“Curses are like chickens, they always come home to roost.”
Malcolm X scandalized white America in 1963 when he referred to this old saying after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He meant that white people had finally come to know the lash of violence and hatred long felt by blacks.
Something like that is happening now in Israel. A country founded on the crime of ethnic cleansing and the principles of apartheid is finally coming apart at the seams under the weight of its own contradictions.
After Israeli police restricted access to the Old City during Ramadan prayers, Palestinians rose up in mass protest. They set fires, attacked Israeli Jews, and fought running battles with police. This brought a violent reaction from Judeo-supremacist groups like Lehava, which fought back and attacked Palestinians in East Jerusalem.
Palestinians began to protest inside the Al-Aqsa mosque. The brutality of the police response was unprecedented. They invaded the third-holiest shrine in Islam, firing tear gas, stun grenades, and rubber bullets. Many Muslims saw the images of this defilement and their blood boiled.
By then, Hamas entered the fray by lobbing rockets into Israel in solidarity with those fighting for Palestinians’ rights in Jerusalem. In response, Benjamin Netanyahu began the massive air strikes in Gaza, which leveled an entire twelve-story high-rise building and have killed over one hundred Gazans, among them several dozen children.
Israeli Defense Forces’ tanks, artillery, and infantry stood at the gates of Gaza, prepared for a ground invasion. The last time we witnessed this was Operation Protective Edge in 2014. By its end, 2,300 Palestinians had died and 18,000 homes were destroyed. Can history be repeating itself?
We’ve seen this before, in 2008, and again in 2014, a bad dream repeated endlessly.
But one new development is unprecedented. During prior Israeli wars, Israeli Palestinians took no side in the hostilities. They remained on the sidelines and didn’t dare protest in solidarity with their fellow Palestinians under siege.
But this time is different: hundreds of Palestinians have risen up inside Israel and made their towns ungovernable for the Jewish residents. In Lod, they burned Jewish vehicles and businesses. They attacked synagogues in response to the desecration of Al-Aqsa (a connection conveniently ignored by Israelis who called the synagogue attacks “an Israeli Kristallnacht”).
A Haaretz op-ed called it the beginning of an Israeli “civil war.” Whether that is true or not, it marks a breakdown in a tacit pact between Israeli Palestinians and the state: in return for state tolerance, Israeli Palestinians would restrain their aspirations for national and human rights. No longer. The chaos in the streets is the Palestinian citizens saying, “we will no longer stand back while you trample us underfoot.”
The following day, roving bands of Jewish Israeli thugs sought out Arabs and dragged them from their cars, beating them mercilessly. Palestinian businesses, many of them frequented by Jewish Israelis, were trashed. This was not looting. It was not a lust to steal. It was pure wanton destruction — a savage urge for revenge. The police were largely nowhere to be seen. They had no interest in protecting Arabs.
Netanyahu’s response was to promise to bring down “an iron fist” to restore order. The army sent detachments from the West Bank to patrol the streets. Emergency measures were invoked. All residents were forced to stay indoors. Though such actions are standard for the Israeli occupation in the West Bank, they are unprecedented inside Israel itself. They mark a massive breakdown not only of order but of the civic pact that permitted the state to exist in spite of its internal contradictions.
Biden’s Pitiful Response
The US response has been pitiful. While tens of thousands protest in US and European cities against the slaughter, progressive Democrats have been unwilling to go beyond expressions of “concern” and criticism of evictions of Palestinian families from Sheikh Jarrah. Only Rep. Rashida Tlaib has been willing to call for an end to the $38 billion, ten-year aid commitment to Israel:
American taxpayer money is being used to commit human rights violations. Congress must condition the aid we send to Israel, and end it altogether if those conditions are not followed. Statements aren't working @SecBlinken.
Enough is enough.
— Rashida Tlaib (@RashidaTlaib) May 10, 2021
Bernie Sanders and other progressive Democrats have largely restricted themselves to criticism. But Israel ignores words and statements. State leaders know that the only thing that matters is deeds: What are you prepared to do to stop such a policy? How much political capital are you willing to expend? Israel prides itself on knowing how to manipulate this system. It goes as far as it can and even crosses over the red line to test the world’s response. If there is no meaningful penalty, they know they can proceed in pursuing their own interests.
President Joe Biden’s response has been even worse. The New York Times reported:
President Biden said that he had spoken with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu . . . and asserted his “unwavering support” for Israel’s “right to defend itself.”
“My hope is that we will see this coming to a conclusion sooner than later,” Mr. Biden said in response to questions from reporters.
According to a readout of the call released by the White House, Mr. Biden “condemned” the rocket attacks on Israel and added that the United States’ position is that Jerusalem be “a place of peace.”
This reads as if Biden has not seen any of the pictures of the dead Palestinian children, not seen videos of the Border Police defiling Al-Aqsa, not seen the Al-Shorouq tower felled by Israeli missiles. It reads as if he’s being briefed not by the State Department but by the Israeli embassy.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s effort was equally feeble:
I spoke with President Abbas about the ongoing situation in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. I expressed condolences for the loss of life. I emphasized the need to end rocket attacks and deescalate tensions.
— Secretary Antony Blinken (@SecBlinken) May 13, 2021
Even the densest observer of the Palestinian affairs knows that Palestine president Mahmoud Abbas has little say over what happens in East Jerusalem and even less in Gaza. So how is Abbas supposed to “end rocket attacks” or “deescalate tensions?” Abbas isn’t speaking to Hamas, nor is Blinken. The United States refuses to speak to Hamas and calls it a “terror organization.” The result is that we have no relations to call upon in the midst of this crisis.
Hamas and Netanyahu: Strange Bedfellows
As strange as it may seem, the current round of fighting suits both Prime Minister Netanyahu and Hamas. Israeli politicians have been trying for weeks to form a government. Netanyahu held the mandate first, but failed in his efforts. Though the center-right leader Yair Lapid currently has the mandate, his most critical partner, Naftali Bennet, brought about the collapse of negotiations, which had been on the verge of forming a ruling coalition. Bennett decided in light of the hostilities that his followers would not forgive him for joining a government that relied on the Islamist Raam Party to rule. Now, the most likely scenario is another set of elections (the fifth in the past two years). This suits Netanyahu fine, because it maintains him as prime minister while he faces three corruption counts in a trial that could force him to resign if convicted.
Nor was it a coincidence that hostilities commenced almost to the day that Lapid was ready to tell Israeli president Reuven Rivlin that he had succeeded in forming a government.
Hamas, too, benefits from the fighting. After Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas cancelled elections scheduled for last month, Hamas sought to show the Palestinian people that it alone resists Israeli oppression and defends Palestinian rights.
Hamas also has a key ally in Iran, which has provided new advanced weapons being used in the conflict. Iran, too, has reasons to seek revenge for Israel’s murders of its nuclear scientists and bombing of its Natanz nuclear facility.
Last year, Avigdor Lieberman claimed that Iran smuggled cruise missiles into Gaza. He warned that they would be used against Israel in the next conflict and complained that the government was keeping this information from the public.
An Israeli security official told me that this was indeed the case. Iron Dome, which has intercepted more primitive rockets, has limited ability to track cruise weapons.
The Iranian intervention ratchets up the hostilities. Instead of Israel fighting just Palestinians, it is fighting a force equipped with Iranian weapons capable of inflicting far more damage than in the past. This widens the conflict and makes it far more dangerous — yet another reason why the US government response has been so disappointing and inadequate.
Israel Spurns Cease-Fire Offer
Hamas offered Israel a cease-fire proposal. Netanyahu’s response was classic:
Israel dismissed the offer of a truce made earlier in the day via the Russian foreign ministry, which quoted a senior Hamas official as saying that the Islamist group was ready to halt attacks on a “mutual basis.”
“The campaign is still far from over,” a cabinet member said. “Whatever we don’t do now, we will have to do in six months or a year from now.”
“This will not end in the next few days,” said a cabinet member.
“Israel will not stop and has no interest in stopping. It is all moving in the right direction. We will act until they admit that opening fire was a mistake, just as Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah did after the Second Lebanon War in 2006,” he said.
“When we have hit all our targets and the other side has still not surrendered, we will launch a ground operation even though we do not seek it.” [Emphasis added]
As Israel’s leaders threaten a ground invasion of Gaza, President Biden defends Israel for “defending itself.”
There is another difference between this set of hostilities and those of the past. The International Criminal Court announced in March that it was beginning an inquiry into Israeli war crimes during Operation Protective Edge and into the hundreds of Palestinian killed and wounded during the Great March of Return.
In case Israel didn’t get the message, the chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, said: “I note with great concern the escalation of violence in . . . East Jerusalem, as well as . . . Gaza, and the possible commission of crimes under the Rome Statute.” She also said, the New York Times reported, “that her office would continue to monitor the situation and address ‘any matter that falls within its jurisdiction.’”
This is a clear warning to the Israelis that their actions in the current conflict will be included in the brief she submits to the court when they deliberate whether to charge Israel for war crimes.
Israel certainly had impunity in the past when it launched these military operations, and it still retains some of that insulation, as Biden’s statements indicate. But Palestinian communities in Israel and international institutions have made clear that what worked for Israel in the past will no longer work today.