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Israel and the Eruption of "the Palestinian Volcano"

Israel and the Eruption of
 Dominique Moïsi
Distinguished Senior fellow

The new cycle of violence that erupted after Hamas fired a rocket on Jerusalem on May 10 proves that the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis remains white-hot, writes Dominique Moïsi. But it is taking a new turn, both ethnic and religious, which comes with a looming risk of civil war.

Israel is neither Iceland, nor Sicily, nor Japan, nor Indonesia. But the country has the metaphorical equivalent of a volcano at its center and periphery. This volcano, upon which the Israelis dance, erupts randomly but regularly. It is, of course, the "Palestinian question".

The current "aftershock" is all the more destabilizing because it follows an exceptionally good spell for Israel. The world admired the country for the success of its Covid-19 vaccination campaign. And was the Hebrew state not finally integrated into the region after the signing of the Abraham Accords Peace Agreement? The Israelis had new holiday destinations, so close yet so exotic: Dubai and Abu Dhabi! The Palestinian question had disappeared from the diplomatic agenda. The Palestinians themselves, more politically divided than ever, seemed resigned. The international community looked the other way. Unable to find a solution, it acted as if there was no longer a Palestinian problem. Under the embers, though, the fire was smouldering - all the more so because the Palestinians were abandoned by everyone. Arab leaders - which still claimed to support Palestine - had just demonstrated that they were much more interested in Israel’s high tech than in Palestinian stone-throwers.

The intensity of the current explosion is commensurate with Palestinian frustrations. But this particularly violent aftershock - the last one took place in the Gaza Strip seven years ago - is of a different nature. In 2014, the conflict still appeared to be "national", a battle between two peoples coveting the same land: Israelis and Palestinians. Today - perhaps partly because the idea of a sovereign and independent Palestinian state alongside Israel has largely disappeared from consciousness - it is no longer just a confrontation between Israelis and Palestinians, but between Arabs and Jews. The conflict has returned to its original dimension; the one that prevailed in 1936, when violent clashes took place between communities, notably in the city of Hebron. The start of a rebellion among Israeli Arabs is a sign that the conflict is evolving back to one defined along ethnic and religious lines.


The explosion in Jerusalem, in one of Islam’s "holy places", has fostered tensions related to the identity of Israeli Arabs.

Is it too early to raise the spectre of civil war? Israeli Arabs represent around 20% of the state’s total population. The explosion in Jerusalem, in one of Islam’s "holy places", has fostered tensions related to the identity of Israeli Arabs. Individually, the Arab citizens of Israel feel Israeli. They are aware of the mix of economic prosperity and social freedom - in short, of the modernity - in which they live.

But collectively, and emotionally, they feel "Palestinian" first and foremost. This affiliation is all the more acute now because the explosion of violence in East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, and even in the country’s "mixed" cities, reinforces suspicions about them. The less legitimate they are as "full-fledged Israelis" in the eyes of the Jewish population, the more they can only see themselves as "Arabs". The rise of increasingly extreme right-wing politics in Israel further deepens the frictions regarding their identities. Israelis speak of "pogrom-like scenes" in the "mixed" city of Lod, so close to Tel Aviv. The "Iron Dome" does not protect against images that seem, for some Israelis, to resemble the "Kristallnacht". The technology of the future is powerless to ward off the demons of the past. What use is the State of Israel if "pogroms" can take place on its land? Conversely, Arabs (or people who appear to be Arab) were lynched in several Israeli cities. These lynchings have been strongly denounced by Israeli leaders, who are now reaping the seeds of intolerance they have sown.

When Daniel Barenboim created the Divan Orchestra with his friend Edward Said, bringing together Israeli and Palestinian musicians, he said: "They can’t live together; let them play together." Music, however, cannot serve as a substitute for politics. The fundamentals of the problem remain the same. Israel’s strategic, economic, intellectual and scientific superiority has only grown stronger with time. But it is easier to control a virus than it is to restrain the emotions of a people.

Political dysfunction

This is all the more true given the ever-widening gap between the creative forces of Israeli civil society and the weakness and structural dysfunction of its political life. How can a solution be found between two peoples that are opposites in every way, except when it comes to the paralysis of their respective political systems? There are no more elections on the Palestinian side; there have been too many on the Israeli side. The Palestinians counter Israel’s strength with an air of desperation and the sense that they have nothing left to lose.

How can a solution be found between two peoples that are opposites in every way, except when it comes to the paralysis of their respective political systems?

It is possible that the United States, Egypt and Qatar, with their power, influence and money, will end up imposing a compromise on the belligerents. But the situation will probably get worse before it gets better. Israel’s superiority on the ground is certainly overwhelming. That said, as long as the Palestinians manage to maintain a ratio of 1 to 10 between Israeli losses and their own, each new victory is almost a defeat for Israel - all the more so with the new risk factor of a civil war between Israel's Jewish and Arab citizens.

An end to the current hostilities will simply be the latest truce. Nothing will be settled. Israel’s security depends mainly on its military strength, but also on its legitimacy. And this legitimacy depends on a solution to the Palestinian question.

The "Palestinian volcano" has erupted, and not for the last time. In the very short term, this eruption, or awakening, has produced two winners: Hamas on the Palestinian side, Benjamin Netanyahu on the Israeli side. The former has demonstrated the non-existence of the Palestinian Authority; the latter, his inescapable political pervasiveness. How many more generations will be "sacrificed" on the altar of these minor calculations?

Courtesy of Les Echos (first published on May 14, 2021)




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