The Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades of the military wing of Hamas began the Gazan dimension in the current violence on 10 May by launching seven missiles towards Jerusalem, contrary to its previous practice of limiting missiles to the envelope around the Gaza strip. The missiles, with a range of 120 kilometers (75 miles), carried high-explosive warheads. Up until today, over 3,000 missiles have been launched.
The claim was that they were sent as a response to Israeli police actions on the plaza in front of the Al Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, the Al-Haram Al-Sharif, what for Jews is the Temple Mount. The Israeli police authorities had cut the electricity to the loudspeakers on the minarets at the mosque when the mosque authorities there would not turn down the volume. With 70,000 worshippers gathering for the end of Ramadan, some began raining stones down on the Jewish worshippers praying below at the Wailing Wall. The Israeli police then attacked the “rioters” who had collected rocks and stones within the mosque. The police threw stun grenades and shot rubber bullets and tear gas at the Palestinians.
That was not the only instigation.
The Israeli police in a step that was unprecedented put barriers up on the plaza in front of Damascus Gate where the worshippers gathered after prayers to socialize and gossip. Further, 2 miles north of Damascus Gate, a dispute had been underway for decades between the Jewish owners of the land under four houses in Sheikh Jarrah as part of an effort to clear out 13 Palestinian families from their homes.
Everyone was awaiting a final order of eviction for the residents that had occupied their homes since they had been built by the Jordanians in 1956. Those residents believed that they had purchased those home in return for surrendering their UNRWA refugee cards, but the legal records did not support that claim even though Jordan attested to its truth. The residents would not accept the compromise offered by the Supreme Court to be allowed to remain in possession until the original inhabitant died, provided they paid rent and recognized who truly owned the land.
The Israeli actions in Jerusalem on the Haram Al-Sharif, the attack on the worshippers in the mosque, and the legal eviction proceedings, had just been preceded by the announcement by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas cancelling the elections scheduled for 21 May on the claimed reason that Israel had prevented the election by not permitting East Jerusalemites permission to vote within East Jerusalem. Hamas saw all these events as an opportunity to seize the leadership of the whole Palestinian resistance movement by grabbing the headwinds of the maelstrom about to ensue. Further, they all reinforced a narrative of displacement and replacement, as did the process of gentrification in mixed Jewish-Palestinian towns that aroused so much resentment by the Palestinians.
Hamas grabbed the mantle of militant resistance and sent forth its fusillade of rockets. What Hamas had not counted on was how strong, sustained and successful Israeli retaliation would be. In the reprisal attacks, the IDF killed the Gaza City brigade commander, the head of Hamas’ cyber unit and missile development, the head of the projects and development department, the head of the engineering department, the commander of military intelligence’s technical department and the head of industrial equipment production.
Israel had wiped out a good part of Hamas’ military leadership. But after misruling Gaza and getting into war after war with Israel, Hamas had nevertheless positioned itself as the Palestinian Authority’s challenger and leader of the resistance against Israel. It had opted to participate in the Palestinian legislative and presidential elections from which it could emerge victorious whether the elections went ahead against a divided Fatah or if the elections were canceled and Hamas could assume the militant leadership in confronting Israel.
However, Hamas could not easily negotiate a cease fire. The odds went increasingly in Israel’s favour. By a feint ground attack by Israel, Hamas militants had sought safety in a warren of tunnels from which they could emerge to attack the Israeli invaders only to find they were trapped and subjected to penetrating bombs of the Israeli aircraft that blew apart the expensively-built places intended to provide security for the militants.
In the meanwhile, relative to the 2014 war, the civilian casualty count had been kept relatively low. Recall that in the 2001 war, over 4,000 Gazans were killed. In 2014, over 2,100 were killed, at least 75% being claimed as civilians, though Israel insisted the majority were militants. Israel in 50 days of warfare lost 65 soldiers and 6 civilians. Thus far in this war between Gaza and Israel, even based on the Gazan Health Ministry count in which a death is counted as a civilian if no armed group claims the casualty as a member, 200 have been declared dead on the Palestinian side after the most intense military barrage in the shortest period in all the battles. The whole of Gaza literally shook. The previous day, 42 Palestinians had been killed, including 8 children and 2 doctors, one a renowned cardiologist.
In Israel, 10 have died and only one a soldier. One six-year-old child lost his life. As each day goes by, the ratio between Gazan deaths and Israeli deaths grows and the gap has already become very wide. The gap between the wounded is not nearly as great, 1,200 on the Palestinian side and 282 on the Israeli side. Never before has Hamas fired off so many missiles in such a short time – 3,000. Never before has a significant number of them landed in Gaza and been responsible for some of the dead and wounded. Never before have so many got past the Israeli Iron Dome defence system.
Israel this time is determined once and for all to wipe out Hamas’ offensive and missile manufacturing capability and to extend the conflict this time until that is accomplished. The question will be when the international outcry against the death and destruction in Gaza will get so loud and so shrill and the pressure on Israel so great that Israel will accede to a ceasefire agreement with Hamas.
One factor propelling the strong Israeli response is the unprecedented large-scale rioting in Israel’s mixed cities in which Palestinian Israelis attacked synagogues in Lod, the mosaic museum there and burned down restored antiquities buildings in Acre. A novel front had been opened up in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in which Hamas elements offered leadership to criminal gangs that had been allowed by the Israeli police to take over Arab neighbourhoods. The gangs have now been politicized and Israel was more determined than ever to teach the leadership in Gaza a very severe lesson. The Palestinians counted on the intervention of the international community to cut their losses and deliver them a moral victory as well as the crown for leadership of the Palestinian resistance. Thus far, 19 have been killed in the West Bank as well.
António Guterres, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, had warned that the “fighting could have far-reaching consequences if not stopped immediately.” The Israeli authorities could not agree more, but they were looking forward to very different consequences this time that would finally eliminate Gaza as a source of aggression against Israel. No longer would Israel attempt to buy a few temporary years relatively free from missile attacks in return for allowing Qatar to support Gaza with funds. No longer would Israel provide energy to the Gaza Strip. Israel had underestimated the risks Hamas was willing to take to assume the mantle of Palestinian leadership. At the same time, Israel has been unwilling to go all the way and allow the economy of the Gaza Strip to be opened wide in the hope that monies would be invested in infrastructure and not tunnels and missile manufacturing.
Hamas was far less risk averse than Israel believed and Israel now seemed more determined than ever to deliver a very fast and overwhelming blow to this small strip of land packed with over two million Palestinians.
However, behind the whole conflict has been the victory of a new dominant narrative for the Palestinians that had been percolating in the intellectual underground and the Palestinian propaganda efforts in North America and Europe. Israel is a colonial settler state practicing apartheid and determined from the start to displace and replace Arabs in Palestine with Jews. This story is being widely sold. The conflicts over the Haram Al-Sharif, the barricades at the Damascus Gate, but especially the eviction efforts in Sheik Jarrah, are all evidence to this diabolical plan.
At the core was the question: why should Israeli Jews be entitled to reclaim land in East Jerusalem when Arab residents of East Jerusalem could not reclaim their lost land in Israel? Further, why did Jews enjoy a right of return to Israel when their families had never lived there for at least a hundred generations while Palestinians who remembered living in their homes before 1948 were not allowed to move back and reclaim their homes. Once again, the right of return had returned to the forefront of the dispute when it had finally been conceded unofficially by negotiators at Oslo that the right might be acceded to in principle but in practice there would only be a token return. Once again, Palestinians were insisting on the right of return and insisting that, at the very least, East Jerusalem and the Old City belonged to them, with many arguing that the whole land had to be freed from the clutches of the racist ethnic cleansing Zionists.
Peter Beinart in a recent article, “Tshuvah: A Jewish Case for Palestinian Refugee Return,” (11 May 2021) offered an argument for acceding to the right of return and, in so doing, revealed that, in spite of Peter’s well-intentioned efforts, he neither understands the meaning of refugee return either generally or in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, nor offers a sound interpretation of Tshuva.
The first misunderstanding is over the concept of refugees. Beinart opens his essay with a dispute with AIPAC’s challenge to including the descendants of refugees into the category of refugees. It is a charge endorsed by the Zionists of America (ZOA) and Israel’s Ambassador to the US and UN, Gilad Erdan. “The fundamental problem with UNRWA, according to this line of argument, is that it treats the children and grandchildren of Palestinians expelled at Israel’s founding as refugees themselves.”
This is unique in the world. The children of refugees who flee and are born outside the state from which their parents fled generally have no claim on return. They may be refugees still, but, unlike the Palestinians, they are not by necessity defined as refugees. It depends on their circumstances. However, UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, “treats the children and grandchildren of Palestinians expelled at Israel’s founding as refugees themselves. Establishment Jewish critics don’t blame UNRWA merely for helping Palestinians pass down their legal status as refugees, but their identity as refugees as well.”
“In The War of Return, a central text of the anti-UNRWA campaign, the Israeli writers Adi Schwartz and Einat Wilf allege that without UNRWA, refugee children ‘would likely have lost their identity and assimilated into surrounding society.’ Instead, with UNRWA’s help, Palestinians are ‘constantly looking back to their mythologized previous lives’ while younger generations act as if they have ‘undergone these experiences themselves.’ To Schwartz and Wilf’s horror, many Palestinians seem to believe that in every generation, a person is obligated to see themselves as if they personally left Palestine.”
But this is Shevuot when Jews across the world are asked to imagine themselves as once again at Mount Sinai when God delivered the ten commandments. Don’t Jews everywhere religiously chant, “Next year in Jerusalem.” Why should Jews not very readily understand this feeling among Palestinians? As Beinart asks, “Why is dreaming of return laudable for Jews but pathological for Palestinians?”
Instead of trying to answer the question, Beinart engages in advocacy. He tries to pull the ground from underneath the question by insisting that if Jews are to be coherent and consistent they must grant Palestinians the same right of return that they themselves now enjoy. It is the height of irony for Jews to tell Palestinians to assimilate in other lands while they themselves insist on returning, or, at the very least, the right to return to their homeland. For Peter, it is not that Palestinians should forget the Nakba but that Jews should remember the reasons for the catastrophe and “understand why they (the Palestinians” deserve a chance to return.” For Peter, the moral distinction between the Jewish “right of return” and the denial of the Palestinian right of return makes no moral sense.
The Jewish argument on which the Oslo Accords were based offered a compromise, a two-state solution in which Palestinians could return to those parts of the West Bank ceded to the Palestinian Authority as the geographical foundation for their own state. But with settler encroachment, that segment of the land became smaller and smaller. The Gaza Strip consisting of 70% of people who were refugees or are descended from refugees is already densely packed. Palestinians who make up almost the same number as the Jews living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea are to be relegated to the Gaza Strip and, at most, one-quarter of the rest of the land – but, of course, the land Palestinians continue to own within Israel is not counted.
Peter argues that the justification of expulsion and the denial of the remedy of return and restitution is a fatal challenge to the very foundational principles of Zionism. Beinart’s position: “Refugee return therefore constitutes more than mere repentance for the past. It is a prerequisite for building a future in which both Jews and Palestinians enjoy safety and freedom in the land each people calls home.”
Tomorrow: Beinart’s defence of his position