When War Comes Home: Government and Civilian-Driven Violence in Israel and Gaza

War is never far around the corner in Israel. Since its inception, the state has, for better or worse, been dependent on martial supremacy for its continued existence. In the period since its founding in 1948, Israel has been involved in 8 wars- roughly one per decade, and won all of them. This is in addition to many more informal conflicts. These have, in turn, led to the mandatory service of most of its adult population in its military, and instilled a fiercely nationalistic spirit in a good portion of its inhabitants. Throughout the state’s occupations of and wars with its neighbours, once and future Israeli civilians have been on the front lines, receiving and meting out tremendous violence in the name of survival.

While the Israeli-Palestinian, or more broadly the Israeli-Arab conflict is perhaps the international conflict par example, with debates around it having been relitigated in all corners of the globe every time it -seemingly inevitably- flares back up, recent conflict has taken on a civilian-driven flare in Israel, and the tragic logic of a distinctly militaristic and deeply divided society has played out violently in the streets of the nation. Shocking videos have emerged of far-right Jewish-Israelis, who, after gathering in Jerusalem in a large mob, chanted “death to Arabs” before destroying an Arab-owned ice-cream parlor and beating senseless a passing motorist, who they presumed to be an Arab. This violence has not been limited to the Jewish population either, with fierce riots breaking out throughout the country, especially in the mixed city of Lod and in violent clashes surrounding the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Civilians throughout Israel, Jewish and Palestinian alike, have taken political matters into their own hands, and civil society has begun to deteriorate.

This intense civilian, mob-based violence is something not seen on such a scale in Israel in living memory, and the response of the government has been utterly one-sided and inadequate. In Lod, a city rocked by riots both of Arab and Jewish Israelis, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the riots as “Arab” in character, and accused the entire population of sedition. He then told the police force not to worry about prosecution, and they stood by as Israeli settlers from the West Bank, most far-right nationalists, flooded into the city, sparking further violence. Such rhetoric has done nothing to deescalate civilian conflict, and has only further polarized a nation in crisis, enabling and legitimizing the most violent groups in Israeli society yet further.

In addition to bouts of internal civilian violence, the Israeli government has launched massive strikes in the Gaza strip in response to rocket attacks from Hamas. There has also been comparatively limited action in the West Bank. While the Israeli government is claiming to be acting out of self-defense, and indeed it seems that they are, the casualties inflicted on Israeli civilians are simply incomparable with the horror that Israel continues to visit on Gaza, all while Prime Minister Netanyahu rejecting calls from the UN, EU, and Egypt to come to a negotiated settlement. The Israeli Defense Force has launched airstrikes on apartment complexes, a refugee camp, and has destroyed much of the educational and medical infrastructure in the already badly underdeveloped region. This morning it destroyed the complex which housed foreign media outlets such as the Associated Press. This reckless disregard for international law and human life has led to over 1000 civilian casualties in Gaza alone, including well over 100 deaths, and the violence is beginning to escalate further. This has come in response to rocket attacks that have killed roughly eight Israelis, and which are almost entirely struck down before they can destroy Israeli communities.

To assert that this is an even or two-sided conflict is simply ignoring reality. Israel has overwhelming military superiority within its borders and in Palestine, and it is using that power to wage a terror campaign on a population it is supposed to protect. Both the government and civilian extremist groups are engaged in gross violations of human rights and Israeli law. The response of the terrorist group Hamas, which controls the Gaza strip, has been equally belligerent, but it simply lacks the manpower and resources to inflict similar levels of violence. The Israeli government is in a position to de-escalate, but has chosen the path of war.

What is most disturbing is that Netanyahu, the electorally embattled Israeli prime minister, seems to be encouraging this violence as it gives him a broad mandate to Govern after failing to form a coalition. Indeed, he has vowed to ratchet up attacks on Gaza and civilian repression at a time when amnesty international has accused the Israeli police of “abusive and wanton force against largely peaceful Palestinian protesters.”

The US and EU have called for Hamas and Palestinian authorities to end their attacks, but their critiques of Israel have been restrained, with the US secretary of state Anthony Blinken refusing even to mention Israel’s airstrikes in his comments. The EU has simply called for Israel to respect international law. The international community must put pressure on the party with agency to end this conflict, and concrete steps must be taken to enforce such a resolution. If allied nations and the broader international community seek peace, they must cease arms sales to Israel and condemn the application of deadly force for political ends. If self-defense causes an order of magnitude more deaths than it prevents- can it truly be called a defense?