Opinion |

Trigger Warning: This Is What Could Spark the Next Israeli-Palestinian War

Learning the long menu of potential sparks for the next Israeli-Palestinian escalation – from Sheikh Jarrah to spiking food prices, Hamas to Homesh – is grim, but better to do it before the next war

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The writing on the wall: Graffiti showing Hamas militants in Gaza City. Given recent history, Gaza is the obvious arena to look for the next war, after four previous rounds with Israel since late 2008
The writing on the wall: Graffiti showing Hamas militants in Gaza City. Given recent history, Gaza is the obvious arena to look for the next war, after four previous rounds with Israel since late 2008Credit: AP Photo/Bernat Armangue

Towards the end of the 19th century, Otto von Bismarck issued a grave prediction: "If there is ever another war in Europe, it will come out of some damned silly thing in the Balkans."

But by the time Winston Churchill quoted Bismarck in August 1945, the world’s most famous trigger warning was two wars too late. Europe lay in ruins.

By contrast, Israeli media analysts often declare confidently that neither Israel nor the Palestinians want escalation – usually just as the rockets and airstrikes are launching. These analyses feed Israel’s psychological repression of the reality that there is in fact an active, ongoing military conflict here. In turn, Israelis perceive each new escalation as arbitrary Palestinian provocation, proof of an endemic hatred of Israel.

The region could use a well-timed trigger warning. Learning the long menu of potential sparks is grim, but better to do it before the next war.

The sparks for violence can be unpredictable events or accidents, like the car crash that set off the first Intifada. They can also be orchestrated, such as Ariel Sharon’s infamous, symbolic parade around the Temple Mount, which sparked the second Palestinian uprising. A targeted assassination did the job in 2012, touching off the second Israel-Hamas escalation; by the time this article appears, an Israeli attack that killed three Fatah al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades operatives in Nablus on Tuesday may have made even this warning too late.

But given recent history, Gaza is the obvious arena to look for the next war, after four previous rounds since late 2008. With Hamas governing a high-density, youth-heavy territory of soaring unemployment under siege-like Israeli control since 2007, the conditions of life are untenable. Even Israel has sought to improve the economic situation recently, by increasing the number of permits to 10,000 laborers allowed to enter Israel. While work opportunities are welcome in themselves, that number won’t change the overall misery.

A Fatah militant hold his rifle during a rally in Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip last year following the truce that ended an 11-day war between Gaza's Hamas rulers and Israel Credit: AP Photo/Felipe Dana

Hamas is also under pressure from its long-running competition with Fatah, while fending off challenges from Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other factions. Hamas has lost much of the popularity it gained from the war in May; though it still leads over Fatah in surveys, any lingering hopes for electoral success are thwarted by the lack of elections. That makes violence a natural recourse.

The tripwire was nearly crossed in January when a Palestinian security prisoner on hunger strike almost died, Islamic Jihad threatened retaliation, and two rockets slipped out "accidentally" from Gaza to the Israeli shore. An 11th-hour deal to release the prisoner defused the situation.

Still, Hamas may have other priorities than war at present, such as establishing a stronger political foothold in the West Bank.

The West Bank itself is also fertile ground for triggers of war. Two high-profile Israeli settlement outposts, Homesh and Evyatar, are now the rallying points for the most extreme settlers and a fresh source of friction with Palestinians nearby. Attacks beget attacks.

Violence by these settlers is rising and expanding to include left-wing Israeli Jewish activists too. Both Israelis and Palestinians in these West Bank attacks are increasingly taking up firearms rather than knives or stones.

A Palestinian flag flutters on a hilltop in the town of Beita, near Nablus, in the occupied West Bank, as a lift truck hangs a Star of David on poles at the settler outpost of EvyatarCredit: JAAFAR ASHTIYEH - AFP

But for flammable material, Jerusalem is the most dependable arena. Historically, the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount is the axis mundi of conflict. The riots of 1929 are named for Hebron but started here, as well as the Al Aqsa (Second) Intifada.

A fresh wave almost erupted in 2017, when Israeli plans to use metal detectors for Palestinian worshippers symbolized to Palestinians that Israel was asserting greater control over the holy site. It later turned out that Yair Netanyahu, the prime minister’s son, was the main advocate for the policy. With Passover this year overlapping with Ramadan in April and the number of Jews visiting the Temple Mount site on Passover growing annually, the chance of some damned silly thing starting a war grows accordingly.

Just a short distance away, in Sheikh Jarrah, Israel’s juggernaut of Palestinian home eviction and demolitions continues. The Salhiye family was evicted in mid-January; when the police showed up at 8am to remove them, a family member threatened to blow himself up with gas canisters. He didn’t do it, but authorities demolished the family’s home.

In May last year, Hamas made it clear that Jerusalem and Gaza are politically contiguous, by responding to attempted evictions at that time with rockets. Maybe this January, Hamas had other strategic priorities. But if Mahmoud Salhiyeh had self-immolated, strategy wouldn’t have mattered.

The ruins of a Sheikh Jarrah house demolished by the Jerusalem municipality last month. Israeli police evicted Palestinians from the disputed property, demolishing the building after a tense standoffCredit: AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean

The list of flashpoints in Jerusalem continues. Certain high-tension Israeli construction projects have been paused, but new construction for Jewish communities abutting underserved Palestinian neighborhoods supply plenty of tinder in their stead.

And the potential triggers are not only on the Israeli-Palestinian front – violence can come from within each group. In May, Palestinian citizens of Israel showing solidarity with the Sheikh Jarrah residents sparked protests around Israel. Violence erupted between the protestors, Israeli police and ultra-nationalist Jewish groups; mixed cities including Lod, Acre, Jaffa and also Bat Yam, saw the worst violence by, and against, Jewish and Arab citizens in living memory.

Could it happen again? Lod, a working-class mixed Arab-Jewish city with a growing Jewish religious nationalist "Garin Torani" community, was one of the worst flashpoints in May. Fida Shehade, a councilwoman in Lod, told me that, "The circumstances haven’t changed…We [Arabs] are still invisible citizens and the discriminatory, unequal policy exists."

She pointed to widespread poverty as an ongoing, exacerbating problem. "The city is quieter and trying to get back to normal," she wrote to me. "But the daily headlines about the police and the right-wing preparing for the 'next May' [a euphemism for repeated violence] just increases the lack of trust and lack of dialogue between the residents."

A bus set alight in the mixed Arab-Jewish town of Lod last summer, where a state of emergency was declared following clashes between Jewish and Arab residents and policeCredit: Tomer Appelbaum

Surveys by aChord, a social psychology research center, studied Jews and Arabs in Israel’s mixed cities and found that among Arabs, distrust, hatred and fear towards Jews has been growing since May. Jewish trends on those measures were stable or declined slightly – but began from a much higher starting point.

Finally, internal Palestinian violence is more likely than ever. Mahmoud Abbas’ leadership is more decrepit than his health, and still the Palestinian Authority has no a clear succession plan. Elections are a far-fetched fantasy, leaving no civic outlet for massive public frustration. Instead, at the Palestinian Central Council meetings being held this week Abbas reportedly won approval to stack leadership positions with his own people.

If Abbas does go, factional fighting is a serious possible outcome, whether between Hamas and Fatah or between Fatah factions, and all of these groups are armed. If Abbas stays, but PA forces kill another dissenter like Nizar Banat, the streets could erupt. Even global inflation and price hikes could be the trigger, perhaps pushed by a Russian invasion of key food exporter Ukraine. In Hebron this week, demonstrations partly over rising prices turned violent.

One international observer said the Hebron violence "shows the absence of law and order, and the lack of influence of the PA in Hebron." A diplomatic source worried about the possibility that PA funds and other donor sources could dry up – and nearly 30 percent of Palestinians working in the public sector won’t get paid. The tinder pile grows.

There are plenty of policy ideas available for avoiding the flare ups, but no substitute for a comprehensive political resolution to the conflict on the horizon. In the meantime, there’s nothing damned silly, irrational or endemic about the hostilities: they are a direct response to empirical circumstances. People created these conditions, and people need to fix them.

Dahlia Scheindlin is a political scientist and public opinion expert, and a policy fellow at The Century Foundation. Twitter: @dahliasc

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