It is important to revisit the source of the Hamas war in May to expose the underlying political and strategic trends that drove the situation to the point of eruption. Moreover, none of these trends are effectively suppressed or resolved as a result of the war that followed, which means that the coming months will quite likely remain tense for Israel, and quite possibly again become very violent.
This dangerous dynamic is exacerbated by the failure of the United States to preemptively and strongly signal that it will not allow a wedge to be driven between Washington and Jerusalem. Instead, there is a strong expectation among various Palestinian factions and their foreign patrons that the opposite will occur and that any further violence will only build greater tension between Israel and the United States. This then would further encourage the eruption of violence which aligns with the underlying interests of the various Palestinian factions and surrounding ambitious Turkish and Persian neighbors.
Context is everything.
Early this year, against the advice of most of his closest aides, PA president Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) called for the first Palestinian elections in well over a decade, to be held at the end of May. It appears to have been a horrible miscalculation. By the end of March, it was painfully clear to him and everyone else that not only would he not win, but would be trounced, with both Hamas and Marwan Barghouti’s faction of the PLO defeating him.
To avoid such a devastating humiliation, it was clear by very early April that Abu Mazen would have to cancel those elections, which he eventually did the first week of May. And yet, cancelling the elections was not simple, since both Abu Mazen’s aides and Hamas leaders made it clear that the latter would take to the streets in a violent upheaval against the PA and Abu Mazen if he did. Abu Mazen saw no way out except to provoke a series of escalations that would externalize the anticipated violence, and then deflect the blame onto Israel.
As such, the resulting two months of escalation, culminating in war, were set by Abu Mazen, who can properly be labelled as the crisis’ original arsonist.
Beginning in April
Politics among Palestinian factions is often battled out through the currency of Jewish blood. Once the PA embarked on an escalatory path, that escalation multiplied to as many factions as there are among Palestinians and Israeli Arabs. Like the epic art of Middle Eastern storytelling, the singular “umbrella” theme of escalation is actually the product of many separate sub-tales woven into other tales which align into a shell or framework story. In this case, that unifying shell tying these separate tales together represents a very real moment of danger.
In early April, there was a sudden escalation of attacks on Israeli Jews, many of which were serious and violent enough to result in hospitalization. As the Palestinian Media Watch, and FLAME – an organization dedicated to accuracy in media – noted, the Palestinian official media organs started broadcasting highly inflammatory and bloody rhetoric starting on April 2. Two particularly disturbing attacks, one a beating by three Arab youths of a Rabbi in Jaffa, in the southern part of Tel Aviv, and another when an Arab spilled boiling liquid on a Jew entering the Old City of Jerusalem, were followed by violent Arab demonstrations when police attempted to arrest the perpetrators.
Palestinians Organizing Through Social Media
Palestinians conducting these attacks in early April filmed their exploits and posted them to TikTok to compete for the greatest number of “likes” and “approvals.” This wave of Palestinian attacks on unsuspecting Jews became so prevalent that the escalation was dubbed the “TikTok Intifada.”
After two weeks of these violent attacks, a small group of extremist Jews marched in the streets of Jerusalem calling for harming Arabs. Small demonstrations in Jaffa near the area of the April 20 attack on the Rabbi also took place. There were no similar acts or Jewish demonstrations prior to this. There were also one or two localized acts of anonymous Jewish graffiti-spraying with hateful slogans, and the destruction of a few trees.
These incidents were isolated and limited. Israeli authorities investigated and will prosecute them. Moreover, subsequent investigations, even by leftist human rights organizations like BeTzelem, have been forced to admit they had been misled and thus must retract some of their accusations of Jewish violence, particularly arson, which turned out to be acts of Palestinian arson. The actual Jewish demonstrations and disturbances were quickly suppressed by Israeli police and largely disappeared.
In contrast, Arab demonstrations accelerated, expanded, broadened geographically, and became increasingly violent. The leadership of the PA continued to use its media outlets not to calm the flames, but to pour high-octane fuel on them. This incitement includes songs and chanting of slogans calling for martyrdom and blood in children’s programs across all age groups, even toddlers.
Another series of attacks centered on the Damascus Gate leading into the Old City. This campaign of violence, especially a series of beatings of Jews and riots in Jerusalem, Jaffa and at the Damascus Gate on April 12, led Israel to set up barriers on April 13 to control flow, keep potentially violent Jewish and Arab extremists separated, and maintain pedestrian traffic control to segment and respond quickly to rioting attempts by either side. When a large number of Arab agitators quickly surged toward the area that evening, the barriers proved inadequate, and several days of escalating nightly Arab riots against Israeli police ensued, which eventually provoked a smaller Jewish demonstration and unrest on April 20.
Hamas Joins the Violence
It was not long before the border with Gaza heated up as well, and rockets were launched into Israel – weeks before anyone noticed Sheikh Jarrah or any Israeli action on the Temple Mount. One night in late April registered nearly three dozen rocket attacks onto Israeli towns and cities near Gaza. The northern border heated up as well, with an increased pace of activity by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to establish its ability to attack Israel, followed by a series of Israeli strikes in Syria to diminish that capability. After one Israeli strike, a stray Syrian SA-5 missile flew nearly 200 km across Israel and landed near Israel’s nuclear reactor in Dimona.
In the first week of May, the escalation continued. The PA then formally canceled its planned elections and blamed Israel, after which the long-silent head of the Hamas military structure, Muhammad Deif, suddenly resurfaced to call for violent attacks, to include also “hit and run” attempts to run over Israelis. On May 2, live-fire weaponry was re-introduced when a Palestinian terrorist, Muntazir Shalabi and a driver, machine-gunned three Israelis waiting at a bus stop at Kfar Tapuah Junction in the territories. One Israeli teenager, Yehuda Guetta, died and another is in serious condition. A third escaped with moderate injuries. Guitta was the first Israeli to die to live-fire in a terror attack in years.
On May 5, Hamas resumed incendiary balloon attacks, which this time included not only incendiary devices attached to set fires in Israeli fields, but also small bombs which could have caused considerable personal injury or death if they landed close to people in Israel.
On Friday May 7, Israeli forces stopped a heavily armed squad originating in Tulkarem that was attempting to enter central Israel. Israeli forces identified the terrorists, who were driven in a minibus with stolen Israeli tags. When stopped, the three terrorists exited the minibus and initiated firing near the Salem military base checkpoint but failed to injure any Israelis, while two of the three terrorists were killed.
Finally, by nightfall on May 7, riots had erupted on the Temple Mount, with hundreds injured, including many police. Rioters retreated into the mosques on the Temple Mount, and police were forced to take positions up near them. This put Israel in the difficult position of being accused of “aggression” against the Temple Mount and threatening the “status quo.” The concept of status quo itself is odd since over the last two decades it has been fluid rather than static, masking constantly expanding challenges to Israeli sovereignty and Jewish and Christian access to the Temple Mount, at the hands of the increasingly restrictive Muslim Waqf, which at this point answers mostly to the PA.
A broader context also intruded. Several parties, both Palestinian factions as well as external actors including Iran and Turkey, see a need and opportunity to incite escalation against Israel on many fronts, of which popular unrest was the first phase. The escalatory interests of the PA, Erdogan’s government in Turkey, and the revolutionary regime in Iran emanate from a sense of threat to their regimes from grave crises internally that rattle their governments in dangerous ways. There is also a rising expectation that any increase in violence surrounding Israel will cause tension between Jerusalem and Washington under the Biden administration, thus providing a strategic incentive to engage in just such an escalation. Such a reflexive reaction has been a consistent theme greeting every new administration in which there was hope that it might be less pro-Israel.
The Role of Israeli Arabs
The internal Israeli Arab dimension is crucial. In the recent elections, an Arab party, the United Arab List (Ra’am) under Mansour Abbas, gained almost as many seats in the Israeli parliament (Knesset) as the traditional leadership represented by the Joint Arab List party led by Ayman Oudeh.
Mansour Abbas’s party gained this traction because the Israeli Arab population is facing a series of grave crises in such areas as crime, education, and the economy. There is popular erosion of support for the traditional leadership, since it fails to deliver on issues that are important to average people. And patience is stretched for continued sacrifice for the elites’ obsessive, theoretical support for unattainable nationalist aspirations.
Mansour Abbas’ party promised to work within the framework of any Israeli government as a normal parliamentary party to secure the interests of its constituents. Rather than respond competitively, the “establishment” the Joint Arab List continued peddling an anti-Zionist, pan-Arab agenda that sacrificed its ability to enter the parliamentary power structure to leverage for constituents’ interests. It continued to opt for international applause for its rhetorical and entirely disenfranchising nationalist behavior.
Traditional Israeli Arab leadership, anchored to the Joint Arab List, instigated some of the recent violence in order to embarrass and undermine the rising support for Ra’am. The Joint Arab List under Oudeh even provoked direct violent attacks on Mansour Abbas and some in his party in Um al-Fahm in May, designed to shame Ra’am’s leadership enough to force it into expressing support for the unrest, which would sabotage the party’s ability to deliver on its promise and enter an Israeli government.
Thus, the Arab rioting, the climate of tension created by the impressive performance of Ra’am in the Israeli election, followed by the violence instigated at the behest of Abu Mazen and then Hamas and Islamic Jihad, were not themselves the whole story. They were a prelude to attempts to lay the groundwork for a more dangerous escalation that erupted at a very high level in the following days and weeks, served not only the interests of diversion noted regarding Abu Mazen, but foreign actors who seek to drive a wedge between Israel and the United States.
A Cheap Shot at Israel
A final, disturbing, and novel dimension of this current escalatory cycle is that it is attended by a considerable footprint from U.S. territory. First is the clearly coordinated advance propaganda campaign to multiply the tensions it would cause in U.S.-Israeli relations. With blazing speed after the PA and Hamas had signaled there would be an escalatory cycle, pro-Palestinian voices in the United States mobilized to secure this narrative. The Middle East Institute’s Khaled Elgindy, publishing in Foreign Policy, is a revealing example of the effort. He wrote:
The unrest began on April 13 – around the start of Ramadan – when Israeli authorities blocked off the steps to the Old City’s iconic Damascus Gate in Palestinian East Jerusalem. The seemingly arbitrary move sparked several days of clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli security forces.
There was nothing arbitrary about Israel’s moves at the Damascus gate on April 13, since for weeks before the restriction, accelerating numbers of unprovoked attacks, incited by Palestinian leaders, occurred on Jews in both Jerusalem and in Jaffa. So why April 13, an arbitrary mile marker midstream in a series of escalating activities? Because it was the start of Ramadan. The implication is insidious: the Israelis chose to out of the blue attack Muslims in Jerusalem on that day of all days since it marked the beginning of the most holy month. Israel is subtly accused of launching a grave religious attack on Islam itself – a highly incendiary implication.
Elgindy’s article must be characterized not as an attempt to illuminate, but much more as an attempt to serve as a calculated propaganda offensive coordinated with the determined effort of escalation started by Abu Mazen now joined by Hamas and Islamic Jihad as well as Iran and Turkey. The use of the word “arbitrary” to characterize Israeli actions is a propaganda device to not only to obscure, but to erase the context of Israel’s actions rather than effort to bring about understanding.
Sheikh Jarrah as a Flashpoint
The Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood has deep historical importance to both Jewish and Muslim communities, but there is even more legal and strategic importance.
Sheikh Jarrah is in the strategic triangle between the green line, the French Hill, and Givat Hamiftar connecting Israel to Mount Scopus. In 1948 the neighborhood’s three sections housed about 125 Arab families who had moved there in the 1930s and 1940s and about 80 Jewish families who lived in the neighborhood since the Ottoman era. The area was successfully secured by the Harel brigade of the Haganah in early 1948. British soldiers, not Arabs, attacked and removed the area from Israeli control, forcing the Jewish families to leave and turning it over to Arab forces.
When Israel reunified Jerusalem and the surrounding areas in 1967, the Jewish families that had been expelled two decades earlier asserted their land deeds. A decision by Israel’s Supreme Court in 1972 ruled the Jewish claims were valid, and thus ownership was theirs. But it also ruled that for practical reasons, any Arab family that occupied would be protected from eviction if they agreed to pay rent to the Jewish owners. Recently, Arabs have come forward with counterclaims, all of which are proving to be forgeries.
In 1972, a number of families did accept the Israeli Supreme Court formula and paid rent, but a much larger number of families simply ignored the law and refused to pay. The current issue of eviction is about some of those families that have refused to pay rent since 1972.
American politicians, including Senator Elizabeth Warren, added to tensions with highly incendiary and destabilizing claims that the Jewish land ownership deeds constitute an “abhorrent” and “illegal” act of occupation and settlement. Such statements display such insensitivity to or ignorance of the history of the neighborhood. Or worse, an anti-Semitic outlook that holds that Jewish titles and land deeds simply do not count. One can only hope the motivation is ignorance. Nonetheless, these statements greatly inflamed the situation by encouraging Arab rioters to believe their mayhem was gaining traction. The statements by the U.S. government, while less flagrantly ignorant or prejudicial, have been weak and disturbingly neutral as well, which also enflames the situation.
The Hamas attacks against Israel were not a mutually reinforcing “cycle of violence” between two sides, but a concerted offensive serving the strategic aims of a number of Israel’s enemies. This, then, is the key dynamic: tension, feuds, and violence among Palestinian factions, exacerbated by outside countries with particular interests, and laying blame on Israel for the resulting warfare.
The more the United States tries to accelerate efforts for peace without recognizing the other factors, the more it opens space for distance between Jerusalem and Washington. This weakens Israel, which encourages those who are its enemies to pile on and escalate, and those who sought to make their peace with Israel already – such as the Israel Ra’am party or the UAE – to hunker down and run for cover.
David Wurmser, Ph.D. is a Senior Analyst and Director of the Project on Global Antisemitism and the U.S. Israel relationship at the Center for Security Policy. A version of this article was published by CSP.