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Gelvin: Israelis having their own confrontation with racism

The images and reports coming from Israel, Jerusalem and Gaza in recent days were shocking. They were also surprising to those who thought the 2020 Abraham Accords and subsequent agreements to normalize relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan would place the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians permanently on the backburner.

As someone who has been writing and teaching about the Middle East for more than 30 years, I had no such illusions.

At its heart, the so-called “Arab-Israeli conflict” has always been about Israelis and Palestinians. And no matter how many treaties Israel signs with Arab states, it will remain so.

In a May 12 phone call, President Joe Biden assured Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of his “unwavering support for Israel’s security and for Israel’s legitimate right to defend itself and its people.” Biden was referencing the rocket attacks on Israel launched by Hamas, the Islamist group that governs Gaza.

By targeting civilians, Hamas was committing a war crime. But in all probability, so was Israel by bombing and shelling Gaza.

Despite the carnage the Hamas rocket attacks and Israeli retaliation inflicted on Israelis and Gazans prior to declaration of a ceasefire, the Biden administration has kept its focus on a sideshow, not the main event.

The main event is an unprecedented conflict that has been and still is taking place on the streets of Jerusalem, Haifa, Lod and elsewhere. It’s what scholars call an “intercommunal conflict,” pitting elements of Israel’s Jewish population against elements of Israel’s Palestinian population taking to the streets because they’ve had enough.

Hamas could not maintain its credibility it sat by while Palestinians battled Jewish Israelis in Israel. The reality is that Israel is having its Black Lives Matter moment.

As in the United States, a brutalized minority group, facing systemic racism and discriminatory acts, has taken to the streets. As in the United States, the way out starts with serious soul-searching on the part of the majority.

But after a spate of Palestinian suicide bombings in the early 2000s, which horrified Israelis and hardened their attitudes toward Palestinians, this is unlikely.

Palestinian anger can be attributed to multiple issues.

In April, Israel attempted to impede access by West Bank Palestinians to Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque. Israeli police then raided the Muslim holy site, injuring 330, in response to an alleged stone-throwing incident.

At the beginning of May, Mahmoud Abbas, president of the West Bank’s Palestinian Authority governing agency, canceled the first Palestinian legislative elections in 15 years. Finally, when the current conflict spilled over into the West Bank, Israeli occupation and continued colonization of Palestinian territory were thrown into the mix.

These significant issues explain Palestinian anger. However, the intercommunal nature of the ongoing conflagration is due to two other issues.

First, Jewish settlers have attempted to evict eight Palestinian families from homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem, where they had been settled by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in the 1950s.

Jewish neighborhoods housing more than 215,000 Israelis encircle the predominantly Palestinian eastern part of Jerusalem where Sheikh Jarrah is located.

Jewish settlers claimed a right to the homes where the families lived. They argued that Jews had owned the Palestinians’ homes before the division of the city in the aftermath of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.

For Palestinians, the attempt to evict the families is representative of Israel’s overall policy of pushing them out of the city.

It is not only serves to remind Palestinians that in a Jewish state, they are second-class citizens. It also serves to re-enact the central tragedy in the Palestinian national memory — the Nakba of 1948, when 720,000 Palestinians fled homes in what would become the state of Israel, becoming refugees.

The second reason for the intercommunal nature of the current conflict is the emboldening of Israel’s extreme right-wing politicians and their followers. Among them are latter-day Kahanists, the followers of the late Meir Kahane.

Kahane was an American rabbi who moved to Israel. His anti-Arab racism was so extreme the United States listed the party he founded as a terrorist group.

He proposed paying Israel’s Palestinians $40,000 each to leave the country. He called for the expulsion of any who refused.

Kahanism and like-minded movements are on the rise in Israel.

A Kahanist was recently elected to the Israeli Knesset, or parliament, and Netanyahu courted his support when the prime minister was attempting to form a government in 2019. Kahanists and other ultranationalist thugs — the “Proud Boys” of Israel — march through Palestinian-Israeli neighborhoods chanting “Death to Arabs” and assault them.

The current crisis began on May 6. Pro-Palestinian protesters in Sheikh Jarrah had been breaking the Ramadan fast together each night of the holiday, a custom called “iftar.”

On this particular night, Israeli settlers set up a table opposite them. In the settlers’ group was Itamar Ben-Gvir, the Kahanist deputy.

Rocks and other objects began to fly. Then the violence spread.

In the coastal city of Bat Yam, a Jewish mob marched down the street busting up Palestinian businesses, while another mob attempted to lynch a Palestinian driver. The same scene was replayed in Acre, only this time it was a Palestinian mob assaulting a Jewish man.

Another Palestinian mob burned a police station to the ground in the same city. And in a Tel Aviv suburb, a man presumed to be Palestinian was pulled from his car and beaten by Israeli Jews.

Lod is a city south of Tel Aviv with a mixed Palestinian and Jewish population. It was not only the site of a Hamas missile strike killing two Palestinians, but also of heavy fighting between Palestinian and Jewish mobs.

The fighting began after a funeral of a Palestinian man killed by an assailant presumed to be Jewish. It was so heavy at times that the Israeli government brought in border guards from the West Bank to quell the unrest.

The mayor characterized what was happening as a “civil war.”

He went on to remind residents, “The day after, we still have to live here together.” But he did not explain how this was to happen.

From The Conversation, an online repository of lay versions of academic research findings found at https://theconversation.com/us. Used with permission.

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