Editor’s note: Israel and Hamas on May 20 agreed to a cease-fire following more than 10 days of hostilities. The cease-fire is scheduled to take effect the morning of Friday, May 21.
The outburst of violence between Israel and the Palestinians is showing no signs of ending, with Israeli forces continuing air strikes on the Gaza Strip and Hamas militants firing a barrage of rockets toward Israel. At the same time, tensions remain high in several cities and towns within Israel following rioting and street violence between Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel.
In this interview, UCLA professor Dov Waxman, an expert on the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, looks at what caused the most recent violent conflict and how it compares with previous clashes. He also assesses President Biden’s response to the crisis.
Waxman is UCLA’s Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation Professor of Israel Studies and director of the UCLA Younes & Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies. His most recent book is “The Israeli–Palestinian Conflict: What Everyone Needs to Know” (Oxford University Press, 2019).
Answers have been edited for brevity.
To what can we attribute the recent flare-up in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
Many factors have contributed to this escalation of violence between Israel and the Palestinians. Over the last few weeks, there have been growing tensions in Jerusalem, initially sparked by TikTok videos of Palestinian youth from East Jerusalem assaulting ultra-Orthodox Jews in the city. That led far-right Jewish extremists to stage a provocative march through the city center of Jerusalem, during which they shouted “death to Arabs” and looked for Arabs to assault.
Then there was the decision by the Israeli police to prevent Palestinians from East Jerusalem from gathering at the Damascus Gate, an entrance to the Old City of Jerusalem. And then, on top of all that, there’s been a long-standing issue in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem where Jewish settlers are trying to evict Palestinian families from their homes. That long-running battle between these Palestinian families and Jewish settlers was about to come to a head in a Supreme Court hearing that was scheduled to take place. It was eventually delayed. But that also led to growing protests in Sheikh Jarrah, and those protests, in turn, were met with a heavy-handed Israeli police response.
But what really escalated this situation was the decision of Hamas to get involved, demand that Israel make concessions in Jerusalem, threaten Israel with rocket attacks, and then ultimately carry out that threat by firing long-range rockets in the direction of Jerusalem. That, in turn, resulted in Israeli retaliation, involving airstrikes on Gaza.
How does the current clash between Israel and the Hamas movement in Gaza differ from their previous clashes?
There’s regularly been mini-wars between Israel and Hamas, most notably in 2008–09, then in 2012, then again in 2014. One thing that’s distinctive about this latest escalation of violence is how many rockets Hamas has fired into Israel so soon into this conflict. In just the first few days alone, they fired over 1,000 rockets into Israel. It took weeks for that number of rockets to be fired into Israel on previous occasions. Not only is Hamas firing more rockets into Israel, but also they have longer ranges — reaching Tel Aviv and its suburbs more frequently than before, as well as Ben-Gurion Airport. Both sides, in fact, have rapidly escalated their use of force.
The most significant difference this time around, however, is that it’s not just Israel and Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups in Gaza fighting. For the first time, we see widespread sectarian violence between Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel, particularly in areas that have a mixed Jewish and Arab population. There’s been violence by Jewish and Palestinian youth, rioting, and arson. This kind of civil strife is a very alarming development. I can’t think of another time in Israel’s history, except for the 1948 War, where civil strife on this scale has happened.
When the Second Intifada broke out, there were massive demonstrations in Arab towns and cities across Israel, but not the kind of sectarian violence that’s been taking place in recent days.
I don’t think the mayhem and the violence that we’ve seen in the last few days accurately reflects the real state of Arab–Jewish relations in Israel. It seems rather to reflect the behavior of a small group on both sides who want to make trouble for various reasons.
Some Democrats and Republicans have criticized President Biden’s handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and suggested he’s been too quiet and not done enough. How do you assess the role of the Biden administration so far? What risks and challenges does it face in responding to this crisis?
The Biden administration has been heavily criticized on all sides for its handling of this crisis. I think some of that criticism is deserved, but much of it is unfair.
From his first days in office, President Biden wanted to signal that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was not a priority on his foreign policy agenda. He didn’t hold out any hope of resolving the conflict anytime soon. Many people told the Biden administration that it didn’t have the luxury of ignoring this conflict because it is a powder keg and can explode at any moment — and that’s exactly what’s happened.
I think the criticism from the Republican side of the aisle that the Biden administration hasn’t stood by Israel, or somehow is partly responsible for this latest escalation of violence, is really unfair. And on the other side of the aisle, the Biden administration has been criticized by some progressive Democrats for not criticizing Israel and for not pressuring Israel to change its policies towards Palestinians. Some of those criticisms are fair because the Biden administration could have done more to intervene with the Israeli government, particularly concerning some of the events that have taken place in Jerusalem in recent weeks.
But I think it is expecting much too much from the Biden administration, which, let’s not forget, is still dealing with a pandemic at home and a host of foreign policy challenges around the world.