Tony Walker, La Trobe UniversityWhat’s next in the latest Middle East convulsion? Will a ceasefire between the Hamas militant group in Gaza and Israel be brokered by Arab mediators in coordination with western powers, or will the situation continue to deteriorate?
Are we witnessing the beginning of an intensifying conflict in which Israelis find themselves enveloped in a bloody confrontation with Palestinians across the occupied territories and, more threateningly, inside Israel itself?
Will Israel become enmeshed in widespread communal unrest on its own territory in Arab towns and villages?
In short, are we witnessing the early stages of a third intifada, in which casualties mount on both sides until the participants exhaust themselves?
We’ve seen all this before – in 1987 and 2000. Then, as now, violence spread from territories occupied in the 1967 war into Israel itself.
There are no simple answers to these questions as the crisis enters its second week, with casualties mounting.
In part, the next stage depends on the level of violence Israel is prepared to inflict on Hamas. It is also conditional on Hamas’s tolerance of Israeli airstrikes and artillery fire.
It will also rely on the extent to which Israel feels its interests continue to be served by courting widespread international opprobrium for its offensive against Hamas, as the militant group’s leadership is embedded in a densely packed civilian population in Gaza.
This is far from a cost-free exercise for Israel, despite the bravado from its leadership, embroiled in a lingering internal crisis over the country’s inability to elect majority government.
Political paralysis is not the least of Israel’s problems.
As always, the issue is not whether Israel has a right to defend itself against rocket attacks on its own territory. The question is whether its response is disproportionate, and whether its chronic failure to propagate a genuine peace process is fuelling Palestinian resentment.
Israel’s continued provocative construction of settlements in the West Bank, and the daily humiliations it inflicts on a disenfranchised Palestinian population in Arab East Jerusalem, contribute to enormous frustration and anger among people living under occupation.
If nothing else, the latest upsurge of violence between Israelis and Palestinians should persuade the international community that occupation and subjugation of one population by another is a dead-end street.
Further complicating things for the Israeli leadership are the circumstances that led to the latest conflagration. This has lessened international sympathy for the extreme measures Israel is using, aiming to bomb the Hamas leadership into submission.
Israeli authorities’ attempts to evict Palestinian families in East Jerusalem from homes they had occupied for 70 years, accompanied by highly provocative demonstrations by extremist Jewish settlers chanting “death to Arabs”, has contributed to a sharp deterioration in relations.
This was followed by a heavy-handed Israeli police response to Palestinian demonstrations in and around Al-Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third-holiest shrine. In turn, this prompted Hamas rocket strikes into Israel itself from Gaza.
The International Crisis Group has identified the issue that should be most concerning to Israel and its supporters:
This occasion is the first since the September 2000 intifada where Palestinians have responded simultaneously and on such a massive scale throughout much of the combined territory of Israel-Palestine to the cumulative impact of military occupation, repression, dispossession and systemic discrimination.
In a global propaganda war over Israel’s continued occupation of five million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the issue of who started this latest convulsion is relevant.
Collateral damage to Israel’s reputation is an unavoidable consequence of the use of a heavy bombardment against Hamas targets in one of the world’s most densely populated areas.
There are two million Palestinians in Gaza, a narrow strip of land between Israeli territory and the Mediterranean Sea. Many are living in refugee camps their families have occupied since they fled Israel in 1948, in what Palestinians refer to as the nakba, or catastrophe.
The deaths of an extended Palestinian family at the weekend whose three-storey home was demolished by an Israeli airstrike is a grating reminder of fallout from the use of weapons of war in civilian areas.
This is the reality of a population held hostage to an unresolved – and possibly unresolvable – conflict involving Palestinians living under occupation.
US President Joe Biden, in a phone call with Netanyahu, seemed to endorse Israel’s heavy hand. Biden’s conciliatory tone has drawn widespread criticism in view of the shocking images emanating from Gaza. These include live footage of a building housing foreign media being destroyed by an Israeli airstrike.
Belatedy, the US has sent an envoy to the region.
In Australia, politicians from both sides have called for a de-escalation.
Regionally, Arab states have expressed their support for the Palestinian cause, but remarks by their leaders have been restrained.
However, circumstances leading to the outbreak of violence, notably Israeli policing of demonstrations in places sacred to Muslims, have left Arab leaderships no choice but to condemn Israel’s actions.
A hitherto limp US response reflects the Biden administration’s hope that the Israel-Palestine issue would not be allowed to intrude on Washington’s wider Middle East foreign policy efforts. Biden is trying to entice Iran back to the negotiating table to re-energise the nuclear peace deal ripped up by former President Donald Trump.
Part of this strategy has been to calm Israel’s concerns about renewed US efforts to re-engage Iran. Those efforts have been complicated by the violence of recent days.
Washington has been reminded, if that was necessary, that the toxic Palestinian issue could not simply be shoved aside, however much the US and its moderate Arab allies would like it to go away. This was always an unrealistic expectation.
Israeli violence against Palestinians in retaliation for rocket attacks on its territory is an embarrassment for Arab states that had established diplomatic relations with Israel under pressure from the Trump administration.
The so-called Abraham Accords, involving an exchange of ambassadors between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, is at risk of being discredited in the eyes of the Arab world by the latest conflagration.
Other Arab states that established diplomatic relations with Israel, brokered by Trump officials, include Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco. Sporadic demonstrations in support of the Palestinians have occurred in the latter two countries.
Finally, this latest conflict between Israelis and Palestinians exposes the failure of various parties to advance a peace agreement based on a two-state solution.
That prospect appears further away than ever, and may even be dead given Israel’s declared intention to annex territory in the West Bank. Such action would end any possibility of compromise based on land swaps to accommodate Israeli settlements in areas contiguous with Israel itself.
These are bleak moments for those who might have believed at the time of the Oslo Declaration in 1993, and subsequent establishment of relations between Israel and the leadership of the Palestinian national movement, that peace might be possible at last.
We are now a very long way indeed from Oslo.
Anthony Billingsley, UNSWThe latest violence between Israeli and Palestinian forces should come as no surprise. The issue of Palestinian statehood has been off the international agenda since US President Barack Obama effectively washed his hands of the issue. The Trump administration then focused on Israel’s relations with other Arab states at the expense of the Palestinians.
However, the tensions underlying the current violence have been building for some time and have the potential to become particularly serious.
In East Jerusalem, Israeli settlers have been trying to seize control of Palestinian homes in Sheikh Jarrah, a historic part of the city. They have resorted to the Israeli Supreme Court, which usually supports the government and settler line in matters relating to the occupied Palestinian territories. The court’s judgement was expected this week, but was deferred.
Palestinians have also been complaining about draconian restrictions imposed on worshippers during Ramadan at the Haram al-Sharif, the area including the Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock (which is known to Jews as the Temple Mount).
Moreover, the end of Ramadan coincided with Jerusalem Day, a celebration of Israel’s capture of East Jerusalem in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, and with al-Nakba on May 15, the Palestinian day of mourning to mark the Arabs’ loss in the 1948 war.
These factors have given the unrest added ferocity.
Possible war with Gaza, or civil war
Following Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 and the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections, which were won by Hamas, violence between Israel and Palestinians in Gaza has been a regular occurrence.
There were major outbreaks in 2008 and 2014 when Israeli forces entered the area, resulting in the deaths of thousands of Palestinians.
There are worrying signs now that another Israeli incursion is being prepared — and another war will follow.
As the fighting has intensified, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court has expressed concern war crimes are being committed. Israel has been accused of resorting to disproportionate force in Gaza, and both sides have been criticised for causing civilian deaths.
A particularly worrying aspect of these clashes is that intense fighting has also broken out between Israeli Palestinians and Jews in a number of Israeli cities and towns.
While Israeli Palestinians (who are citizens of Israel) have always been concerned about the fate of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, they have tended to be left alone, and inter-communal violence has been largely avoided.
But harmony between the two groups is fragile, and this outbreak could have serious implications. Israel’s president is warning of a civil war.
Why diplomacy has failed
A major problem is there is no means of bringing about a negotiated solution to the decades-long, seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Obama attempted to initiate negotiations by appointing former Senator George Mitchell as his special envoy to the Middle East. The administration’s focus was on Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank, but it was unable to make any progress with either the Israelis or the Palestinians.
Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, developed a plan that effectively bypassed the Palestinians and focused on Israel’s relations with Arab Gulf states. This was rejected by the Palestinians.
The international community has been equally ineffective in trying to reduce tensions in recent weeks. Russia has called for a reconvening of the Quartet, a body formed under former US President George W. Bush’s administration that brought together the US, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union to promote an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan.
China, meanwhile, has urged the UN Security Council to take action to de-escalate tensions — a move that was blocked by Israel’s ally, the US.
The one party that might have the capacity to bring about a ceasefire and promote negotiations is the US. However, beyond issuing the usual platitudes of concern, President Joe Biden has defended Israel’s response to Palestinian rocket attacks.
Biden is focused largely on domestic issues and does not need the distraction of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, a highly divisive issue in American politics. Moreover, Hamas is listed as a terrorist organisation in the US, making it difficult for Biden to apply greater pressure on Israel.
Netanyahu, meanwhile, has done nothing to moderate tensions in recent weeks and his language on Gaza has become increasingly defiant. The conflict could be politically expedient for the beleaguered leader — it may help him regain the prime ministership after he was unable to form a government following recent elections.
Yair Lapid, the opposition leader who was asked by the president to try to form a government last week, has had to suspend coalition negotiations while the fighting continues. His main hope is frustration with Netanyahu will encourage his negotiating partners to continue their talks to try to oust him from power.
The Palestinian side is no better placed to enter negotiations. President Mahmoud Abbas ceased engagement with Israel as a result of what he described as Israel’s refusal to negotiate and the Trump peace plan, which was widely seen as anti-Palestinian.
Abbas had called for Palestinian legislative elections in late May and presidential elections in July, but both have been postponed indefinitely. Though he hasn’t said it outright, his concern (as well as those of Israel and the US) is his party’s rival, Hamas, would easily win.
Abbas’s decision has infuriated Palestinians and added to the tensions in the East Jerusalem and Gaza over recent weeks.
Abbas’s hand is further weakened by the lack of support from other Arab governments, such as the UAE and Egypt. The result is Abbas is an isolated, impotent figure with few friends and waning support among the people he is supposed to represent.
Where to from here?
The relationship between Israelis and Palestinians is filled with suspicion and hate built up over decades. Both sides believe their cause is just.
While Israel’s survival is not at issue here, its future could be seriously influenced by the way its leaders handle crises like this. The departure of Netanyahu could be a positive step, but will not be decisive. The two sides need the international community to help them end the fighting and find a way out of the impasse they find themselves in.
This crisis represents an early major challenge for the Biden administration, but one the new US president will likely be reluctant to take on.
Tristan Dunning, The University of Queensland and Martin Kear, University of SydneyWeeks of tensions between Palestinian protesters and Israeli security forces in East Jerusalem have boiled over in recent days, unleashing some of the worst violence between Israel and the Palestinians in years.
Israeli airstrikes in Gaza have left 30 Palestinians dead, including ten children, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promising not to ease up anytime soon. Palestinians militants, meanwhile, have launched hundreds of missiles into Israel, killing three people.
Ostensibly, the rocket launches by Hamas were a response to Israeli police storming the al-Aqsa mosque compound in East Jerusalem on Laylat al-Qadr, the Night of Power, one of the holiest nights of the year for Muslims. The incident injured hundreds over the weekend.
Hamas then issued an ultimatum demanding Israeli forces withdraw from the compound — the third holiest site in Islam, part of which comprises the Wailing Wall — by a specific deadline. When Israel refused, Hamas’s military wing followed through on its threat by firing rockets toward Jerusalem, forcing Israeli lawmakers to flee parliament.
Beyond the mosque confrontation, though, there are broader historical and political factors at work.
Monday’s airstrikes fell on Jerusalem Day, when Israeli Jews celebrate the “reunification” of Jerusalem following the Six Day War of 1967. As the ongoing unrest demonstrates, the city is far from unified.
Adding to the tensions, thousands of Jewish ultra-nationalists had planned to march through Palestinian-dominated East Jerusalem on Jerusalem Day as a demonstration of Jewish sovereignty over the entire city.
Israeli police changed the route at the last moment, partly due to the increasingly violent clashes between security forces and Palestinian demonstrators during Ramadan.
There were also concerns of unrest if the Israeli Supreme Court handed down its decision on whether four Palestinian families should be evicted from their homes in the Shiekh Jarrah neighbourhood of East Jerusalem, to be replaced by Jewish settlers. This is the culmination of a decades-long legal battle dismissed as “a real estate dispute” by Israeli officials.
This case is emblematic of the systematic appropriation of Palestinian homes and land in East Jerusalem since 1967. The seizure of Palestinian property is so common here, an Israeli settler was captured on video recently telling a Palestinian,
If I don’t steal your home, someone else will steal it.
The Biden administration has also said it is “deeply concerned” about the potential evictions, while urging leaders across the spectrum to “denounce all violent acts”.
Decades of dispossession
Israeli settlement building and expansion, especially in and around East Jerusalem, is a deliberate strategy. This is not only being done to appropriate Palestinian land, but to alter the demographics of the area and prevent the establishment of a sovereign Palestine with East Jerusalem as its capital.
Israel exclusively claims Jerusalem – home of the ancient Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism – as its eternal undivided capital.
The dispossession of Palestinians in East Jerusalem and elsewhere in the West Bank is not new. Indeed, the expulsion of Palestinians in the areas now largely recognised as the official borders of the self-defined Jewish state of Israel was required to establish a Jewish majority.
On May 14, 1948, Zionist leaders unilaterally declared the independence of the state of Israel, sparking the first Arab-Israeli War. During the war, over 400 Palestinian villages and towns were depopulated and obliterated to make way for modern Jewish towns and cities.
This Saturday marks al-Nakba, or the “Catastrophe”, for Palestinians. It is the day of mourning for the loss of historical Palestine and the expulsion of over 700,000 Palestinians from their ancestral homeland.
This process has continued throughout East Jerusalem and the West Bank since their occupation in 1967. There are now more than 5 million Palestinian refugees registered with the UN, nearly a third of whom live in refugee camps.
The plight of Palestinian refugees remains a particularly contentious issue for the two sides. A UN General Assembly resolution in 1948 asserted the right of refugees to return to the areas captured by Israel in 1948-49.
And in 1967, a UN Security Council resolution demanded Israeli forces withdraw from territories captured during the Six Day War.
International law and internal brawls
The Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem and its ongoing settler activities in the West Bank contravene international humanitarian law. They are also not recognised by the vast majority of the international community, with the notable exception of the US under the Trump administration.
Yet, Palestinian dispossession continues today with over 600,000 Israeli settlers now living across the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
The continued Israeli occupation of these territories, coupled with the appropriation of Palestinian land, are among the primary causes of conflict between the two sides.
But there are also domestic political factors at play. Hamas is a resistance organisation, which is also responsible for administering the Gaza Strip. Its legitimacy largely rests on its resistance credentials, which means the movement routinely feels obligated to demonstrate its capacity to confront perceived Israeli aggression.
This is in stark contrast to the inaction of the Hamas’ rival party, Fatah, and its leader, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has remained largely silent in recent weeks despite the loss of Palestinian lives.
Israel’s political system is also in crisis, with no party able to form a stable government after four inconclusive elections in the past two years (and now a fifth potentially in the offing).
With the government in flux, pro-settler parties – namely Naftali Bennett’s New Right Party – have become the kingmakers in the Knesset. Any aspiring government will likely need their backing to form a majority, which requires the support of pro-settler policies.
With all of this in mind, we can expect more violence, regardless of who eventually wins power in Israel. Unless the international community — in particular, the Biden administration — intervenes to find a meaningful solution to the conflict.
Two areas farmed by Israelis for more than 50 years have recently been returned to neighbouring Jordan. The first, al Ghamr (known in Israel as Zofar), is located south of the Dead Sea in the Naqab/Negev desert. The second, al Baqura (Naharayim) is found at the fertile point where a major tributary joins the Jordan River.
The association with water bodies is no coincidence: neither land would have been occupied in the first place were it not for the water that the Israeli army and kibbutzim required to sustain the farms.
The return of the lands was made possible by remarkably far-sighted clauses inserted in a 1994 peace treaty between Jordan and Israel. Unfortunately, the parts of the same agreement concerning water could not be more myopic, and ensure that one of the most arid countries in the world – Jordan – remains parched.
Meanwhile, Palestinian farmers do not have enough water. This situation is locked in by a water agreement signed with Israel in 1995, as part of the “Oslo II” process. And as the water levels drop, tensions rise. It gets worse with every scorching summer.
As it controls the most water but needs it the least, Israel has the choice to negotiate fairer agreements. But what must be challenged first is the thinking that led to the agreements in the first place – an economic doctrine which sees water as nothing more than a commodity to be sold or traded, and a political ideology that is fixated on holding on to as much water as possible.
Those who need water most have the least
The effects of the commodification of water are crystal clear at al Baqura. There, the Yarmouk river flows westwards and used to meet the Jordan River mainstream which flows south between Jordan (the country) on one side and Israel and the Palestine West Bank on the other. But these days almost every drop of the Yarmouk not used by farmers in Syria and Jordan is hoovered into a reservoir by farmers in Israel.
The Jordan River itself has run dry ever since 1964, when Israel cornered sole use of Lake Tiberias (aka the Sea of Galilee, or Lake Kinneret) near the river’s source. The Dead Sea at the river’s endpoint has been (apologies) dying, ever since.
Innovators in Israel have in the meantime perfected drip irrigation techniques, implemented impressive schemes which re-use wastewater, and built so many desalination plants that some commentators suggest it now has too much water.
Meanwhile Jordan is increasingly parched, as it hosts millions of people who have fled wars in Kuwait, Iraq, and Syria. With no surface water of its own to speak of, Jordan resorts to desalination on its tiny coastline at Aqaba. It has been encouraged to pump the expensive flows from there to the neighbouring Israeli city of Eilat, in exchange for freshwater Israel is to pump back to Jordan from (the contested) Lake Tiberias.
The Palestinian residents of the West Bank actually have less water available now than when Oslo II was signed. In Gaza, desalination is too expensive for most, and with wastewater contaminating the groundwater, “superbugs” are creating a toxic “biosphere of war”. Israel does sell a small amount of freshwater to Gaza, but most of the water it channels from Tiberias 200km to the north stops at the border – tantalisingly in view of the Gazans but out of their reach, reserved instead to grow potatoes that are exported to (a rather wetter) Europe.
Blame ideology, not climate change
There is a tendency to blame climate change or refugees for these policy choices, probably because they cannot talk back. But those who created the mess are the ones who should and can change it.
While the Israeli state doesn’t need so much water, the distribution of control over the Jordan River and associated aquifers remains a mirror reflection of the relative power between the rival states. Israel controls more water than Jordan and the Palestinians combined, and more than double its entitlement when measured against the principles of the 1997 UN Watercourses Convention.
Water that Israel promised Jordan back in the 1994 peace treaty has still not materialised. In the West Bank, Israel’s choice to hoard is expressed through the Oslo-created Israeli-Palestinian joint water committee. Because the committee approves the water lines that every new settlement in the West Bank needs, but blocks projects for Palestinian villages, water becomes an effective tool of colonialism or even ethnic cleansing.
Challenge the ideologies, rip-up the agreements
It would be straightforward to invoke guidance from the UN Watercourses Convention, if all that was required to end the Jordan River conflict was updating the agreements. The convention details how water can be shared “equitably and reasonably” and all the states involved signed up – bar Israel.
But first we must challenge the idea that water is a commodity that can be hoarded away or sold only to the highest bidder. But given the extent to which the practice is entrenched in the political and economic systems of the region, evidence and argument are not enough on their own. Researchers can highlight the damage caused by water policy, and environmentalists may question the rationale of exporting desert-grown crops to Europe. Eventually, the task is to replace the blinding ideologies with a strong sense of justice, so that unfair water sharing comes to be seen as unacceptable as slavery.
The required policy and legislation will flow naturally, once this future is seen. It happened at al Baqura and al Ghamr, and it can happen with water.