Israel-Gaza 2021: A moment for the emerging moderates?

The more tolerant Arab states have no incentive to support the extremist theocrats like Hamas and Hezbollah that rally for resistance rather than Jul 24, 2021, Newsi, South Africa

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Commons; Signing of Abraham Accords, White House, Credit: Avi Ohayon

Extremists of all types have had their debut moment in the 11 days fighting between Israel and Gaza. By launching rockets at the holy sites of Jerusalem, Hamas – the Muslim Brotherhood affiliate running the Gazan enclave – has sought to place itself at the center of Palestinian political life. Hamas’s rhetoric has also empowered extremist elements inside Israel and has spurred attacks between mobs from both Israeli Jewish and Arab communities. They lit a fire. But will it continue to burn?

This round of fighting has also gone further on social media than before. Platforms like TikTok spread incitement while proudly showing young Arab mobs attacking Jews in the middle of the street. Antisemitism levels have gone up 80% in a month. In America, the socialist wing of the Democratic party has been pushing hard to overturn the traditional moderate position of the party. Those such as Rep. Rashida Tlaib, have openly spoken about the destruction of Israel.

South Africa has not been spared from this kind of rhetoric. Crowds waving flags of extremist organizations have marched on Jewish community buildings, and the ANC’s Jess Duarte went to the Israeli Embassy, yelling that Israel was involved in a vast global imperial plot to steal land in Africa. She then encouraged South Africa to boycott Israeli products… and Jacob’s coffee (Jacob’s coffee has no connection to Israel, it just has a Jewish sounding name).

Looking at this, one may wonder about the scale and scope of these events. The conflict lasted 11 days and – although Hamas fired over 4300 rockets aimed at Israeli civilians – a swift and careful action by the IDF decreased the number of overall casualties, including non-combatants who became victims of this conflict. Compared to 2014, the last time such conflict took place, the number of Palestinian casualties was 10%. But number of casualties, it seems, has little relation to the scope of hate, especially for those who choose to look at the Middle East via the lense of the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict”.

However, there are other lenses one may use.

Below the surface, moderating forces have quietly been driving a slow but stable momentum for change in the region. Understanding the ideological threat of religious extremism that created phenomena like the Islamic State (ISIS), it became apparent to countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the UAE that radical voices should not be tolerated. All of them have banned the Muslim Brotherhood’s activities and designated the group – to which Hamas is affiliated – as a terrorist entity. At the same time, more countries realize that the key for progress in the Middle East is not additional needless escalations and bans. Accepting the other might be a substitute to eliminating the other and the Abraham Accords, the peace deals signed between Israel and a number of North African and Gulf Arab states, are the best example of that emerging trend. Although these Arab and Muslim countries have offered criticisms of Israel and had pushed for the end of fighting – it was evident that they saw a bigger picture. We have seen no reversal of the process, nor a recall of ambassadors as this would give the victory to the radicals who seek to “win” with yet another fight, regardless of the price paid by the people of Gaza. The real victory, according to the new moderate, is by normalizing the idea that all of us belong here and that we can accept each other rather than try to eliminate each other.

The latest conflict was the first big test of the regional peace and integration goals of the Abraham Accords, and the fact that they are holding is indicative of the upward and continuing trends. The more tolerant Arab states have no incentive to support the extremist theocrats like Hamas and Hezbollah that rally for resistance rather than renaissance. Inside Israel, too, there have been important events pushing back against extremist sentiments. A giant billboard has been placed on the main highway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv stating that “Arabs and Jews will never be enemies”, an idea which has been boosted by dozens of inter-community vigils across the country. Just two weeks following the end of fighting Israelis saw a new Arab Minster appointed to the government and, for the very first time, an Arab party, Ra’am, join the coalition. Monsour Abbas, the leader of Ra’am, even visited a synagogue that had been damaged during the fighting and promised to assist in the rebuilding process.

The signals coming out of the Gulf have been clear and are being read in other capitals in both Europe and Africa. European countries have come out in support of ceasefire efforts, and in condemnation of rocket fire at civilians. With the exception of South Africa, sub-Saharan countries have basically been silent. Many are understanding that Gaza is simply Mozambique but with missiles; and many are recognising that the problem with extremism is widespread on the continent. Israel has recently rejoined the African Union (AU).

In the global debate on the Middle East the forces of moderation tend to be quieter and therefore harder to discern. However, zooming out of a region that is still burning after a decade of fire that had started from a hopeful “Arab Spring” – the moderates may have their debut as well. The future will not become brighter if we choose again to set it on fire. It is about time to cheer for a different Middle East.

By Dr. Nir Boms and Benji Shulman.

Dr. Nir Boms is a research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University and at the International Center for Counter Terrorism in Hertzliya. Benji Shulman is the Director of Public Policy for the South African Zionist Federation.

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