By Ramzy Baroud
In a self-congratulatory article published in The Atlantic in 2017, Yossi Klein Halevi described Israeli behavior at the just-conquered holy Muslim shrines in occupied East Jerusalem in 1967 as “an astonishing moment of religious restraint.”
“The Jewish people had just returned to its holiest site, from which it had been denied access for centuries, only to effectively yield sovereignty at its moment of triumph,” Halevi wrote with a lingering sense of pride, as if the world owes Israel a ton of gratitude for the way it conducted itself during one of the most egregious acts of violence in the modern history of the Middle East.
Halevi’s pompous discourse on Israel’s heightened sense of morality — compared to, according to his own analysis, the lack of Arab appreciation of Israel’s overtures and refusal to engage in peace talks — is not in any way unique. His is the same language recycled umpteen times by all Zionists, even those who advocated for a Jewish state before it was established on the ruins of destroyed and ethnically cleansed Palestine.
Like Halevi and most of Israel’s political classes, let alone mainstream intellectuals, new National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir believes in the significance Jerusalem and its holy shrines have to the future of their so-called Jewish state.
When Ben-Gvir raided Al-Aqsa Mosque on Jan. 3 to introduce himself to Jewish extremists as the new face of Israeli politics, he was also taking the first steps toward correcting, in his own perception, a historical injustice.
What Halevi was bragging about in his piece in The Atlantic is this: Soon after soldiers raised the Israeli flag, garnished with the Star of David, atop the Dome of the Rock, they were ordered to take it down. They did so, supposedly, at the behest of then-Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, who was quoted as saying to the army unit commander: “Do you want to set the Middle East on fire?”
Eventually, Israel conquered all of Jerusalem. Since then, it has done everything in its power to ethnically cleanse the city’s Palestinian Muslim and Christian inhabitants to ensure an absolute Jewish majority. What is taking place in Sheikh Jarrah and other Palestinian neighborhoods in Jerusalem is a continuation of this old, sad episode.
However, the Al-Haram Al-Sharif compound — where Al-Aqsa Mosque, the Dome of the Rock and other Muslim shrines are located — was nominally administered by the Islamic Waqf authorities. By doing so, Israel managed to enforce the inaccurate notion that religious freedom is still respected in Jerusalem, even after its so-called unification of the city, which will remain, according to Israel’s official discourse, the “united, eternal capital of the Jewish people.”
The reality on the ground, however, has been largely dictated by the Ben-Gvirs of Israel, who have, for decades, labored to erase the city’s Muslim and Christian history, identity and, at times, even their ancient graveyards. Al-Haram Al-Sharif is hardly a religious oasis for Muslims, but rather the site of daily clashes, whereby Israeli soldiers and Jewish extremists routinely storm the holy shrines, leaving behind broken bones, blood and tears.
Despite the American support of Israel, the international community has never accepted Israel’s falsified version of history. Though the Jewish spiritual connection to the city is always acknowledged — in fact, it has been respected by Arabs and Muslims since Caliph Umar ibn Al-Khattab entered the city in 638 — Israel has been reminded by the UN, time and again, of the illegality of its occupation and all related actions carried out in the city since June 1967.
But Ben-Gvir and his Jewish Power party, like all of Israel’s major political forces, care little for international law, authentic history or Palestinians’ rights. However, their main point of contention regarding the proper course of action at Al-Aqsa is mostly internal. There are those who want to speed up the process of fully claiming the compound as a Jewish site and those who believe that such a move is untimely and, for now, unwise.
The former group is winning the debate. Long marginalized at the periphery of Israeli politics, the country’s religious parties are now inching closer to the center, which is affecting Israel’s priorities on how best to defeat the Palestinians.
Typical analyses attribute the rise of Israel’s religious constituencies to the desperation of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is arguably using the likes of Ben-Gvir, Bezalel Smotrich and Aryeh Deri to stay in office. However, this assessment does not tell the whole story, as the power of the religious parties has long preceded Netanyahu’s political and legal woes. The Zionist discourse has itself been shifting toward religious Zionism. This can be easily observed in the growing religious sentiment in Israel’s judicial system, among the rank and file of the army, in the Knesset and, more recently, in the government itself.
These ideological shifts have even led some to argue that Ben-Gvir and his supporters are angling for a “religious war.” But is Ben-Gvir the one introducing religious war to the Zionist discourse?
In truth, early Zionists never tried to mask the religious identity of their colonial project. “Zionism aims at establishing for the Jewish people a publicly and legally assured home in Palestine,” the Basel Program, adopted by the First Zionist Congress in 1897, stated. Little has changed since then. Israel is “the national state, not of all its citizens, but only of the Jewish people,” Netanyahu said in 2019.
So, if Israel’s founding ideology, political discourse, Jewish Nation-State Law, every war, illegal settlement and bypass road, and even its flag and national anthem are all directly linked or appealed to religion and religious sentiments, then it is safe to argue that Israel has been engaged in a religious war against Palestinians since its inception.
The historic truth is that Ben-Gvir’s behavior is only a natural outcome of Zionist thinking, formulated more than a century ago. Indeed, for Zionists, whether religious or secular, the war has always been — or, more accurately, had to be — a religious one.