Voice

No Peace Process Means No Peace

If Palestinians have no hope of a capital in East Jerusalem, Israelis will have little hope of normality.

By , a Beirut-based columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East.
Palestinians throw stones at Israeli soldiers.
Palestinians throw stones at Israeli soldiers during an anti-Israel protest over tension in Jerusalem, at the Qalandiya checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem, in the occupied West Bank, on May 11. ABBAS MOMANI/AFP via Getty Images

Tensions between Israelis and Palestinians escalated this week as Hamas, an Islamist Palestinian group, launched rockets into Israel and Israeli security forces struck the Gaza Strip with ferocity last witnessed in the 2014 Gaza War. In this latest violence, dozens of Palestinians, including several children, and six Israelis have been killed, yet each side threatened to continue attacks. Israeli tanks have been mobilized, and a full-blown war seems imminent.

Israeli ambassador Dore Gold, who is president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and served as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations as well as director-general of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told Foreign Policy Hamas’s onslaught on civilian areas has created “a strong Israeli consensus for a full-scale war for the purpose of disarming them.”

Tensions between Israelis and Palestinians escalated this week as Hamas, an Islamist Palestinian group, launched rockets into Israel and Israeli security forces struck the Gaza Strip with ferocity last witnessed in the 2014 Gaza War. In this latest violence, dozens of Palestinians, including several children, and six Israelis have been killed, yet each side threatened to continue attacks. Israeli tanks have been mobilized, and a full-blown war seems imminent.

Israeli ambassador Dore Gold, who is president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and served as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations as well as director-general of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told Foreign Policy Hamas’s onslaught on civilian areas has created “a strong Israeli consensus for a full-scale war for the purpose of disarming them.”

Both sides blame the other for initiating the provocation. Israeli security forces said they merely hoped to maintain law and order when they thwarted Palestinian stone-throwers at the al-Aqsa mosque last week. This has, however, been widely seen as a weak justification for using stun grenades and tear gas shells inside Islam’s third holiest site. The scenes of Israeli security officials storming the mosque during the month of Ramadan as rubber bullets pierced the evening prayers and worshippers ran helter-skelter looking for cover offended many Muslims worldwide. The question Israelis will find hard to answer is whether such highhandedness was indeed necessary or whether they could have adopted more sensitive policing techniques.

The latest escalation also revealed the inherent flaws in Israel’s long-standing policies in East Jerusalem. Does it serve Israel’s interests when Israel’s government denies Palestinians their claim over a part of Jerusalem and instead expropriates their land? Or is it self-defeating in the long run? Israel conquered areas west of the Jordan River, including East Jerusalem, in the Six-Day War of 1967. It annexed East Jerusalem in 1980. But this annexation has not been internationally recognized, and Palestinians have steadfastly refused to accept any deal that excludes East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state.

For all practical purposes, Israel has been governing East Jerusalem for decades, which has led many conservative Israelis to believe they can maintain their full control over a city that is home to Islamic, Jewish, and Christian holy sites. Their confidence increased when former U.S. President Donald Trump relocated his country’s embassy to Jerusalem in 2018. Reports suggest the peace plan Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Trump’s son-in-law and Middle East advisor, Jared Kushner, were working on did not even offer East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state.

But the latest clashes reveal that although Israel’s military supremacy gives it control of East Jerusalem—and normalization deals with Arab nations reduce the chance of a regional war—neither can usher in lasting peace. Israel’s steady attempts to alter East Jerusalem’s demographics in favor of Jews has only stoked dangerous levels of resentment.

Al-Aqsa mosque would not be abandoned, said Hamas’s leader Ismail Haniyeh shortly after the Hamas’s armed unit launched 130 rockets at Tel Aviv. Even though only a few of those penetrated Israel’s Iron Dome defense system, they succeeded in causing panic among the usually relaxed residents of the city situated on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Hamas does not have the capacity to win a war against Israel, yet it showed it can also cause havoc, inflict Israeli losses, and reinforce East Jerusalem as a red line.

Yossi Mekelberg, a professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the Middle East program at Chatham House, said Israelis can use force to win this battle and the next battle but not the war. “At the end, the Palestinians are still there, and Israel is just becoming a more apartheid state,” Mekelberg said. “Hamas is not the solution—it has only used the attacks to bolster its image among Palestinians. But it has shown that it is the last one to resist Jewish expansion into Palestinian lands. The solution is, of course, negotiations and a drastic change in Israel’s policies.”

At the heart of the recent clashes is the feared eviction of Palestinian families from Sheikh Jarrah, a neighborhood in East Jerusalem. These families had been residing in homes that historically belonged to Jewish families and under Israeli law, Jews have the right to reclaim their ancestors’ property. But no such law protects the rights of up to 750,000 Palestinians on whose land the state of Israel was built. Palestinians have been protesting the eviction—as they have against several Jewish settlements that have propped up all over East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Disaffection among Palestinians has deepened over the last few years as Trump overwhelmingly sided with Israel’s point of view, and four Islamic nations signed normalization deals, including the Abraham Accords, with Israel. Palestinians feel cornered, alone in their struggle for self-determination, and feel they have little to lose by congregating on the streets. Some have supported Hamas’s violent response while others feel the group may have weakened their largely peaceful protests against Israel’s ever-expanding settlements.

“The strategy of the settler movement is to build more neighborhoods inside East Jerusalem, evict Palestinians, and encircle the Old City, which prevents part of East Jerusalem from becoming the capital of a future state of Palestine,” Mekelberg said. “The Old City is almost encircled by Jewish neighborhoods. But this is a recipe for violence, not peace.”

According to Peace Now, a nongovernmental organization that aims to promote a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, 12 Jewish settlements have been built in East Jerusalem and are inhabited by 220,000 Jewish settlers while more than 441,000 Jewish settlers occupy the West Bank in more than 250 settlements. The numbers of Jewish settlers keep increasing while Palestinians have no course to justice.

“There is no such thing as a Palestinian state without its capital in East Jerusalem. If it isn’t—there is no peace deal and no peace,” said Hagit Ofran, an activist at Peace Now. “Israel tried very hard to make sure that Jerusalem will be “forever united.” But in fact, Jerusalem is divided. There are two cities in Jerusalem, never really integrated and with lots of tensions.”

Nour Odeh, a Palestinian political analyst and founding member of the Democratic National Assembly in Ramallah, said Jerusalem is “THE red line,” and nothing is more firmly entrenched in the hearts, minds, and collective consciousness of all Palestinians. “For years, anyone with an inkling of responsibility has warned that Israel is pushing things in the direction of a religious conflict, which is simply disastrous,” Odeh wrote. She said the roots of the current crisis were sown by Trump, but U.S. President Joe Biden isn’t helping.

“Trump’s policies were intoxicating to the Israeli right, which is only getting more extreme. They put the region on a powder keg and ignited the spark,” Odeh wrote. “Biden’s ‘I couldn’t be bothered’ approach to the conflict will only make things worse. Serious steps that undo this severe damage and resets the entire conversation, as well as courage in the face of domestic pressure from right-wing supporters of Israel in the U.S., are needed.”

The Biden administration has defended Israel’s right to respond to Hamas’s rockets but also asserted Palestinians have a right to safety. It has perhaps used egalitarian verbiage but is desperately lacking in action. Biden is yet to reopen the consulate in East Jerusalem, which he had promised to do. As the new U.S. president ponders how he should intervene, if at all, Israeli bombs are pounding Gaza, and Israelis, too, are dying. Riots have been reported in several cities with at least one synagogue set on fire.

Yet just as rockets streak the skies above the Jews and the Arabs, there is ever lingering hope. In 2017 while on a reporting trip in the Old City, I knocked on the door of an Arab man who lived in the same building as a Jewish settler, an Orthodox Jew. The man, who made me promise I would not write his name if I ever reported what he told me, said he had no problem with the Jewish family and did not like that they needed to live behind a metal door and with armed soldiers outside. “Whatever the politicians say, we can live together, and we must. It is the only way, and it is a good way.”

Anchal Vohra is a Beirut-based columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East. Twitter: @anchalvohra