I didn’t hear the boom on Monday night. I didn’t hear the siren either, due to some loud renovations. Sitting at my desk in the bomb shelter in my flat that doubles as a home office, I found out we were under rocket attack by reading about it on Twitter.
With the blast door and inch-thick steel window plate closed, I waited for the all-clear. A few minutes later, minor damage was reported to a house just outside Jerusalem, hit by shrapnel from a rocket that flew 40 miles from Gaza. Others were intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-rocket system. A dramatic end to Jerusalem Day, when Israel celebrates the reunification of the city under Israeli rule in 1967.
Earlier in the day, violent protests by Palestinians on the Temple Mount were broken up, also violently, by Israeli security forces. Rubber bullets and tear gas met rocks and Molotov cocktails, triggering protests of Israeli Arabs across the country.
Israel tried to calm tensions. The annual Jerusalem Day flag march was routed away from its provocative route through the Old City’s Muslim Quarter. A court decision on the eviction of some Palestinian families from houses in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood was delayed at the government’s urging. But it was too late and probably too little. Hamas fired its rockets and suddenly it was yet another Gaza conflict.
Israel’s Iron Dome is a modern military miracle, a purely defensive anti-rocket system that can shoot incoming projectiles out of the sky. For a decade, Iron Dome has largely neutralised rockets from Gaza, changing the strategic calculus for both Israel and Hamas. Israelis could tolerate rocket arsenals in Gaza, knowing very few would hit home. Palestinian terror groups could fire at Israel without the risk of escalation.
The terror groups have finally found a way to defeat Iron Dome: overwhelm it, by firing hundreds of rockets at the same time. Last night, those rockets rained down on Tel Aviv and the surrounding towns, killing several people and sending dozens to hospital. Other Israelis were killed in rocket attacks earlier in the day.
In response, the Israeli air force has been striking Gaza, killing senior members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and even destroying a large building (people were given time to evacuate). But there have been civilian casualties too, innocent Palestinians caught between their rocket-firing rulers and Israel’s response. As I write, sirens are once again sounding in Tel Aviv, in the most intense barrage on the city ever.
Despite this, it’s all very familiar. The rocket barrages and Gaza assaults are something Israelis are used to, even if this time it’s more intense than the past. There is no serious pressure in Israel yet for ground troops to go into Gaza like in 2014. For now, at least, this is ‘another round’, albeit with bigger, better rockets.
But a frightening new element is happening in ethnically-mixed towns with both Jewish and Arab residents. What began as protests about Israel’s actions on the Temple Mount have turned into dangerous riots, with protestors setting fire to synagogues, schools and restaurants in their towns. Alongside the external threat of Hamas rockets, Israel is facing ethnoreligious riots across the country.
The civilian police force has been unable to contain this violence so far, and Jewish civilians have started to form ‘defence groups’ which have been harassing Arabs, only increasing tensions further. In the town of Lod, near Ben Gurion airport, Jewish residents reported that Molotov cocktails were thrown though their windows, and a man was taken to hospital after a stone slab was dropped on his car. In Acre, a hotel and restaurant were set ablaze. The mayor of Lod described the situation as a civil war.
Ironically, this violence could end up saving Benjamin Netanyahu. Opposition parties were just finalising the details of a coalition deal at the beginning of this week, where right-wing politician Naftali Bennett would be sworn in as prime minister with the support of the left-wing parties and, uniquely, the Arab Ra’am party.
This potential coalition always looked like it would be shaky. In the face of Hamas rockets and domestic ethnic unrest, it’s increasingly hard to see how the new government could be formed at all. Netanyahu might push for an emergency government to be formed under his leadership, which he did a year ago (then, the emergency was the coronavirus pandemic), but the opposition parties are unlikely to accept. The alternative is another election, which is Netanyahu’s preferred option anyway.
That’s not to say that Netanyahu deliberately caused this escalation. Decisions by Israel’s police have poured fuel on the flames, from closing off the Damascus Gate area at the start of Ramadan to overly-harsh responses to rioters on the Temple Mount. Netanyahu, though, has tried to find a way to keep calm, ordering the flag march to be moved despite the police’s objections and asking the courts to hold off on the Sheikh Jarrah evictions. Nevertheless, this conflict could be his path to survival.
Overnight, the Israeli Government ordered several units of the border police to provide additional security in Lod, in the hope that sheer numbers might restore some sense of order. But Lod’s terrible evening wasn’t over. A little before 4am, a Hamas rocket hit a house in Lod. A father and his teenage daughter, both Israeli Arabs, were killed.