Through the Eyes of an Academic

By Aakash Nair | July 20, 2021

“And so these are two distinct conflicts, although, of course, related, and both are ultimately centered around Jerusalem.”  

Cover Illustration: Jorge Fernández Salas / Unsplash

Where supporting Palestine is deemed anti-Semitic and supporting Israel is deemed Islamophobic, no platform exists for the innocent on both sides to pursue justice and peace. To provide much needed political, social and historical context, we interviewed Dr. Bart Wallet from the University of Amsterdam. 

He is a historian with a special focus on Jewish history and a professor of Middle Eastern studies. Over the coming weeks, we will publish excerpts of our interview to provide an educated perspective on the various facets of this issue. 

On the eruption of violence in May, 2021

“I think, both on the side of Israel and on the side of the Palestinians, there is domestic politics involved and foreign politics. And I would say, there are two different although related conflicts going on. 

This started in East Jerusalem. There were several incidents. First, of course, threatening evictions of Palestinians from their houses in Sheik Jarrah. Second, the Israeli police changing the regulations for Ramadan in the old city of Jerusalem. And third, a very provocative march of an ultra-nationalist Jewish group, Lehava, through East Jerusalem. 

I think these three incidents are the immediate causes. They are not the ultimate causes – the deeper causes – but they incited the recent political conflict. And this started in Jerusalem because Jerusalem is, for both groups, at the center of their religious and national identity. So, anything happening over there could have far reaching consequences. 

And that’s precisely what we saw happening because it started in Jerusalem, but then it spread to Israel proper. And this was a great surprise for many Israelis. Like, why is this happening? Uprisings in Gaza, in the West Bank,  that’s what people are quite familiar with. But inside of Jerusalem and within the borders of Israel, this was not expected. The last time there was an uprising of the Arab population of Israel itself was during the second intifada in 2000. So more than 20 years ago. 

Especially in mixed neighborhoods where Jews and Arabs live side-by-side, there was this eruption of violence, of mob violence, of Arabs against Jews, of Jews against Arabs, which went to the extent that even the president of Israel was speaking about the threat of civil war inside of Israel. So, I think that is the internal conflict: between Israeli citizens, Palestinian Israelis and Jewish Israelis.

And then there is a second conflict because if something happens to Jerusalem, then also the national Palestinian population starts to participate and that is where Gaza enters and where Hamas joined by sending rockets into Israel. And then, of course, Israel was going to respond as up until today they are doing. And that’s more like another round of the Gaza war, as we’ve seen in the last two decades. And so these are two distinct conflicts, although, of course, related, and both are ultimately centered around Jerusalem.”

On the role of national politics

“Because at [that] moment, Israel [did not] have a government, so they are in the process of forming a government. And the big thing before everything happened was that, for the first time in the history of Israel, an Arab party was participating in the talks to form a government. So, for the very first time, Arabs will join the Israeli government, which is really demonstrative of the emancipation of the Arab population of Israel. And in that, gradually, they start participating more in Israeli society and they have made peace with the existence of Israel, while on the other hand, of course, cherishing their own national and religious and cultural identity.

In the Arab population within Israel, the level of unemployment is higher than any of the Israeli society at large. And so there are a lot of young men just walking on the streets and sitting there and not having a job. So, the corona crisis also contributed to this. And now what we saw is that this is even strengthened by a development on the Israeli side, which is that after 2005, Israel disengaged from Gaza and there were 10 Israeli settlements in Gaza that were flattened. The colonists had to leave over there and this was a painful moment for the right wing in Israel. And what happened after 2005, was that especially among the younger generation of the Israeli settler population, they didn’t trust the Israeli government anymore. So they became ultra-nationalists. They felt betrayed by their own government. They didn’t care anymore what the government was saying. And that’s the rise of extremist groups on the Jewish side that are like not taking care anymore of the rule of law.

So they started with the march, but they also were the ones active in the mob violence on the Jewish side. And they were also the ones that are behind these procedures to get houses where Palestinians are living, like in Sheik Jarrah. In a way, you could say, what happened is that the extreme groups hijacked the whole situation. And at this time, the President initially gave the task of forming a new government to Benjamin Netanyahu. For Netanyahu, this was also a way of reclaiming his political authority. If he doesn’t form this government, he loses his protection by law. Because he was also in a lawsuit for fraud at the time, and as long as he is prime minister, they cannot prosecute him. But as soon as he is no longer [prime minister] he has to go to court and he might end up in jail. 

And Netanyahu failed. And then Yair Lapid took over, from a more moderate political party and he was the one who wanted to include the Arab party in the coalition government. If he fails, then there would be new elections in September in Israel. And then, of course, Netanyahu is able to win the elections again because of this crisis in which he presented himself as the strong leader of Israel who is fighting for his citizens. And this is even more so because Hamas joins. 

Now the question is, why does Hamas join? For two reasons, one is Jerusalem. Two, there were also going to be elections for the Palestinian Authority. And Hamas was expected to win these elections. Everyone was thinking they are going to win not just in Gaza, but also in the West Bank, where President Abbas is now ruling. President Abbas is of the secular movement, whereas Hamas is an Islamist movement. So they have completely different political agendas. 

So you see, there is domestic politics both in Israel and Palestine. Now, President Abbas decided to cancel the elections, thus ensuring that he would remain in power. And it was already a bit before the Jerusalem conflict started. But it’s related as well. Abbas said “No elections, I’m going to stay the president and my Fatah is still ruling the West Bank, and that’s it.” 

So, Hamas is furious at President Abbas because they wanted to take over, of course. And when the problems in Jerusalem started, Hamas realized this is our opportunity to position ourselves as the real leaders of Palestine. It’s not Abbas; we are the real leaders. So we are going to send the rockets into Israel and all the Palestinians – also from the West Bank – will see that we are really fighting for Palestine. Abbas is just sitting in his palace and doing nothing. So they completely sidelined Abbas. 

Our next article in this series will address the international geopolitics that uphold and contribute to the Palestinian conflict. 

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