Renewed Violence Highlights Unsustainable Status Quo
Renewed Violence in Holy Land
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict was back on the front pages this week after renewed violence in Gaza and southern Israel left 27 dead and nearly 100 injured.
The escalation of ever-present tensions in Gaza and southern Israel began last Friday, March 9, when Israel carried out the targeted assassination of Zuheir Al-Queisi, secretary general of Gaza’s Popular Resistance Committee (PRC), a group Israel and the United States designate as a terrorist organization. Israel blamed the PRC for launching the August 2011 attacks in southern Israel that killed eight Israelis. At the start of his weekly Sunday cabinet meeting, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said one of the targeted PRC leaders “was in the midst of planning another attack that was directed at our southern border with Egypt.” In response to the assassination, Gazan militants from several factions launched rockets into southern Israel, which according to the IDF’s official blog, put one million Israeli citizens in harm’s way.
Militants launched over 200 rockets in four days. Isreal’s Iron Dome missile defense system intercepted 56 projectiles and diminished the impact on many of the country’s population centers. However, 10 Israelis were injured in the rocket fire. Gazans were also living in fear as the Israeli Air Force dropped missiles on several targeted sites, killing at least 25 Palestinians and injuring 80. The IDF admits four of the casualties were civilians. The semi-offical Palestinian news service Ma’an News reported that Israeli forces killed “a number of Islamic Jihad fighters, as well as civilians including a teenager, a 12-year-old boy, an elderly man and his daughter.”
On Tuesday, Egypt brokered a vague truce between Israel and the militant groups. The constant barrage of rockets from Gaza became dramatically more sporadic; though Israel targeted two militant sites on Thursday, Gazan militants responded with only two rockets. Nobody was hurt in the latest exchange of fire, though rocket fire has not completely subsided.
Hamas, which has controlled the Gaza Strip since 2007, didn’t support this most recent round of violence, instead working with armed factions within Gaza to broker the cease-fire. Despite the sporadic cycles of rocket fire from Gaza over the past several months, it seems that Hamas has largely tried to abide by the cease-fire that put an end to Operation Cast Lead in 2009 in hopes of avoiding another ground invasion while maintaining power within the territory it controls.
Hamas’ reluctance to engage in armed confrontation with Israel is one sign that the militant Islamist party is distancing itself for its Iranian and Syrian backers and the growing volatility in those two countries. In recent weeks, Hamas has moved their headquarters out of Syria and have vocally supported the Syrian opposition. They have also announced that Hamas won’t take part in a regional war between Israel and Iran and will not necessarily take up arms against Israel in the case of an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear sites.
However, the renewed violence between Gaza and Israel also highlights the fact that Hamas is no longer the only power contender in the Mediterranean enclave. One of the leading groups in this most recent round of rocket attacks is Islamic Jihad (IJ)a militant nationalist group that, like Hamas, is designated a terrorist organization by the United States and Israel. Islamic Jihad suffered the most casualties this week and received much of the subsequent media attention.
The militant group (which unlike Hamas, rejects the political process) is gaining power in Gaza in part because Hamas, in essence a populist movement, has been generally quiet on the resistance front and adhered to the cease fire. Syria and Iran have backed the IJ for years, but recently, Iran has been diverting funds from Hamas to beef up the more active resistance group’s military capabilities.
Ibrahem Ibrach, professor of political science at Egypt’s Al Azhar University concluded, “Hamas is now behaving like a country and not like a resistance movement." He adds that this is "why if Iran wants to destabilize the events in the region, they have to go to Islamic Jihad. Hamas won't gamble its hold on power to satisfy Iran."
In the midst of renewed tensions on its southern border, Israeli officials tied this violence to the threat from Iran.
Just one week after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Washington seeking increased pressure on Iran to end their military program, Israeli officials have indicated that the recent violence in southern Israel and Gaza implies that Iran poses a danger to Israelis on a daily basis. Netanyahu told the Knesset on Wednesday that “Gaza is Iran” and has been quick to highlight the fact that Iran is backing the militants. He also reportedly told members of his Likud party, “The solution to the missile threat from Gaza will only come when the threat from Iran is resolved," according to Israeli public radio.
While the official Israeli position is that the IDF is not interested in escalation, Ha’aretz writer Zvi Bar’el writes, “The escalation in Gaza is good for Israel – that is, for that part of Israel that wants to strike Iran… It is hard to understand what basis there is for the assertion that Israel is not striving to escalate the situation.”
+972 Magazine’s Yossi Gervitz writes that, “this is just how the IDF is conditioned to act. If it has a chance to kill someone who annoyed it – and Al-Queisi claimed to be involved in the capture of Gilad Schalit – it shall do so, and damn the consequences. The safety of the civilians who pay dearly for it is hardly ever a factor in the IDF’s planning.”
Leaders from around the world issued their customary perfunctory condemnation of the violent flare-up.
The U.S. State Department issued a statement condemning the rocket fire calling on those responsible “to take immediate action to stop these cowardly acts.” The statement went on to say, “We regret the loss of life and injuries, and we call on both sides to make every effort to restore calm.”
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon highlighted the fact that this most recent uptick in a long-lived cycle of violence is a sign of the unsustainable situation in the Gaza Strip. He said, “I am gravely concerned at the latest escalation between Gaza and Israel, and once again civilians are paying a terrible price. Rocket attacks out of Gaza against Israeli civilian areas are unacceptable and must stop immediately. I reiterate my call on Israel to exercise maximum restraint.”
Israel’s Ambassador to the UN, Ron Prosor, called on the United Nations to go further in its condemnation. He wrote a letter to Secretary General Ban saying, “[T]he Security Council has uttered zero words of condemnation of these attacks. There is something wrong with this equation. It is time for the Security Council to speak with one voice against the terrorism that continues to flow from Gaza.”
The PLO Delegation to the United States issued a press release in response to the violence also asking for stronger condemnation, but for the attacks on Palestinians. The statement calls Israel’s assassination of the PRC leader an “extrajudicial killing,” and says that the attacks on Gaza are part of an Israeli effort to “divert attention from Israeli violations in the West Bank, and to thwart any efforts at reviving the political process between the two sides.” The PLO Delegation calls on U.S. officials to stop condoning Israeli transgressions and Israel to stop all attacks on Gaza.
Last week, more than 600 evangelical Christians gathered in the Holy Land for reasons you might not expect. The evangelical leaders came together for the second annual “Christ at the Checkpoint” conference in Bethlehem, West Bank.
The conference is significant because it is a unique and inclusive forum at which Christians from around the world joined Palestinian Christians to discuss and debate core theologies as they pertain to the Holy Land, the Palestinian Church, social action and Christian peacemaking, and the Christian Zionist movement.
Organized by Bethlehem Bible College, the event featured speakers and attendees representing more than 20 countries and a wide spectrum of political and religious views and though some critics labeled the gathering anti-Israel, reports from the conference indicate that it was not, tackling theological questions, not political ones and impressing upon attendees that, “Any challenge of the injustices taking place in the Holy Land must be done in Christian love. Criticism of Israel and the occupation cannot be confused with anti-Semitism and the delegitimization of the State of Israel.”
Critics of the conference and its mission were came from all sides. Writing in the Jerusalem Post, Rabbis Abraham Cooper and Yitzchok Adlerstein said the conference, “is taking dead aim at Israel’s single largest and most reliable supporter: tens of millions of evangelical Christians who have stood with the Jewish state since day one. If it achieves even some of its aims, the consequences will be disastrous for Israel and world Jewry.” The conference was also criticized from within the Christian community for advancing Replacement Theology.
Last week, Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren penned an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal on the plight of Middle East Christians and how Israel’s “respect and appreciation” has allowed the community to “thrive” in Israel. He lays blame for the plight of Palestinian Christians in the Middle East solely at the feet of the Palestinian leadership and people and therefore the result of a religious clash.
Oren rightly notes that recent years have seen a spike in attacks on Christian communities ranging from North Africa to Asia. However, Dr. John Esposito at Georgetown University says that he “takes a tragedy and uses it as a backdrop for a deceptive piece of anti-Palestinian propaganda, attributing the changes in Christian demographics to religion rather than Israeli domestic and economic policies and presenting Israel as a resplendent safe haven for Arab and Palestinian Christians.”
Palestinian Christian leaders were also quick to respond to Oren’s factually misleading editorial. On March 9, the WSJ printed four responses to Oren’s piece including one from Fr. Jamal Khader, a Dean at Bethlehem University who wrote, “Pretending to defend the interests of the Christians contradicts facts on the ground, where Christians suffer the same consequences of military occupation as all Palestinians.
Fida Jiryis, a Palestinian Christian citizen of Israel responded by reporting that injustices are not limited to the occupied territories. She says, “We suffer the same discrimination when we try to find a job, when we go to hospitals, when we apply for bank loans and when we get on the bus. In my daily dealings with the state, all I have felt is rudeness and overt contempt.”
Palestinian officials also got involved with a response from PLO Ambassador to the U.S. Maen Areikat who countered Oren’s blanket assertion that Christians are not tolerated in Palestinian society. He explains, “Many of our most prominent figures in politics, academia and the arts are Christian. This is the case precisely because of a long history and deeply rooted culture of tolerance and integration in Palestine.”
The vast majority of Palestinian villages located in Israeli-controlled Area C of the West Bank are not connected to a power grid. In an effort to bring these villages out of the dark ages and improve the lives of Palestinian residents, several international NGOs have initiated projects to install solar panels in a few locations across the West Bank.
The village of Imneizil, in the South Hebron Hills is one example. In 2009, a grant from theSpanish government allowed an NGO to build the village solar panels , replacing expensive oil-powered generators and providing villagers with accessible energy for the first time. However, the three-year-old solar panels are under demolition order by Israeli authorities who say that the technology was built without the proper Israeli permit.
Solar panels and other alternative energy generators in five additional Palestinian villages across Area C face a similar threat.
It is true that the energy structures were likely built without permits. But that fact is put into context by the Israeli organization Peace Now which reported that, “91 permits were issued for Palestinian construction in Area C between 2001 and 2007. In the same period, more than 10,000 Israeli settlement units were built and1,663 Palestinian structures demolished.” In addition, Israeli settlements in Area C, illegal under international law, are connected to Israeli electricity grids and water and sewage systems.
Rabbis for Human Rights has succeeded in suspending the Imneizil demolition order in court, but the legal battle is not over. One UN expert not authorized to talk to the media said that infrastructure demolitions in Area C have increased and are a part of an Israeli effort to get Palestinians to leave the area. Imneizil’s head of the village council Ali Mohamed Hraizat said, "We've been here since 1948. We try to stay and maintain our lives, but people will leave if the electricity is cut off."
This year's gathering, taking place June 18 -19 in Washington, DC, is a unique opportunity to update and expand your knowledge about the ongoing conflict in the Holy Land. The conference will offer relevant and timely insight into the prospects for peace and present you with innovative and useful tools to advocate for peace in your community.
Additional information about lodging is now available on our website so make your reservations today!
Participants last year described leaving the conference "empowered" and "inspired" Find out more about the conference by taking a look at what we did last year.
Formed in 1984, Churches for Middle East Peace is a coalition of 24 national Church denominations and organizations, including Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant traditions. It works to encourage U.S. government policies that actively promote a just, lasting and comprehensive resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, ensuring security, human rights and religious freedom for all people of the region.