simmer and explode again unless Bibi recognizes reality.
The Palestinian population in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza nearly equals the Jewish population, and Palestinians won’t be passive forever.
First step: Recognize them as human beings.