On September 28, 2000, Ariel Sharon led a group of Likud politicians, surrounded by a thousand armed police, up the Temple Mount, home of the Al-Aqsa Mosque: an unprecedented provocation at one of Islam’s holiest sites. The next day, as thousands of Palestinians protested, Israeli police opened fire on the protesters, and, the day after that, the second intifada was born.
Sharon knew what he was doing, and, importantly, he knew where he was doing it. According to several scholars, including Patrick Tyler in A World of Trouble, Sharon’s ascent of the Temple Mount was well planned and intentionally provocative.
Netanyahu knows the importance of the Al-Aqsa mosque too. On September 24, 1996, Netanyahu opened an ancient tunnel in the Old City of Jerusalem that came very near the foundations of the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Israeli intelligence had warned him that such a provocation near the mosque would invite violence. It did. Protests erupted, and Israeli police responded by firing rubber bullets from close range, killing Palestinian protesters.
It was with this history seared in memory that Israel chose to respond to Palestinians protesting against the illegal eviction of forty families in Sheikh Jarrah by repeatedly raiding the Al-Aqsa Mosque and by firing rubber bullets at worshippers in the mosque while assaulting them with tear gas and stun grenades: inside the mosque.
The Israeli strategy of provoking a desired war is not new. Referring to war with Syria, Moshe Dayan, the head of the Israeli Defence Force, once confessed to a reporter, off the record, that Israel deliberately provoked Syria to attack. He said that Israel would send tractors further and further into the demilitarized zone to farm the land until Syria responded. "In the end the Syrians would get annoyed and shoot. And then we would use artillery fire and later the air force also, and that’s how it was." Dayan admitted that Israel had started “more than 80 percent” of the skirmishes with Syria.
The strategy of provocation was also repeatedly used against Egypt. In 1955, Israel crossed the border and killed thirty-seven soldiers in an Egyptian military camp in Gaza. In Mythologies Without End, Jerome Slater reports that former Israeli Prime Minister Moshe Sharett called the "criminal act" a "deliberate effort by Ben-Gurion and Dayan to provoke a war with Egypt."
Sharett once referred in his diary to “the long chain of false incidents and hostilities we have invented, and the many clashes we have provoked.” Sharett called this “the method of provocation and revenge.”
Why Start it Now?
On April 6, 2021, the United States returned to talks whose hope was to resuscitate the JCPOA nuclear deal with Iran.
Within weeks, Israel had reportedly concluded that they would not be able to pressure the US to significantly strengthen the nuclear agreement. So, while Israel re-focussed their demands to greater International Atomic Energy Agency powers to inspect Iran’s nuclear sites, they knew they had lost one of their most desired demands: expanding the JCPOA to include Iranian support for groups like Hezbollah and Hamas.
Within weeks of that apparent defeat, Israel launched airstrikes on Gaza.
Within three days of those Israeli strikes, all but six Republican Senators, led by Senator Marco Rubio, had sent a letter to President Biden, calling on him "to immediately end negotiations with Iran, and make clear that sanctions relief will not be provided," since sanctions relief would allow Iran to increase funding to Hamas, which would allow Hamas to continue acquiring rockets.
Or maybe Iran wasn’t the only thing Netanyahu was thinking about when he provocatively attacked worshippers in the Al-Aqsa mosque. Perhaps he was also thinking about keeping himself in power and out of jail. Failing to form a government after the latest election means Netanyahu faces not only the possibility of losing office but of going to jail on corruption charges that could reveal long hidden secrets about Israel’s nuclear program.
Prior to the war, a "government of change" made up of a fragile coalition of the Israeli far right and Israeli Palestinian parties appeared to be about to push Netanyahu from office. War with the Palestinians would make such a coalition impossible. Then there was a war. Then Naftali Bennet, head of the far right Yamina party, jumped over board and abandoned the government of change.
Why End it Now?
The Biden administration joined a long American tradition of providing Israel cover at the UN. Four times the Security Council attempted to issue a joint statement calling for a cessation of violence; four times the US blocked the attempt. When the US blocked the third attempt in a week, and effort led by Norway, China and Tunisia that called for "de-escalation of the situation, cessation of violence and respect for international humanitarian law, including the protection of civilians, especially children," China called the US’s actions at the Security Council "obstruction." That "obstruction" would continue when, on May 19, the US again refused to support a French initiative for a Security Council resolution.
The blanket of cover for Israel stretched beyond the UN. Reiterating "the steadfast partnership between the United States and Israel," Secretary of State Antony Blinken "expressed his concerns" to Prime Minister Netanyahu, "regarding the barrage of rocket attacks on Israel, his condolences for the lives lost as a result, and the United States’ strong support for Israel’s right to defend itself." He added his wish that "all parties… de-escalate tensions and bring a halt to the violence."
On May 12, President Biden spoke with Prime Minister Netanyahu. He conveyed his "encouragement" to restore calm but "condemned the rocket attacks by Hamas and other terrorist groups, including against Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. He conveyed his unwavering support for Israel’s security and for Israel’s legitimate right to defend itself and its people, while protecting civilians."
Perhaps worst of all, Biden went beyond condemning Hamas’ rocket attacks but not Israel’s bombing and gave his approval of Israel’s bombing. Biden gave his evaluation of Israel’s assault on Gaza by concluding that "there has not been a significant overreaction." With that statement, Biden gave US approval and permission to the war on Gaza.
American restraint of the UN and international negotiators appears to have been intended to provide Israel cover and time to accomplish the goals of their bombardment of Gaza before allowing diplomacy to take over. That intention was apparently achieved. White House press secretary Jen Psaki explained, "We believe the Israelis have achieved significant military objectives that they laid out to achieve, in relation to protecting their people and to responding to the thousands of rocket attacks from Hamas. So that’s why, in part, we feel they’re in a position to start winding their operation down."
Provocation Round Two?
Only hours after the ceasefire was announced, Israeli security forces, in a repeat of the provocation that successfully started the war, fired teargas, stun grenades and rubber bullets at worshippers inside the Al-Aqsa mosque.
Only days after the ceasefire was announced, Israeli police launched operation "Law and Order," an "extensive arrest operation" that was approved by the Minister of Internal Security and the Police Commissioner that set a goal of arresting 500 Palestinians.
Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.