After years of relative calm, a sudden blitz of violence has raised worries of a new, protracted conflict in the Middle East. Already, dozens of Israelis and Palestinians, including many children, are dead and injured.
What happens next? Predicting the course of armed conflict is always difficult, says Ron Hassner, a Middle East expert at UC Berkeley, but neither side has much to gain by such a conflict, and both have much to lose. In a Wednesday interview, Hassner suggested that the conflict might last four to five weeks, just long enough for both sides to make a show of strength.
While Russia has offered to broker talks, the United States and President Joe Biden seem likely to keep a diplomatic distance from the conflict, he said. And though some analysts have suggested conservative Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could gain from the conflict, Hassner sees the potential for a “refreshingly new” ruling coalition that could displace him and bring a positive new focus to Israeli politics.
Hassner is a professor of political science and a faculty director of the Helen Diller Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies at Berkeley Law. His research and writing have focused on conflicts over holy places and the role of religion in the military and on battlefields. This spring he has been teaching War in the Middle East, a course that has brought home troubling realities for a class that includes both Muslim and Jewish students.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Berkeley News: This conflict seems to be focused on the Temple Mount and the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Is it right to think of this as a conflict about the ownership of sacred spaces?
Ron Hassner: It is, in part, that. The site at the core of the current crisis has been at the heart of many prior moments of violence. It is a religious compound in the heart of the old city of Jerusalem. It is the holiest site to Jews and is the third holiest site in Islam. My first book, War on Sacred Grounds, was focused very much on that topic and how hard it is to resolve these conflicts over sacred places and how they can affect broader conflicts and lead to crisis escalation.
This dispute over ownership and free worship at the site has been going on for centuries, ever since the Muslims conquered Jerusalem.
But it coincides now with legal disputes being adjudicated in the Israeli courts over the ownership of houses and apartments in Jerusalem. These are houses that belonged to Jews, but were confiscated by Jordan in 1948 (after the division of Jerusalem at the end of the Arab-Israeli War) and now have Palestinians residing in them. So, that leads to tension.
Isn’t there also political instability within Israel and within the Palestinian territories?
There are political tensions resulting from both the instability in the Israeli government, where there have now been four elections over the past two years and there’s still no stable government in sight.
But even more so, I’d say Palestinian elections, which were supposed to have been held last week — it seemed very clear that Hamas was poised to win those elections. And Hamas’s primary competitor in Palestinian politics, the Palestinian Authority, canceled the elections for that reason, which led to outrage among Hamas supporters.
So, all these things are coming together, and they’re happening during one of the holiest times in both the Jewish calendar and the Muslim calendar. For Jews, it’s the festival of Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks. It coincides with Jerusalem Day, which is when Jews celebrate the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967. For Muslims, it’s Ramadan, which is the holiest month of the Muslim calendar.
Those are both pilgrimage holidays. They’re both holidays in which large numbers of worshipers converge on Jerusalem and wish to pray together in very, very close proximity.
This is the most significant violence in the region since 2014. So, why now? What are the deeper dynamics?
What I’ve described to you are sparks that have ignited the flames.
But the Israeli-Palestinian dispute that dates to the early 20th century remains unresolved. There is a series of agreements in place that allow Palestinians a significant amount of self-rule, but they are ruled either by the Palestinian Authority, which is corrupt and is refusing to hold elections, or by Hamas, which is an Islamist extremist organization hell-bent on destroying Israel. The final steps to create a Palestinian state have not yet been put in place.
That said, working relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority have been very good in recent years, in terms of security cooperation and in terms of sharing resources. There has been no violence between Israelis and West Bank Palestinians to speak of.
Some accounts suggest that right-wing political extremists among the Israeli settlers are also playing a significant role in the tensions. Could you address that?
There are extremists among Israelis, both in the settler community, but also inside Israel proper. There are extremists among Palestinians, both in East Jerusalem and, of course, in the Gaza Strip. These are acting as spoilers: They have no broad agenda that they are likely to accomplish. Their primary purpose is to prevent accommodation and coexistence between the two sides.
This conflict seems to have gotten very intense, very quickly. Are we likely to see further escalation — perhaps a long-term conflict? Or could this instead settle down quickly?
It’s very hard to say. Hamas, I suppose, is hoping for a third intifada, a third pan-Palestinian uprising against Israel. That strikes me as unlikely, because Palestinians in the West Bank are not as radicalized as in Gaza. They have enjoyed the fruits of some modicum of coexistence and a large modicum of independence for the last 30 years, since the Palestinian Authority took control of 90% of the population of the West Bank.
I don’t think that effort to provoke a major new uprising will succeed.”
So, I don’t think that effort to provoke a major new uprising will succeed. I could imagine four or five more weeks of violent exchanges with Hamas firing rockets at Israeli population centers and Israeli forces, perhaps from the air, perhaps also on the ground, targeting Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip.
It’s an asymmetrical conflict. Israel’s primary focus is to protect Israeli civilians and they use Iron Dome rocket interceptors in order to accomplish that. So far, Iron Dome has successfully intercepted most of the 1,600 rockets that Hamas launched at Israeli population centers.
The Israelis claim that they’re doing what they can to try to differentiate between insurgents hiding among the population and the population itself. That’s very hard to accomplish. So far, nearly 90 Palestinians have died in Gaza, about half of them civilians.
In the past, you’d expect that the United States would intervene in a situation like this, to bring people to the table and to settle things down. Does it seem to you that the Biden administration is reluctant to get involved?
Yes, I think that’s exactly right. I think Biden, in general, has not proclaimed a very confident and assertive foreign policy of any sort in the Middle East or elsewhere. Nor has the United States been very successful in brokering these cease-fires between Israelis and Palestinians prior to the Biden administration.
The Egyptians have often played a role. The Gulf states, which now have a very strong relationship with Israel, have played a strong part. And Russia, which has played an increasingly assertive role in the Middle East, has stepped in and offered to mediate.
I think there is no doubt that the Biden administration supports both the rights of Palestinians to live safely and the rights of Israelis to defend themselves against rocket attacks. But there is, I’d say, a cautious mistrust between the Palestinians and the American administration.
The Biden administration has made no secret of the fact that they are not great fans of Netanyahu. And it’s not clear to the Israelis exactly where the Americans stand and what they’re willing to support and not support.
So, I don’t think the United States is going to play a very big role here, other than hopefully continuing to call for calm.
Over the past two years, Netanyahu has almost continually faced the loss of power. He’s in legal trouble for corruption and could soon go to trial. Some analysts suggest that he can play this conflict to his advantage — for survival.
I’ve read many who think so, but I politely disagree.
War is a very costly and unpredictable venture. It might buy a little time. There might be a further delay in his trial — two weeks, three weeks, five weeks. There might be a delay in establishing the next Israeli government, which is not in Netanyahu’s hands.
War is a very costly and unpredictable venture.”
Other than that, nobody knows how this war will resolve. It’s very hard to imagine that support for any leader goes up as fatalities, especially civilian fatalities, rise and the population feels less secure with every passing day.
I’ve read the same said about Hamas, by the way — that Hamas will benefit from continued violence. But Hamas, like Netanyahu, benefits mostly from brief shows of force and resolve. Once the fighting actually gets going and becomes unpredictable, and it’s not clear whether the dead will be in the tens or the hundreds or the thousands, it becomes too much of a gamble.
That’s cautiously hopeful. Is there cause for actual optimism?
There is a very good chance that the next Israeli government will consist of a broad coalition of the Israeli left, right and center, including membership from an Israeli Muslim party that holds rather extreme Islamist views. That coalition, if it succeeds in coming together, would be a complete game-changer in Israeli-Palestinian politics and would provide a very good reason for optimism.
It would focus its attention on improving Israeli-Palestinian relations. It would focus its attention on improving the lives of Arab-Israelis, the Arabs who have full Israeli citizenship.
That’s my one note of optimism.