By ordering a brutal attack against Palestinian worshipers inside Al-Aqsa Mosque on the 14th day of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu knew very well that the Palestinians would retaliate.
Netanyahu’s motive should be clear. He wanted to generate a distraction from the mass protests that have rocked Israel, starting in January, and divided Israeli society around ideological and political lines, in ways never witnessed before.
Unwilling to relinquish his hard-earned achievement of finally winning a decisive election and forming an entirely rightwing coalition, while fearing that major concessions to his political rivals could eventually dissolve his government, Netanyahu set his sights on the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
History has proven that Israeli attacks on Palestinian holy places are a guarantor of a Palestinian response. For Netanyahu, and also his National Security Minister, Itamar Ben Gvir, the price of Palestinian retaliation was worth the political gains of unifying Israelis of all political backgrounds behind them. For Ben-Gvir, in particular, the attack against Al-Aqsa would reassure his far-right religious constituency of his commitment to restoring full Israeli Jewish sovereignty over Palestinian Muslim and Christian holy places in the occupied city.
What Netanyahu and his allies may have not anticipated, however, is the intensity of the Palestinian response as hundreds of rockets were fired, not only from besieged Gaza but, even more strategically important, from South Lebanon, towards the northern and southern parts of the country.
Though some damage was reported, the attacks were a political game changer, as it was the first time in years that fighters in two Arab countries coordinated their retaliatory action against Israel and hit back simultaneously.
It will be difficult for Netanyahu to claim any kind of victory after this, unless he takes his country to a major war on two fronts – three, if we are to consider the rise of armed resistance in the Occupied Palestinian West Bank.
However, even a major war could backfire. During the Israeli attack on Gaza in 2014, Israel struggled to sustain a single military front as the war lasted 51 days, leading to an Israeli munition crisis. Were it not for the decision of the Barack Obama Administration to ship massive supplies of munition to Israel to fill its depleted arsenal, Israel could have found itself in an unprecedentedly difficult situation.
The United States, however, is no longer able to play the role of the emergency weapons supplier, at least for now, due to its own ammunition shortage resulting from the Ukraine war. Hence, Israel was careful not to exaggerate in its response to Palestinian and Lebanese rockets. This episode, however, shall prove decisive, as it will empower Israel’s regional enemies, and, instead of boosting, it could potentially undermine Netanyahu’s credibility among his own right-wing camp.
But how could Israel’s most experienced leader in history commit such an obvious strategic error?
Aside from desperately making the decision to attack Al-Aqsa – and likely under pressures from Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich – Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders often miscalculate the significance of the spiritual component of the Palestinian struggle, and how it ties to Arab and Muslim solidarity with Palestine.
What is currently taking place in Palestine is not a religious war, but some Israeli officials and political parties are keen on turning it into one.
Though warnings against ‘religious wars’ in Palestine – in fact, the entire region – have been mostly linked to Israel’s current “most rightwing government in history”, religious discourses have been the most dominant since the establishment of Israel’s founding ideology, Zionism, in the late 19th century.
Despite the historical fact that Zionism has been situated within a religious context, the founders of the movement were mostly atheists. They merely used religion as a political tool to unify Jews globally around their new ideology and to romanticize in the minds of their followers what is essentially a violent settler colonial movement.
Yet, over the years, the center of power within the Zionist movement has shifted, from liberal Zionism to Zionist Revisionism to, in the last twenty years or so, religious Zionism. For Israel’s current generation of Zionist leaders, religion is not a political tool, but an objective. This is precisely why, as Palestinian men and women were being attacked with ferocity inside the holiest of all mosques, Israeli Jews were attempting to enter the Muslim shrine to sacrifice animals as part of the Passover tradition. Although not many of them have succeeded in doing so, the event suggests that a new kind of conflict is taking shape.
Historically, Israel targeted Muslim and Christian sites to acquire political capital. Late Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon did just that when he conducted a provocative ‘visit’ inside Haram Al-Sharif with hundreds of soldiers in September 2000, and when the Israeli military completely destroyed or seriously damaged 203 mosques during its so-called “Operation Protective Edge” against Gaza in 2014.
Christian sites have also been attacked and oftentimes confiscated. The targeting of Palestinian Christians led many community leaders, the likes of Archbishop Atallah Hanna, to warn against “an unprecedented conspiracy against the Christian existence”.
The attack on Palestinian religious symbols goes further than the Occupied Territories into historic Palestine, today’s Israel. The 13th-century architectural marvel, Al-Ahmar Mosque in Safad, for example, was turned by Israeli authorities into a nightclub. A study published by the High Follow-up Committee for Arab Citizens in Israel revealed, in July 2020, that scores of mosques were turned into synagogues, barns, bars or restaurants.
Israel’s targeting of the Arab and Muslim identity of Palestine is now being accelerated under Netanyahu’s leadership. But this strategy is a double-edged sword as witnessed in recent days.
In the video that went viral of Israeli soldiers beating up Muslim worshipers, the distressed pleas of a Palestinian woman groaning in pain were heard. “Oh Allah, Oh Allah,” she repeated. Many in Palestinian media and social media have commented that the response by Palestinian Resistance was specifically to answer the call of the unidentified woman. This is the power of spirituality – the kind of logic that Netanyahu and his allies cannot possibly understand.
On April 3, the Jordanian King rightfully stressed that “it is the duty of every Muslim to deter Israeli escalations against Islamic and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem.” When this happens, instead of isolating and browbeating Palestinians, it is Israel that will find itself even more isolated.
Though Palestinians do not see themselves fighting a religious war, protecting their religious symbols stands at the core of their larger fight for freedom, justice and equality.