No war, no retreat: Mideast foes resume risky balancing act
Days of violence in Jerusalem and an exchange of fire in the Gaza Strip overnight have raised the possibility that Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers will once again go to war, as they did less than a year ago under similar circumstances.
This time around, Israel and Hamas have strong incentives to avoid all-out war. But neither wants to be seen as retreating from a Jerusalem holy site at the heart of the century-old Mideast conflict, so further violence cannot be ruled out.
“At this stage it’s political theater in which everybody is playing his part,” said Gideon Rahat, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank. “But sometimes the gun that appears in the first scene will shoot at the end.”
For Hamas, another war would be devastating for Gaza, which has hardly begun to rebuild after the last one. And Israel would wield a potent new weapon: the ability to revoke thousands of work permits issued in recent months that provide an economic lifeline to Palestinians in the blockaded territory.
For Israel, war could set back efforts to sideline the conflict and damage burgeoning ties with Arab states. The broad-based governing coalition, which lost its majority this month, is at a small but growing risk of having a key Arab partner bolt, which would set the stage for new elections.
All of those factors help explain the relative restraint up until now: Israel intercepted the Gaza rocket, its retaliatory airstrikes caused little damage, and no one was hurt. Neither Hamas nor any other group claimed the launch.
At the same time, neither Israel nor Hamas can be seen as backing down over a major holy site in East Jerusalem that is sacred to Jews and Muslims, where Palestinians and Israeli police clashed over the weekend.
The Al Aqsa Mosque is the third-holiest site in Islam. Palestinians view it as the one tiny part of their homeland that has yet to be taken over by Israel, which seized East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza in the 1967 Middle East War.
Hamas’ popularity skyrocketed last year when it was seen as defending the shrine — even at a devastating cost to Palestinians in Gaza. The internationally recognized Palestinian Authority, which cooperates with Israel on security, faced a massive backlash.
“Hamas would like the pressure against Israel to continue from the West Bank, from East Jerusalem, without giving Israel an excuse to launch a major war against Hamas and the Palestinians in Gaza,” said Mkhaimar Abusada, a political science professor at Gaza’s Al Azhar University.
The hilltop on which the mosque is built is the holiest site for Jews, who refer to it as the Temple Mount because it was the location of the Jewish temples in antiquity. Under long-standing arrangements, Jews are allowed to visit the site but not pray there. But in recent years, large numbers of nationalist and religious Jews have regularly toured the site and discreetly prayed there under the protection of Israeli police.
The visits are seen as a provocation by the Palestinians and neighboring Jordan, a close Western ally that serves as custodian of the site. But any effort to limit them would expose the government to severe criticism from Israel’s dominant right-wing parties, which would portray it as a capitulation to the country’s enemies.
Such a move would be even more fraught now, during the weeklong Jewish holiday of Passover, which this year coincides with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Israeli authorities say they are committed to ensuring freedom for worship for Jews, Christians and Muslims, with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett blaming the recent violence on a “Hamas-led incitement campaign.”
Israel hopes to prevent a repeat of last year, when weeks of protests and clashes in and around Al Aqsa helped trigger an 11-day Gaza war.
In recent months, Israel issued thousands of work permits to Palestinians in Gaza, which has been under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade since Hamas seized power from rival Palestinian forces 15 years ago. It also allows tens of thousands of Palestinians from the occupied West Bank to work in construction and other mostly menial jobs in Israel, where wages are far higher.
Israeli leaders portray the permits as a goodwill measure, but they also help Israel maintain its military rule over millions of Palestinians, which is now well into its sixth decade.
The permits can be canceled at any time, and Israel — citing security concerns — prohibits nearly all forms of public Palestinian opposition to the occupation.
For Hamas, the suspension or cancellation of the permits would push tens of thousands of Gaza residents back into severe poverty and halt the flow of millions of dollars into the economy.
Abusada says that might deter Hamas, but not if it believes Israel is crossing a red line at Al Aqsa. “It’s a limited deterrence that cannot be taken for granted forever,” he said.
Israel faces risks of its own.
Bennett’s government has worked to improve ties with neighboring Jordan and Egypt, Arab states that made peace with Israel decades ago but support the Palestinian cause.
The Jewish visits to Al Aqsa have infuriated Jordan, which accuses Israel of violating arrangements at the site and summoned an Israeli diplomat in protest this week. Jordanian Prime Minister Bisher Khasawneh went so far as to praise Palestinians who “threw rocks in the face of the profane Zionists, protected by the occupation.”
The United Arab Emirates, the first of four Arab countries to normalize relations with Israel through the so-called Abraham accords in 2020, summoned a recently appointed Israeli ambassador on Tuesday over the events at Al Aqsa.
The United States, Israel’s closest ally, is calling on all sides to show restraint.
Within Israel, a small Arab party that made history last year by joining the governing coalition — giving it a razor-thin majority after four gridlocked elections — suspended its participation Sunday over the rising tensions.
The move was largely symbolic, as parliament is currently in recess — one rival lawmaker compared it to dieting during the fasting month of Ramadan.
The tensions are unlikely to bring down the government because a majority of lawmakers would have to vote for early elections. That would probably require cooperation between the right-wing opposition, led by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Arab parties that despise him — an even heavier lift at a time of war.
“If there will be a true conflict, I don’t think in the short term it will threaten the current government,” said Rahat, the Israeli political scientist. “In the long run, it all depends on the framing or the interpretation of the result of such a conflict.”
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