Was it all a Netanyahu ruse?

Was the new conflict with the Palestinians ‘a made-up’ exacerbation of the disagreement between Hamas – who do not even recognise the right of Israel to exist?

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu

According to a report in The New York Times, Israel and Hamas will most likely reach a ceasefire agreement by the end of this week. This would imply an end to all Israeli attacks on Hamas infrastructure and facilities, as well as a halt of rocket fire from Hamas at Israeli cities. Israel is also demanding that Hamas stop digging attack tunnels toward Israel and halt violent demonstrations on the Gaza-Israeli border.

Officially, Israel has denied the existence of such negotiations.

Since May 10, fighting has left more than 200 people dead – most of them Palestinians killed by Israeli airstrikes in the Gaza Strip.

How did the Israeli-Palestinian conflict re-ignite?

27 days before the first rocket was fired from Gaza, a squad of Israeli police officers entered the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, brushed the Palestinian attendants aside and cut the cables of the loudspeakers that broadcast daily prayers to the faithful from four medieval minarets.

It was the night of April 13, the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. It was also Memorial Day in Israel, which honours those who died fighting for the country. The Israeli president was delivering a speech at the Western Wall, a sacred Jewish site that lies below the mosque, and Israeli officials were concerned that the Moslem prayers would drown him out.

In hindsight, the police raid on the mosque, one of the holiest sites in Islam, was one of several events that led to the sudden resumption of war between Israel and Hamas, and the outbreak of civil unrest between Arabs and Jews across Israel itself.

The deterioration was fast and led to the worst violence between Israelis and Palestinians in years and spawned unrest in cities across the occupied West Bank, and led to the firing of rockets towards Israel from a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, prompted Jordanians to march towards Israel in protest, and Lebanese protesters to briefly cross their southern border with Israel.

The loudspeaker incident was followed almost immediately by an Israeli decision to close off – purportedly as a security measure – a popular square outside the Damascus Gate, one of the main entrances to the Old City of Jerusalem where young Palestinians typically gather there at night during Ramadan. To Palestinians, it was another insult.

Many Arabs feel they are gradually being pushed out of Jerusalem – irrespective of whether they are Israeli citizens or not. Restrictions on building permits force them to either leave the city or build illegal housing, which is vulnerable to demolition orders.

So the decision to block Palestinians from a treasured communal space compounded the sense of discrimination that many have felt all their lives.

The clashes at the Damascus Gate had repercussions. Palestinian youths began attacking Jews. And that soon led to organized Jewish reprisals.

On April 21, just a week after the police raid, a few hundred members of an extreme-right Jewish group, Lehava, marched through central Jerusalem, chanting “Death to Arabs” and attacking Palestinian passers-by. On April 25, the Israeli government relented on allowing Palestinians to gather outside the Damascus Gate.

But there were other developments that significantly worsened the situation.

First was the possible eviction of six families from Sheikh Jarrah, a Palestinian neighbourhood in East Jerusalem. With a final court decision on their case due in the first half of May, regular protests were held throughout April: the Palestinians sensed that the issue was all about pushing the Arabs out of Jerusalem

And it highlighted a piece of legal discrimination: Israeli law allows Jews to reclaim land in East Jerusalem that was owned by Jews before 1948. But the descendants of thousands of Palestinians who fled their homes that year have no legal means to reclaim their families’ land.

On April 29, President Mahmoud Abbas – leader of the Fatah party – cancelled the Palestinian elections, fearing a humiliating result. The decision made Mr Abbas look weak and Hamas began to reposition itself as a militant defender of Jerusalem and elsewhere: that they could ‘do something’ while Fatah could not!

Then the most dramatic escalation of all occurred: another police raid on the Aqsa Mosque on Friday, May 7. Whose hand was behind this decision? Police officers armed with tear gas, stun grenades and rubber-tipped bullets burst into the mosque compound shortly after 8pm, setting off hours of clashes with stone-throwing protesters in which hundreds were injured. The police said the stone-throwers started it; several worshipers said the opposite.

Whoever struck first, the presence of stun grenades and bullets inside the prayer hall of one of the holiest sites in Islam on the last Friday of Ramadan – one of its holiest nights – was seen as a grievous insult to all Moslems and an attempt to stop them from going to Al Aqsa.

That set the stage for a showdown on Monday, May 10. A final court hearing on Sheikh Jarrah was set to coincide with Jerusalem Day, when Jews celebrate the reunification of Jerusalem, following the capture of East Jerusalem, in 1967. Jewish nationalists typically mark the day by marching through the Muslim Quarter of the Old City and trying to visit Temple Mount, the site on which the Al Aqsa Mosque is built.

The looming combination of that march, tensions over Al Aqsa and the possibility of an eviction order in Sheikh Jarrah, seemed to be very dangerous. The Supreme Court hearing in the eviction case was postponed. An order barred Jews from entering the mosque compound.

At the last minute, the government rerouted the Jerusalem Day march away from the Muslim Quarter. But that was too little, and far too late. By then, the Israeli Army had already begun to order civilians away from the Gaza perimeter.

Shortly after 6 pm, two weeks ago on Monday, the rocket fire from Gaza began.

The more important issue is whether the original incident when a squad of Israeli police officers entered the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem was just a coincidence or – as many suspect – an incident engineered by Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu.

The same goes for the second time the police entered the Mosque.

Following the elections, at the moment Netanyahu is in a political tight-spot as he cannot form a government and his political adversaries are eager to destroy his political career.

Was the new conflict with the Palestinians ‘a made-up’ exacerbation of the disagreement between Hamas – who do not even recognise the right of Israel to exist?

Was all this, therefore, a Netanyahu ruse to get out of the political cul-de-sac he has found himself in?