The saying that history doesn’t repeat, but rhymes is no truer than in Jerusalem. Two years have yet to pass since the large-scale escalation that took root in the city morphed into deadly violence between Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel and an Israel-Hamas military escalation that claimed the lives of over 200 Palestinians and 12 Israelis. Now, once again, events in and around Al-Aqsa Mosque during Ramadan have become proximate cause for a cascading series of violent events that have victimized Palestinians and Israelis, and opened another chapter of contested narratives and mutual recriminations.
While Israel found itself deflecting and retaliating for rockets from Gaza, Lebanon and Syria in the wake of its raid on Al-Aqsa Mosque, a spillover conflagration as sustained and deadly as in May 2021 has so far been averted. But this incident should remind us that with each rhyming escalation comes a new and more complicated set of dynamics.
From Simmering to Boiling Over
The latest round of violence came despite a months-long focus from Israelis, Palestinians and the international community on maintaining calm and avoiding destabilization as Ramadan, Passover and Easter coincide. A February meeting in Aqaba, Jordan, and a follow-up convening in Sharm Al Sheikh, Egypt in March, saw the respective hosts and the United States bring Israelis and Palestinians together to commit to de-escalatory measures in advance of the converging holidays. While the Egypt meeting seemed to put things back on track, these efforts had already shown their limitations when, in the immediate wake of that first meeting, senior Israeli officials distanced themselves publicly from its outcome, and Palestinian and Israeli violent extremists attacked each other’s communities.
While violence has been a daily and compounding phenomenon of the conflict and occupation in recent years (2022 was the deadliest year for West Bank Palestinians at the hands of Israelis, and for Israelis at the hands of Palestinians in recent years), the prospect of a large-scale outbreak was most recently raised when Israeli police raided Al-Aqsa during Ramadan last week. In turn, this event can be traced to a drumbeat of instigation by spoilers on both sides. These include fringe far-right Jewish groups calling for Passover sacrifices and efforts to “retake” the compound that Jews consider the site of the historic Temple, and Hamas, who amplified these messages to call on Palestinians to defend the Al-Aqsa compound against such efforts by staying overnight in the mosque in defiance of earlier agreements reached between Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian authorities.
In this context, Israel defended its decision to storm the mosque as a response to hundreds of Palestinian youth barricading themselves inside with projectiles, including rocks and fire crackers. Yet, the unbridled violence of the police crackdown that prompted even Israel’s chief of police to register concern, added fuel to a smoldering fire. What followed, despite the absence of fatalities, was the most serious escalation between Israel and Lebanon since they fought a war in 2006. Thirty-four rockets came across Lebanon’s southern border. Missiles were fired from Gaza, and Israel retaliated the next day in both territories, blaming Hamas for the escalation across the board, and hitting related targets. Meanwhile, Hamas praised two terror attacks in Tel Aviv and the West Bank that left an Italian tourist, and an Israeli mother and two daughters dead, lauding the attacks as retaliation for Israel’s “crimes in the West Bank … and Al Aqsa mosque.” Six rockets from Syria came a couple of days later: a rare occurrence at Israel’s northeastern border.
All Sides Seem to Want to Avoid Escalation
The relative de-escalation that quickly prevailed can be attributed to the multiple actors’ lack of interest in and appetite for sustained escalation. The range and direction of rockets fired from Gaza, Lebanon and Syria, and by Israel in response, appeared designed to warn more than harm. Israel has blamed the rockets on Palestinian groups operating in the different territories, particularly Hamas, while also noting that in Lebanon, this could not have happened without Hezbollah’s acquiescence. Indeed, Hamas’ political bureau chief, Ismail Haniyeh, was in Lebanon meeting Hezbollah immediately after the raid on Al-Aqsa. Hezbollah has praised the rockets, but not accepted any responsibility, undoubtedly aware that dragging beleaguered Lebanon into a war with Israel would not garner it any local support. Many Lebanese have expressed vehement criticism, fear and rejection of their country once again becoming a proxy theater for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister, Najib Mikati, was quick to “reject the use of its territory to carry out operations that destabilize the situation.”
Meanwhile, Hamas is more focused on keeping the Gaza Strip out of yet another devastating military confrontation, preferring to focus its resistance efforts in the West Bank where it can simultaneously be a headache for Israel while undermining and weakening the Palestinian Authority’s standing among Palestinians.
For Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a security crisis — which he has been historically adept at handling — could arguably serve as a unifying distraction from his deeply unpopular judicial reform efforts. That said, it is doubtful that he would welcome such an escalation. First, in the current climate, deterioration could yield further popular dissatisfaction with his government. Second, his traditional inclination toward military caution runs in stark contrast to his extremist coalition partner Itamar Ben Gvir, who espouses a heavy hand against the Palestinians, and a demand for Israeli sovereignty on the Holy Esplanade that runs counter to Netanyahu’s ongoing pledge to maintain the historic Status Quo arrangement. His need to keep Ben Gvir in the fold to maintain his governing coalition would pose a challenge for Netanyahu in responsibly managing spiraling violence.
The unknown quantity is the extent to which Iran was directly involved in the multi-front rocket retaliation. With its recent rapprochement with Saudi Arabia, the country may be reluctant to play provocateur in a context in which de-escalation remains a broad regional goal. At the same time, Iran is a known funder and supporter of Hezbollah and also of Hamas and other Palestinian militant factions. These groups have rallied around a common cause in recent years, cooperating under a framework of shared patronage by Iran, and a self-branding as an “axis of resistance” to Israel.
It is also noteworthy that in recent months, Israel has stepped up its targeting of Iranian interests in Syria, most recently killing two members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps on the heels of a daring infiltration into Israel from Lebanon of a man carrying an explosive device with the hallmarks of Hezbollah origin. All of this raises questions about the possibility of Iran having formally greenlighted the surprising escalation from Syrian territory as part of an ongoing Israeli-Iran shadow war. Yet, with Israel squarely pointing the finger at Palestinian groups and directing retaliation at Hamas targets only, Hezbollah claiming no role, and a seeming mutual set of interests by several parties in avoiding broad escalation, it would seem that neither Israel nor Iran has an interest in connecting this latest Ramadan escalation with their broader fight in Syria.
Return of the Firefighters
This urgent desire for calm, and concern for precipitating factors, was reflected in the regional and international response. The Al-Aqsa incursion led to notably sharp condemnation, concern, and criticism, both from the Arab and Muslim worlds and the broader international community. At the same time, the old and new normalizers, including Egypt, Jordan and the UAE, along with Qatar have scrambled to mediate and de-escalate.
Egypt exerted efforts to prevent escalation from Gaza by trying to ensure a measured response from Hamas and a relatively mild Israeli counter-attack with the aim of preventing a much wider military confrontation. Initially, Jordan had been squarely focused on stabilizing the situation, but has since turned up the diplomatic heat in its vociferous rejection of the Israeli argument that the Jordanian Waqf — which oversees the affairs of the al-Haram al-Sharif compound — is responsible for the Al-Aqsa escalation since it refrained from preventing Palestinian violence at the mosque. In response, Jordan has argued that it would be capable of fulfilling its responsibility enshrined in the Status Quo arrangement and Israel-Jordan peace treaty if the Israeli attacks that fuel violence were to stop. As Jordanian and Israeli relations have deteriorated over the traded accusations, the United States and UAE have been instrumental in mediating between the two, and guiding events in a constructive direction, responding to requests from both parties for help tamping down the other’s rhetoric.
The Risks to and Opportunities for Regional Cooperation
Once again, events have conspired to remind us that the notion that this conflict’s status quo can be maintained is a delusion. These latest developments add yet another layer of complication to this intractable situation, reactivating dormant fronts and testing strengthened regional relations. Since the Abraham Accords were signed in 2020, the UAE and Bahrain have indicated to Israel on several occasions that deterioration in the latter’s relationship with and posture toward the Palestinians will prevent progress in advancing bilateral cooperation. Indeed, tensions in the last few weeks led Morocco to postpone setting a date for an expected convening of the cooperative Negev Forum. While the relationship between Israel and the three countries is not yet under significant threat, its evolution is increasingly challenged. These perpetual crises have negative implications for Israel’s and the U.S. administration’s objective of deepening existing normalization relationships, advancing new ones and maximizing opportunities for growing regional cooperation.
As we approach the end of Ramadan, the next few days will be crucial. If Israeli incursions into Al-Aqsa or Palestinian terror attacks on Israeli civilians resume, today’s relative calm won’t hold. We also may not have seen the end of further Israeli military action in Gaza, Lebanon and Syria, depending on how things unfold. As we have seen time and again, the fire brigade approach can lead to short term de-escalation but does nothing to prevent a subsequent and more deadly blaze.
On the opportunity side of the ledger, effective engagement by regional actors during this latest escalation, underscores that the potential exists to do more than douse fires, and beyond that move to address the political, social, and economic drivers of the conflict. It would require the United States, in concert with the growing circle of regional players and other allies, to embrace a sustained strategic and coordinated approach that leverages trust, relationships and influence on the parties to move in a constructive direction. The Aqaba and Sharm Al Sheikh meetings helped, but in the absence of ongoing dialogue at such a level, they proved limited in their ability to staunch violence at times of great strain. However, their communiques did point to the Israelis’ and Palestinians’ ability, with committed third party help, to agree to principles and mechanisms for action. The proof will be in the follow through and implementation, which has historically fallen short. However, with consistent effort, a willingness to use leverage to hold the parties accountable, and creativity on the part of the United States and its regional and international allies, more fireproofing is possible.