Israel-Palestine: a New Chapter Begins

I have the impression of being in the film Back to the Future, and to relive all the battles lost by the Palestinians and their allies amongst the anti-annexationist Israeli Left. Consider, for example, the colonisation of the Sheikh Jarrah quarter in East Jerusalem, back in the news. I filmed the arrival of the first colonists back in February 2001.

Ten years earlier, I was there at the time of their installation at Silwan, under the ramparts of the Old City, near the Mughrabi (Dung) Gate. Another example: in the South-East of the Old City, at Ras al-Amud, near the cemetery of the Mount of Olives and of Abraham’s House held by the charity Secours catholique, an American billionaire had acquired, in 2003, the titles to a plot of land. The houses on the site were destroyed and the construction of a colony had begun. The movement La Paix maintenant [Peace Now] and some Palestinian activists had demonstrated their opposition at the site, confronting the police. In vain. It is today Maale Ha Zeitim (the mount of olives), slap bang in the middle of a Muslim sector, a colony inhabited by a hundred Jewish families.

What has changed since then is the stance of Hamas, which has never shown much willingness to take on the defense of Jerusalem’s Palestinians. What fly has then piqued Hamas, the 10th May last, in deciding to launch rockets towards the Holy City, all in proclaiming itself as the defender of Sheikh Jarrah and Al Aqsa, and of Palestinian Muslims? Does the Islamist organisation intend to transcend the Israeli strategy put in place by Ariel Sharon, who has well served it in allowing it to control Gaza? To understand this situation, it is necessary to recall a little of recent history.

In 1971, as General and commander of the southern military region, Sharon is one of those to have blessed radical Islam at the baptismal fonts. His attention had been drawn to the welfare association created by Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Sharon even had the exquisite thoughtfulness to offer some jerseys and balls to the Sheikh’s football team. The Intelligence Services think that Yassin represents the antidote to the terrorism of Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization, and the military allows it to impose its fundamentalism over the entire territory, bringing down in the process the only cinema in Gaza and all the cafés that served a little alcohol. In 1988, Yassin has dropped the mask and has proclaimed the Hamas charter stipulating: ‘the Land of Palestine is an Islamic land for all generations of Muslims to come until Resurrection Day’. These Palestinian Islamists become a mirror to messianic Jews for whom the Land of Israel belongs only to the Jewish people.

For Sharon, however, the main enemy has always been the PLO, the only Palestinian organization likely to obtain territorial concessions from Israel within the framework of a peace that he judges dangerous. Becoming Prime Minister in March 2002, he will move to destroy the PLO’s institutions and will besiege Arafat’s headquarters after the Passover Massacre at the Park Hotel in Netanya, which resulted in 30 deaths and 140 people wounded. Yet the author of the attack did not come from the PLO or from Fatah but from Hamas. Hamas’ objective was to torpedo the Saudi peace initiative arranged at Beirut [28 March] by the Arab League (equally opposed by Sharon himself).

In 2004, Sharon had decided to evacuate all Israeli colonies in Gaza, their inhabitants to be transferred to Israel. On 8 October, Dov Weissglass, lawyer and Sharon’s counsellor, explained the reasoning: “Arik [Sharon] doesn’t consider Gaza to be a region of national interest by contrast with that of Judea and Samaria [the biblical name of the West Bank]. The retreat signifies the freezing of the political process. And when you freeze this process, you prevent the creation of a Palestinian state and all discussion of the refugees, on borders and on Jerusalem”.

The pull-out from Gaza is achieved without a hitch in September 2005, unilaterally, without the least coordination with the Palestinian Authority which had not been authorised to deploy a battalion of supplementary police. However, Israeli Military Intelligence had warned that, without such reinforcements, Fatah and Abbas’ police could not oppose Hamas if the latter decided to take control of Gaza by force. In June 2007, the Islamist organization moves into action. The functionaries of the Palestinian Authority are expelled or assigned to residence. The police barracks, the PLO’s Gaza Preventive Security apparatus, are subject to assault. There are more than 110 deaths and 550 wounded, most of them militants and combatants of Fatah. The Israeli army has looked on without intervening.

Two years later, returned to power, Benjamin Netanyahu has scrupulously continued to apply Sharon’s strategy to weaken the Palestinian Authority and of the PLO. No political accord is concluded with Mahmoud Abbas, powerless in the face of ongoing colonization of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Donald Trump has contributed by transferring the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and in pushing several Arab states to normalize their relations with Israel, independently of any advance towards a solution to the Palestinian problem.

In the face of the Islamists, Netanyahu has maintained the partial blockade of Gaza, but has authorized the financing of Hamas by Qatar. Regularly, a private jet lands at Ben Gurion airport near to Tel Aviv. The Qatari emissary descends with his suitcases full of cash. The Israeli police escort him to the Erez Crossing where the money is handed over to Hamas. In ten years, the sums will total around two billion dollars. One has no idea of sums sent by Iran which, over the years, has allowed the Islamist organizations to develop their military capacities. Their missiles threaten Tel Aviv, the Ben Gurion airport, and the centre of the country. Israel has then only two options to confront them – ceasefire accords (as on occasion) or a military reoccupation by the IDF [Tsahal], which could involve – with no guarantee of success – terrible bloodshed.

However, the geopolitical environment has changed. Benjamin Netanyahu has left power. A new government is installed at Jerusalem. Donald Trump has gone, replaced by Joe Biden who is favourable to a two-state solution – boosting the Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas. Strong from the regime of deterrence that it has put in place against Israel, Hamas has passed to a new stage of its strategy and presents henceforth its battle as that of the entire Palestinian community from the River to the Sea. A new chapter of the Israel-Palestinian conflict thus begins.

This article appeared on Mediapart, and has been translated by Evan Jones.

Charles Enderlin has reported from Israel for 50 years. His latest book is De notre correspondant à Jérusalem, Don Quichotte, 2021.