July 22, 2024
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Is the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict Shifting From a Political to a Religious War?

Near-daily Palestinian attacks against Israeli civilians and soldiers have been ongoing since October. This “new kind of terrorism,” as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described it, might mean more knives and less suicide bombings, but it is all part of the decades-old Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Why the recent escalation, which some are starting to report as a third Intifada?

Speaking at a December event celebrating the release of Volume 20 of the Palestine-Israel Journal, co-editor and founder Ziad AbuZayyad said Palestinian youth are carrying out attacks out of despair and absence of any political hope. He said in the cases of Arab-Israeli teens and young adults who have been involved in the attacks, they are doing it because they have nothing to do.

“They are frustrated, so they act,” AbuZayyad said.

Sure to clarify that even infuriation does not justify violence, AbuZayyad’s comments are rooted in a political reality that is starting to surface more in the Israeli media: the Israeli government has failed at investing in and supporting its Arab minority. The result is an unprecedented socioeconomic gap and profound cultural alienation on the part of most Arab Israeli citizens.

Some communities experience a nearly one-third unemployment rate, such as Sakhnin (26 percent) or Arrabe (28 percent). The latest Israeli poverty report published by Israel’s National Insurance Institute showed that 37.4 percent of Israel’s poor are Arab Israelis, though Arab Israelis make up only about 20 percent of the Israeli population. The Israeli Democracy Index 2015 reported that 66.5 percent of Arab Israelis consider themselves to be part of a weak or fairly weak constituency, as compared with only 28 percent of Jews who said the same.

So, the current Palestinian uprising is solely political?

Not so, says Adnan Abu Amer, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at the National University for Open Education. From his perspective, some worrying trends indicate “we are regressing into a religious war.”

While historically, the world has viewed the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as secular and nationalistic—the Palestinians as driving for national sovereignty and not religious freedom—a younger generation is clinging more to religious ideology, Abu Amer says.

“We are seeing a politicization of religious values—people using religion for political purposes. This is dangerous,” Abu Amer says, noting that he has witnessed Muslims acting violent, pushing and shoving one another as they ascend the Temple Mount to pray.

“This is not a true Muslim behavior. And I have seen not truly Jewish behaviors. We are not behaving as Jews and Muslims,” he says.

Ofer Zalzberg, senior analyst with the Middle East Program of the International Crisis Group, says Israel is undergoing a demographic shift that could also lead to a religious radicalization of the conflict. He tells JNS.org that every year, for more than a decade, Israel’s annual population survey has seen a rise in the number of Orthodox individuals living in Israel. The 61-coalition member government includes all of the religious parties and there is a push by religious Zionist politicians and activists to achieve greater roles in mainstream parties, such as Likud.

“After the 2005 disengagement, religious Jewish Israelis felt the national religious parties failed since they did not succeed in stopping the disengagement. So they launched an intentional strategy of being part of the Likud. Today, one-fifth of the Likud membership is national religious,” explains Zalzberg.

Further, we are seeing a small but vocal contingent of these religious Zionist individuals going against the very State of Israel and its institutions in favor of a Messianic, Temple-focused Judaism. This belief system is the likely cause of an increasing number of the so-called “price tag” terrorist acts, according to Zalzberg; these Jews believe they are fighting a holy war.

“On both sides, eschatological beliefs are being misunderstood, abused and misused,” he says.

Zalzberg continues: “What is the link between religion and violence? One is about things that, because of your religious beliefs, you want or even need them and therefore you would fight for them, use violence to secure them. … The other is that you have needs or goals that are in fact not driven by religion, but, for different reasons, religious leaders use religious discourse to grant them legitimacy. This is part of the dynamics we are seeing in the current escalation of the conflict.”

He says as the religious population in Israel increases, more people perceive the conflict as religious—on both sides.

What is striking is that religious leaders, according to both the Palestinian and the Jewish side, have no power to stop their constituents.

“On the Palestinian side, I don’t see any religious leader who the people will listen to and obey,” says AbuZayyad. “Even if you could find a sheikh or any religious leader to come out and ask people to stop the violence, no one will listen to him.”

Zalzberg agrees. He says religious leaders do not have control over Israeli society. Nonetheless, he believes they could have influence.

“They need to speak in a way that is inspirational and politically relevant,” notes Zalzberg. “Religious leaders need to be more courageous. … This is an asymmetric conflict, but we need religious leaders to guide us.”

Religion, Zalzberg continues, can be “benign and positive” and can even be a resource for peacemaking. He is careful to be clear that when it comes to solving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and de-escalating the violence, taking religion (and religious people) out of the equation is not the answer.

“Peace cannot be done by secular people for secular people. It has to include the religious population and their interests. It has to take into account the evolution of religious law—Jewish and Muslim,” says Zalzberg. “If we don’t change this mindset, then peacemaking will fail.”

By Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman/JNS.org

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