If Groundhog Day were a horror movie, it would look like this. The deadly violence shaking the Middle East – Israeli airstrikes on Gaza, Hamas rocket attacks on Israel – seems to play out the same way, again and again, as if on some macabre repeat cycle. We saw it in 2009 and we saw it again in 2014. Each element is familiar: the lopsided death toll, Palestinian deaths outnumbering Israeli ones; the pictures of flattened buildings; the tears of the bereaved. And outside the region, the same armies of keyboard warriors, each parroting the talking points of their side, insistent that only their own pain counts, blind to the losses of the other.
It usually goes like this. The violence escalates, Israel moving from airstrikes to artillery fire to some kind of action on the ground. (Israel seems to be shifting through the gears faster this time.) The number of dead rises until, eventually, there is a ceasefire, brokered via the US and Egypt. Quiet returns, Hamas satisfied that it has asserted itself once more as the lead agent of Palestinian resistance, Israel content that it has “mown the lawn”, cutting back Hamas’s military capacity. Things go back to normal – until the next time.
That pattern is awful. The eruption of violence most obviously, given the agony and destruction it causes every time, but also the reversion to the status quo: that too is terrible, because it simply allows the wound of this conflict to fester until it reopens again, more bloodily than before.
If you’re looking for evidence that the pattern might be different this time, there is a sign, but it is far from encouraging. If anything, it suggests this current episode might be even worse. That’s because the war between Israelis and Palestinians has found a new front, not in the occupied territories, but inside Israel itself. This is what sets 2021 apart from 2014 or 2009: intercommunal violence in Israel’s mixed cities, pitting Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel against each other on streets where they have lived side by side for decades. That violence is disturbing because it is intimate, neighbour against neighbour. It is the attempted lynching of an Arab man in Bat Yam, dragged out of a car to be beaten and kicked; it is the torching of at least five synagogues in Lod.
Those scenes have shocked many Jewish Israelis who have long told themselves that their Arab fellow citizens are not like other Palestinians, that they do not have the same deep sense of national identity, that their prime goal is to enjoy economic parity with the 80% of Israelis who are Jewish. The current bloodshed shatters that consoling delusion.
But it should not come as a surprise. For one thing, as the longtime analyst and sometime negotiator Hussein Agha observes, it is increasingly falling to the Arabs of Israel – “the Palestinians of 1948” as he calls them – to “carry the banner of traditional Palestinian nationalism”. In his view, the lid has been kept on the West Bank by the Palestinian Authority; Gazans cannot move without running “into the wall of Hamas and Islamic Jihad”, and the Palestinian diaspora in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon are too busy just getting by. That leaves the Arabs inside Israel.
Besides, how exactly did Jewish Israelis expect Arab citizens, most of them Muslim, to react to the incendiary moves in Jerusalem and its holy sites that provoked this latest crisis? What did they think would happen, given the passage in 2018 of Benjamin Netanyahu’s “nation state law”, which spelled out that only Jews had the right to self-determination in Israel, and which stripped Arabic of its official status?
And yet the pull to revert to the status quo will be powerful. You can see it in Joe Biden’s transparent desire to say the bare minimum and return to the rest of his agenda. Watch The Human Factor, a riveting new documentary about past US attempts to broker a Palestinian-Israeli peace deal, and it’s obvious why Biden would want to steer clear: it’s a black hole that sucks in colossal amounts of energy, all for nothing.
Agha suggests the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah is similarly “addicted” to the status quo. They too have concluded that no resolution of the conflict is possible; and so, for now, the current setup suits just fine, allowing them “to operate as a group with privileges”, giving them status in the eyes of the UN, EU and US.
The cyclical pattern certainly works for Netanyahu. Look how this week has played out for him. Only days ago, he was on the verge of losing power to an opposition coalition sustained among others by two Arab parties. It would have been a first, a threshold moment in the integration of Palestinian citizens into Israeli life. But once the Hamas rockets started falling on Israeli cities, that prospect looked dead. No one needs to say out loud that they do not regard Arabs as legitimate partners in government; they can simply argue that a national crisis is no time for a change in leadership. Not for the first time, Hamas has done Netanyahu a favour.
But it is not only Israel’s leaders who have grown used to the status quo. Israelis themselves have learned to live with these periodic outbursts of violence, even the terror of rockets falling from the sky, as the price they pay for long spells of quiet when they can put the conflict out of their minds. They’ve got good at it, living in a bu’ah, a Tel Aviv bubble in which they are the hi-tech, startup nation, leading the world in vaccine rollouts one moment, partying on the beach the next.
Inside the bubble, it’s easy to forget the West Bank, with its two legal systems – one for Jews, another for Palestinians. It’s easy to forget Gaza, with its 14 years of suffocation by closure and joint Israeli-Egyptian blockade, or the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah, where Jews can reclaim property owned before 1948 but Palestinians are denied that same right. It’s easy to forget a 54-year occupation.
The only people who cannot forget are those who live with it every day, those for whom the status quo is unbearable: namely, ordinary Palestinians. If the roles were reversed, Israeli Jews would not be able to bear it either. It’s why Israel’s former prime minister Ehud Barak spoke a profound truth when he said that, had he been born a Palestinian, he did not doubt he would have become a fighter.
I desperately want the current violence to end. I crave word of a ceasefire. But I cannot hope that things go back to normal. Because normal is what got us here – and what keeps bringing us back, again and again.