By ordering a brutal attack against Palestinian worshippers inside Al-Aqsa Mosque on the 14th day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu knew very well that the Palestinians would retaliate. Netanyahu’s motive should be obvious. He wanted to divert attention from the mass protests that have rocked Israel since January and divided Israeli society along ideological and political lines in ways never witnessed before.
Unwilling to relinquish his hard-earned decisive election victory and entirely right-wing coalition government, while fearing that major concessions to his political rivals could see his coalition dissolve, Netanyahu set his sights on Al-Aqsa Mosque.
History has proven that Israeli attacks on Palestinian holy places are guaranteed to provoke a Palestinian response. For Netanyahu and his extreme far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, the price of Palestinian retaliation was worth the political gains from uniting Israelis of all political backgrounds behind them. Ben-Gvir, in particular, knew that an attack on Al-Aqsa would reassure his far-right religious constituency about his commitment to imposing full Israeli Jewish sovereignty over Palestinian Muslim and Christian holy places in the occupied city of Jerusalem.
What Netanyahu and his allies may have not anticipated, however, is the intensity of the Palestinian response. Hundreds of rockets were fired towards the north and south of Israel. These came not only from the besieged Gaza Strip, but, even more strategically important, also from South Lebanon.
Although some damage was reported, the rocket response was a political game changer. This was the first time in years that fighters in two Arab countries coordinated their retaliatory action against Israel and hit back simultaneously.
It will be difficult for Netanyahu to claim any kind of victory after this, unless he takes his country to a major war on two fronts; three, if we are to consider the rise of armed resistance in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian West Bank.
However, even a major war could backfire. During Israel’s attack against Gaza in 2014, the occupation state struggled to sustain a single military front as the war lasted 51 days, leading to an Israeli arms and ammunition crisis. Were it not for the decision of the Barack Obama administration to ship supplies of munitions to Israel to refill its depleted arsenal, Israel could have found itself in unprecedented difficulty.
The US, though, is no longer able to play the role of emergency weapons supplier, at least for now, due to its own ammunition shortage resulting from the Ukraine war. Israel was thus careful to limit its response to the Palestinian and Lebanese rockets. This episode shall prove decisive, as it will empower Israel’s regional enemies and, instead of boosting Netanyahu’s credibility within his own right-wing camp, it has the potential to undermine it.
How could Israel’s most experienced political leader commit such an obvious strategic error? Aside from making the desperate decision to attack Al-Aqsa — likely under pressure from Ben-Gvir and the equally extreme far-right Bezalel Smotrich — Netanyahu is no different to other Israeli leaders in miscalculating the significance of the spiritual component of the Palestinian struggle, and how it ties to Arab and Muslim solidarity with Palestine.
While what is happening in Palestine is not a religious war, some Israeli officials and political parties are keen to have one. Although warnings against “religious wars” in Palestine — in fact, the entire region — have been mostly linked to Israel’s current “most right-wing government in history”, religious discourses have been the most dominant since the development of Israel’s founding ideology, Zionism, in the late 19th century.
Paradoxically, despite the historical fact that Zionism has been situated within a religious context, the founders of the movement were mostly atheists. They used religion as a political tool to unify Jews globally around their new ideology and to romanticise in the minds of their followers what is essentially a violent, settler-colonial movement.
Nevertheless, over the years, the centre of power within the Zionist movement has shifted from liberal Zionism to Zionist Revisionism, and then in the past twenty years or so, to religious Zionism. For Israel’s current generation of Zionist leaders, religion is not a political tool, but an objective. This is precisely why, as Palestinian men and women were being attacked so ferociously inside the holiest of all mosques in the country, Israeli Jews were attempting to enter the Muslim shrine to sacrifice animals as part of the Passover tradition. Although not many of them have succeeded in doing so, events suggest that a new kind of conflict is taking shape.
Historically, Israel has targeted Muslim and Christian sites to acquire political capital. Late Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon did just that when he conducted a provocative “visit” to the Noble Sanctuary of Al-Aqsa with hundreds of soldiers in September 2000, and when the Israeli military completely destroyed or seriously damaged 203 mosques during its so-called “Operation Protective Edge” against Gaza in 2014.
Christian sites have also been attacked and confiscated. Israel’s targeting of Palestinian Christians has led community leaders such as Archbishop Atallah Hanna to warn about “an unprecedented conspiracy against the Christian existence” in the Holy Land.
The attack on Palestinian religious symbols isn’t limited to the Occupied Palestinian Territories; it is ongoing across historic Palestine, including today’s Israel. The 13th-century architectural marvel, Al-Ahmar Mosque in Safad, for example, was turned by the Israeli authorities into a nightclub. A study published by the High Follow-up Committee for Arab Citizens in Israel revealed in July 2020 that scores of mosques have been turned into synagogues, barns, bars or restaurants by the occupation state.
Israel’s targeting of the Arab and Muslim identity of Palestine is now being accelerated under Netanyahu’s leadership, but this strategy is a double-edged sword as we have seen in recent days. In the video that went viral of Israeli soldiers beating up Muslim worshippers in Al-Aqsa, the distressing pleas of a Palestinian woman groaning in pain were heard as she cried “Oh Allah, Oh Allah” repeatedly. Palestinian mainstream and social media have published comments that the response by Palestinian resistance groups was specifically in answer to the pleas of the unidentified woman. This is the power of spirituality; it has the kind of logic that Netanyahu and his allies cannot possibly understand.
On 3 April, Jordan’s King Abdullah stressed rightfully that, “It is the duty of every Muslim to deter Israeli escalations against Islamic and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem.” In its quest for religious war, Israel is uniting Arabs and Muslims around Palestine.
When this happens, instead of isolating and browbeating Palestinians, it is Israel that will find itself even more isolated. Palestinians do not see themselves as fighting a religious war, but protecting their religious symbols stands at the core of their fight for freedom, justice and equality.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.