An Iron-Clad Distinction: We Must Differentiate Between Hamas and the Riots Within Israel

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Israel’s responses in each of these two arenas, internally in Israeli cities and externally vis-à-vis Gaza, may have dramatic consequences for the future. The ultimate goal of Hamas is to drag the “Arabs of 1948” (Israel’s Arab citizens) into the conflict. Even today, it is important to note the growing desire of the majority of Arab citizens to integrate in Israeli society, and to drive a wedge between them and the leaders in Gaza

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Even as the riots and rocket fire continue, and in the midst of the fear and hostility that have characterized the last few days, it is important that we be aware that what we are experiencing is not an isolated incident. In fact, we are in the midst of two dramatic but different events, and how we handle each of them may have profound and long-term consequences for life in Israel.

Policymakers' ultimate goals should be based on a clear differentiation between the actions taken against Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip, and how the government responds to the extreme violence and rioting in Israel’s mixed cities in the course of which red lines were crossed, and multiple crimes committed against both individuals and property. The violent struggle currently being waged against Israel by the Islamist organizations in Gaza cannot be allowed to gain a victory (from their perspective) in shattering the dream of a shared society and coexistence between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel.

Israel’s national strategy with regard to Gaza is that there is no strategy. Over the last decade, the government has decided to settle for a tactical approach-- that is, the acceptance—as a given-- of periodic rounds of armed conflict with the Gaza Strip. The modest goal defined by the government for the IDF is to extend the periods of quiet between fighting, and to reduce the price paid by Israel while increasing the price exacted from the other side in battle. In effect, this policy recognizes the sovereignty of Hamas over the territory of Gaza as a predestined fact, allowing it to build up its forces and upgrade its combat methods toward future rounds of fighting, in each of which we can expect to see higher levels of sophistication and violence.

There are realistic alternatives to this status quo strategy, but implementing them would require courageous and determined decision-making by national leadership.

One alternative is based on the premise that de facto, we already recognize Hamas’s sovereignty, and thus the purpose of our strategy should be to reach a long-term ceasefire agreement, or hudna. This will require Israel’s leaders to be brave enough to admit that in effect --they recognize Hamas and thus are willing to “do business” with it.

The second alternative demands even more difficult decisions, and perseverance in its implementation. This would include an extended and systematic effort to destroy Hamas’s institutions and leadership, in both Gaza and the West Bank, in order to allow the Palestinian Authority to rule in its place. This alternative also demands courage from our national leadership, as any agreement with the Palestinian Authority, under the leadership of Fatah, will carry a political price tag.

Both these alternatives are highly challenging and require determined decision-making by leaders, and so-- it seems easier for the national leadership to continue to wallow in the mud of its tactical approach and to hope that the next round of fighting never comes.

But as long as the situation vis-à-vis the Gaza Strip remains fragile and volatile, we must make a clear distinction between internal and external events. It is in the utmost interest of Hamas to drag the “Arabs of 1948,” as they refer to them (meaning, Israel’s Arab citizens), into opening another front against Israel, with Hamas leading the way and setting the tone. On the other hand, it is in the utmost interest of Israel to create the sharpest possible distinction between the two events and handle them with entirely different tools.

The eruption of fighting within Israel, in its mixed cities and on its highways, comes at a point when, for the first time in decades, we were close to the establishment of a coalition government with support from parties that represent the Arab public. What we are seeing is not a one-way shift towards extremism and separation between the Jewish and Arabs in Israel. Rather, there are also opposing trends , and it is a national priority to strengthen the trends leading toward integration while simultaneously denouncing and cracking down on any instances of violence, looting, and lynching.

Normalizing the political participation of the Arab public in the centers of decision-making in Israel is a realistic and achievable goal. For several decades now we have seen the growing desire of Arab citizens to integrate into Israeli society. For example, in IDI's most recent Israeli Democracy Index survey we found that a large majority (81%) of the Arab public and a small majority (57%) of the Jewish public believe that most Arab citizens of Israel want to be part and parcel of Israeli society. During the long months of the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw Jewish and Arab health professionals fighting the virus side by side in a heartwarming commitment to our joint society. Last June, it even seemed that the pandemic might serve as a bridge between the two populations, when around one-half of Israelis reported that the crisis had improved relations between them.

But alongside the desire for integration, there are also data indicating hardships, frustration, and sometimes even despair among young Arabs. For example, around one-third (30%) of Arabs aged 18–30 are neither working nor studying, as revealed in a study by Dr. Nasreen Hadad Haj-Yahya at the Israel Democracy Institute. This is no justification for violence, but clearly these young people do not have much to lose, lacking any future or any hope.

The timing of the current escalation is also linked to religious feelings that tend to be particularly charged during Ramadan. As if we needed a reminder, we once again are seeing that the issue of Jerusalem continues to be highly sensitive, with the power to bring people out to the streets. This is all the more the case when partial and inaccurate information is spread across social networks with great enthusiasm, adding fuel to the flames.

In coping with an internal crisis such as the one we are witnessing in mixed cities, national and local leadership must play a vital role. The behavior of leaders will, to a large extent, determine whether or not we are headed toward realizing the opportunities and aspirations of recent years for a shared society. An example of such leadership laying the path for partnership can be seen in the courageous statements of MK Issawi Frej of Meretz, who has called on Arab leaders to unequivocally denounce the looting and acts of violence.

National leadership must create an iron-clad distinction between the two issues; to develop a national strategy vis-à-vis Gaza that does not accept repeated rounds of fighting as simply our fate; and to act to solve the fundamental challenges facing the country’s Arab citizens, so as to alienate and drive a wedge between them and the Islamist leaders of Gaza.

The article was published in the Jerusalem Post.