By Ramzy Baroud
Members of extremist Jewish groups raided Al-Haram Al-Sharif in occupied Jerusalem on Monday last week. They clashed with Palestinian worshippers as the settlers attempted to shut down the gate to Al-Aqsa Mosque itself. The clashes involved the Israeli army and police, who caused scores of injuries.
The next day, the Israeli army carried out the unusual step of briefly shutting Al-Rahma Gate, which leads to a section of Al-Haram Al-Sharif that has itself been shut down by the Israeli army since 2003. The provocative decision to seal the gate was clearly made in advance, and the lock and key have the fingerprints of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu all over them.
It is quite typical for Israeli politicians to carry out confrontational measures against Palestinians shortly before general elections are due. The nature of these measures is determined by the kind of political constituency that Israeli leaders aim to appease.
However, a war on Gaza, at least for now, is too risky an option for Netanyahu, as it would take place too close to the April 9 elections. Moreover, a botched Israeli attack on the Strip last November caused Netanyahu a major embarrassment, forcing him to shelve the Gaza option for now.
That said, if the Israeli PM’s political standing grows too desperate in the coming weeks, a Gaza war may, once again, be placed on the table. Indeed, the political union between Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, which was declared last Thursday, has certainly upped the ante for Netanyahu, who had assumed his election victory was a foregone conclusion.
Gantz and Lapid merged their two parties into one election list called “Kahol Lavan” (Blue and White), which will provide the most serious electoral challenge to Netanyahu in years.
For the time being, Netanyahu has decided to appeal to the most religious segments of Israeli society in order to keep his challengers at bay. This should come as no surprise, as the religious, ultra-national far right has been the backbone of the Israeli leader’s coalitions for a decade.
In fact, weeks before the Gantz and Lapid union, Netanyahu took several measures to show signs of goodwill toward his religious constituency. One such overture was made on Jan. 28, when Netanyahu ordered the UN’s unarmed international observers to leave the occupied Palestinian city of Hebron, where a few hundred armed Jewish settlers have been a constant source of violence. The Jewish settlers of Kiryat Arba live under the protection of a massive Israeli army contingent, and they have worked together to terrorize the Palestinian inhabitants of the city for many years.
A joint statement issued by several humanitarian organizations, including Oxfam, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) and Save the Children, warned of the terrible fate awaiting the Palestinian community as a result of Netanyahu’s decision. “Hundreds of civilians, including children, will see their safety put at risk by the withdrawal of international observers deployed in the city of Hebron,” the statement read.
True to form, attacks by Jewish settlers followed, as media and rights groups pointed to a surge of violence against Palestinian civilians in the city. By unleashing the wrath of Jewish settlers in Hebron, Netanyahu wanted to communicate to his supporters that he remains committed to their settlement project — an unworthy cause that violates international law and comes at the price of protracted human suffering.
Similarly, the Israeli decision to shut Al-Rahma Gate was a calculated move aimed at uniting the entirety of the Israeli right, including the most extreme of all religious and settler groups, behind Netanyahu’s leadership in the coming elections.
In fact, a trend began a few weeks earlier. On Jan. 9, the Palestinian Ministry of Endowment documented a sharp increase in violations involving the Israeli army and Jewish settlers at holy Palestinian sites throughout the month of December. According to the report, more than 100 such violations were reported, including 30 different incursions into Al-Aqsa Mosque.
A raid on Al-Aqsa Mosque on Jan. 7 was led by Israeli Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel, a strong ally of Netanyahu. This type of politically motivated and highly militarized stunt at Al-Aqsa is reminiscent of the infamous “visit” by late Israeli right-wing leader Ariel Sharon in September 2000. At the time, Sharon wanted to increase his chances of becoming Israel’s next prime minister and to ensure that his arch-rival (then, interestingly enough, Netanyahu) did not win the Likud Party nomination. The gambit worked. Sharon sparked the Second Intifada, leading to the deaths of thousands, and, of course, securing his seat at the helm of Israeli politics for years.
Netanyahu, ever studious and resourceful, has mastered the same art of political manipulation as his mentor and, once again, Al-Aqsa Mosque is the platform for this sinister Israeli politicking.
The PM’s decision to strike an alliance with Jewish Power — the rebranded party of the late extremist Meir Kahane — further demonstrates how the current surge of violence around the holy Palestinian sites is a calculated political move by Netanyahu and his government.
The fact that Netanyahu would bring into his future coalition groups that are the ideological mutation of the Jewish Defense League — which is classified as a terrorist organization by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation — speaks volumes about the changing relationship between the US and Israel. Thanks to Washington’s blind support of Israel, Netanyahu feels politically triumphant and invincible, even above America’s own laws.
However, to achieve his pathetic dream of being Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, Netanyahu should be wary of the bloody consequences that his reckless actions are sure to yield. Indeed, Netanyahu may be provoking the kind of violence that is much bigger than he is able to contain.
Al-Aqsa Mosque has served not only as a religious symbol for Palestinians, but a national symbol as well, representing their coveted freedom and serving as a source of hope and unity over the course of generations. While the blood of Palestinians is irrelevant in Netanyahu’s quest for political dominance, the international community should take immediate measures to prevent what could become an Israel-induced bloodbath in the coming weeks.