Dr Mohammad Makram Balawi
The sight of Israeli police storming the holy mosque of Al-Aqsa with their boots and batons, beating worshippers amid clouds of tear gas, was appalling. Hundreds of Palestinians were bound and driven away like cattle in the most inhumane way.
Yes, the holy month of Ramadan is here and what everyone was warning about happened in the worst possible way. “Everyone” includes the Israeli media, the Israeli government, the Israeli security forces, the Palestinians, the Arab states, the Europeans and the Americans, who all anticipated a wave of violence during the fasting month, not least because it coincides with the Jewish Passover (and, this year, Easter). Jewish settler groups announced that they were going to celebrate Passover in Al-Aqsa Mosque, where thousands of Muslims will be spending their days and nights in various acts of worship.
One of the reasons for the Aqaba Summit between the Israelis and the Palestinians on 26 February was to de-escalate the tension in the occupied West Bank prior to Ramadan starting. Representatives from Jordan, Egypt and the US also took part. The US proposed a plan to de-escalate and stop Palestinian resistance in the West Bank. According to the US State Department, the Joint Communique following the meeting in Aqaba on 26 February said that Israel and the Palestinian Authority reaffirmed the necessity of committing to de-escalation on the ground and to prevent further violence; Israel committed to stop discussions about any new settlement units for four months and to stop the authorisation of any settlement outposts for six months; and the historic status quo at the holy sites in Jerusalem is to be upheld and unchanged in word and practice, with an emphasis on the Hashemite Kingdom’s custodianship and special role in this regard.
The five countries met again in Sharm El-Sheikh on 19 March as agreed in Aqaba, and reiterated almost the same points, but this time with more emphasis on Ramadan. “They emphasised the necessity of both Israelis and Palestinians to actively prevent any actions that would disrupt the sanctity of these sites, inter alia during the upcoming Holy Month of Ramadan, which coincides with Easter and Passover this year,” said the second Joint Communique.
However, on the ground, Jewish religious Zionists had another view. Reports from the holy city noted that the Returning to the Mount Movement was distributing flyers in the Old City calling on Jews to take a lamb to the “Temple Mount” (Al-Aqsa Mosque complex) for the pre-Passover sacrifice. The movement offered about $700 for anyone arrested there with a lamb and $8,240 for a successful sacrifice.
These groups have been storming Al-Aqsa on a frequent basis under the protection of the Israeli police, and have performed some of their rituals inside the mosque, while its lawful owners are treated as criminals without any rights. The settlers have been empowered now that one of their number, Itamar Ben-Gvir, is a member of Israel’s coalition government.
Far-right extremist Ben-Gvir is National Security Minister, and is encouraging such action by the settlers. He has been given the green light to form a so-called “National Guard”, which will, in effect, be a settler militia funded by the occupation state. Most of his supporters come from non-Ashkenazi Jewish communities on the “social-economic periphery”. Many come from the ultra-Orthodox community, especially from a settler gang called “the hilltop youth”. He used to defend them in court as a lawyer, so there are no prizes for guessing who will form the core of the new militia.
Ben-Gvir publicly welcomed the members of two major settler gangs, La familia and La hava, who are mainly Mizrahi (Oriental) and Sephardi Jews, to join the force “to fight terror and nationalistic crimes, as well as enforcing public order.” It is expected to consist of some 2,000 officers. Several Israeli cabinet members are opposed to having a 1.5 per cent cut in their ministry budgets to fund the National Guard.
A number of prominent Israeli political and security figures, such as opposition leader Yair Lapid, Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai, former Police chief Moshe Karadi and lawmaker Ofer Cassif, oppose the creation of the militia. Media reported Karadi as saying that it is dangerous to grant a politician such power and suggesting that Ben-Gvir could use the force “to stage a coup”.
Israel is now being attacked from within and beyond its still undeclared borders. Rockets are falling from Gaza in the south, Lebanon in the north and Syria in the north east, while almost every day there are angry Palestinians who are ready to die and take as many as Israelis as possible with them. The occupation state which was busying itself in preparation for a devastating strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities does not seem to be able to grasp what is happening. It looks very much like it is in a downward spiral of self-destruction.
With everything else that is going on in Israeli politics, on the streets and in the army and other state agencies, how will Israel be able to fight Iran and indulge itself in a potential regional war? The notion of the external enemy which used to unite Israelis behind the government isn’t working this time. With each security incident, Israel is becoming more divided and weaker. Even so-called solutions such as Ben-Gvir’s National Guard will have a negative effect on the state.
By imposing Jewish control over Al-Aqsa Mosque, Ben-Gvir hope to redefine Israel’s priorities, redirect its politics and restructure its identity in a way that brings Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews, as well as other disenfranchised groups, from the periphery to the centre. In other words, he wants to dismantle Israel as a European Ashkenazi Zionist project and reassemble it as a Sephardi/Mizrahi Jewish project. In this sense, perhaps unwittingly, Ben-Gvir may be seen as the antithesis of Israel as we know it, which makes him a living nightmare for the Zionist state and its allies.