Continuing threats and uncertainties
Conflict with Gaza
This year has seen
further conflict between Israel and Gaza. The people of Gaza have been
protesting at the border and clashes led to over 118 Palestinians, including 15
children, being killed in April-May 2018. A Palestinian teenager was
shot in the head, apparently by Israeli army snipers while peacefully
protesting near a border fence. Human Rights Watch said eyewitnesses reported
seeing Palestinians shot from a great distance from border fences,
and others who “had not thrown stones or otherwise tried to harm Israeli
soldiers” being shot from a closer range. Israel also launched the
most air strikes since the 2014 war.
The UN General Assembly described Israel’s military response
as “excessive, disproportionate and indiscriminate.” The UN Human Rights
Council voted for an independent inquiry to be set up to investigate violation
of human rights. However Australia and the US voted against and another 14
countries abstained. The Australians said the language of the resolution
prejudged the outcome and pointed out that the role of Hamas was not mentioned.
The UN has been criticised for bias against Israel. Hamas, which governs Gaza,
is regarded as a terrorist organisation by the EU, US, Canada and Israel.
In May some 40,000 Gazans gathered at the border, many
throwing stones at the Israeli forces. They were protesting against the US
moving its embassy to Jerusalem and in favour of Palestinian refugees being
allowed back into what is now Israel. Hamas urged them to break through the
border fence and provided maps for them to find the easiest route to nearby
Israeli towns. Israel accuses Hamas of deliberately putting innocent civilians
in the front line so that if any are killed it is an effective propaganda coup.
However Hamas claimed more than once that the majority of people killed were
members of the organisation.
Then, the Gazans began to float burning kites and balloons into
Israel which the Israelis said started over 750 wildfires, causing hundreds of
thousands of pounds worth of damage. They also began to fire rockets into
Israel. An Israeli soldier was killed.
Senior Israeli officers have said that the Gaza protests
stem first and foremost from the bad conditions in Gaza. The people face
serious poverty, unemployment (57%), overcrowding and lack of basic services,
which causes frustration and anger. 95% of Gazan tap water is undrinkable.
Electricity is only available for 4 hours a day. These are partly caused by the
Israeli blockade of Gaza but also by sanctions from the West Bank Palestinian
Authority which is run by Fatah, the political rival of Hamas. Fatah is trying
to force Hamas to relinquish its rule over Gaza.
However, in November, with Egypt’s mediation, Israel and
Hamas established a ceasefire.
Conflict with Iran
Simon Tisdall, former foreign affairs editor for the
Guardian, wrote a few months ago: “According to Israeli and regional experts,
the storm now gathering around Israel’s borders potentially surpasses in
severity anything the country has faced throughout its short and difficult
history. Whichever way you look, in any direction, trouble looms. At its heart,
connecting all the geopolitical Scrabble pieces, is one four-letter word: Iran.”
Iran, which frequently threatens to destroy Israel, has
extended its influence in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen. It has
succeeded in building a corridor of power from Iran across Iraq, Syria and
Lebanon to the Mediterranean.
Dov Zakheim, former US undersecretary of defence, said;
“Coupled with Hezbollah’s growing strength, and the weekly Hamas-inspired
protests in Gaza, Israel faces the spectre of a three-front war for the first
time since 1967.”
In February 2018 Israel shot down an armed Iranian drone
which had entered Israel territory from Syria. Later Israel attacked Syrian
airbases which contained Iranian forces, missiles and drones. Several Iranians
were killed and Iran threatened revenge. In May Iran attacked various Israeli
army bases and Israel responded with attacks on Iranian bases in Syria. There
was a further exchange of missiles at the end of December.
Security experts say that Iran would only use its weapons in
Syria against Israel for retaliatory purposes. Steven Klein, Professor of the International
Program in Conflict Resolution and Mediation at Tel Aviv University, said
recently: “If Netanyahu keeps hitting Iranian targets without allowing Iran a
diplomatic way out, he will eventually back Iran into a corner from which it will
feel compelled to strike back. The consequences would be disastrous for
everyone.” He added that without the nuclear deal (from which the US has just
withdrawn) Iran would feel less restrained about attacking Israel.
Russia is seeking to encourage Iranian forces to withdraw to
some 60 miles from the Israeli border but Israel is demanding that Iran
withdraws its long range missiles.
Threats from Hezbollah in Lebanon
Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed terrorist organisation in
Lebanon, has recently stated that the whole of Israel is within reach of its
missiles. Also, after lengthy searching, Israel discovered Hezbollah
cross-border tunnels in December. Israeli forces will destroy them on both
sides of the border.
The US is pulling back
from influence in the Middle East. President Trump decided to withdraw US
troops from Syria. The US is cutting more than £155m in aid to
the Palestinians. It is also closing its main diplomatic mission to the
Palestinians, reducing the consulate in Jerusalem to a unit under the control
of the embassy to Israel.
However, the withdrawal from Syria is likely to increase
Iranian influence in Syria, with Russian backing, which would increase the
threat to Israel. Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, former president of the Union for
Reform Judaism, wrote “Let us imagine that Israel wakes up one
morning to find Iranian Revolutionary Guards Quds forces on the Golan border,
along with a warning from Russia to refrain from air strikes. Then what? Can
Donald Trump be counted on to stand up to Putin on Israel’s behalf?”
The reduction in aid to Palestinians and the demoting of the
diplomatic mission, alongside the moving of the US embassy to Jerusalem, is
likely to reduce US influence with the Palestinians.
The reduction of US influence in the Middle East is likely
to have serious consequences.
What about the Peace Process?
Many people think that
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not really interested in a peace
settlement, but has been taking advantage of the lack of interest in the
Palestinians by Arab countries. There seems to be more concern throughout the
Middle East about the threat of Iran, than about the needs of the Palestinians.
And the Arabs see Israel as an ally vis a vis Iran.
There are however
on-going discussions about President Trump’s peace plan. Trump has said
recently that he thinks the two-state solution is the best. But reports of the
plan include very controversial aspects. It seems that it would mean the
Palestinians giving up the idea of East Jerusalem as their capital. Israel
would withdraw from villages to the north and east of Jerusalem but Jewish
settlements in the West Bank would remain. Also the Palestinian state would be
under Israeli security control. Netanyahu stated: “I am willing for the
Palestinians to have the authority to rule themselves without the capability to
harm us. Israel will not relinquish security control west of the Jordan.”
Another problem is the issue of the return of Palestinian
refugees to what is now Israel. The demonstrations in Gaza focussed on this.
But Israel will not accept it. Dr Hanan Ashrawi,
a leading Palestinian politician said: “Palestinian refugees have been longing
for home for 70 years after being violently uprooted and expelled from their
ancestral homeland. To deprive them of their rights and to crush their hopes
and aspirations for redress and a life worth living is the utmost cruelty. Such
an injustice will also fuel the flames of extremism and violence, leading to
further regional instability and conflict. In addition to being morally
reprehensible, such a policy is utterly dangerous and irresponsible.”
Tzipi Livni, co-leader of Israel’s centre-left opposition,
the Zionist Union and ex-foreign minister was chief peace negotiator with the
Palestinians. She wrote recently: “As a true supporter of peace based on the
principle of two-states-for-two-peoples, the demand that Palestinian refugees
“return” to Israel is not only at odds with the very rationale of a
two-nation-states solution, but if accepted, would lead to a continuation of the
conflict long after the establishment of a Palestinian state. Such a scenario
should be rejected by anyone who truly seeks peace in our lifetime.” She added:
“Unfortunately, Palestinian refugees have been used as a political playing card
for far too long since 1948. Palestinians are the only group since the end of
the second world war to have kept their refugee status and to have passed this
status down to over four generations, creating a problem of millions of
“refugees” that are kept as pawns in a political game instead of solving their
Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, has said that the US
negotiators have suggested a Palestinian state could go into a confederation
with Jordan. This would be an alliance between sovereign states which agree
over economic, security and national interests. Abbas said he would consider it
if the Israelis would also join the confederation. Also it would need
international recognition of a Palestinian state. A confederation is not a new
idea. It was considered in the 1980s but abandoned because of disagreements
between Israel and the Palestinians.
Israel accused of passing an Apartheid law
In July 2018 Israel
passed the very controversial Nation-State law, which led to demonstrations and
strong criticisms in Israel itself. The law affirms that:
the historic homeland of the Jewish people who have the unique right of
the united capital of Israel”
language is Hebrew. Arabic has special status.”
places national value on the development of Jewish settlement and will act to
encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation.”
The main criticism is
that the country has 1.8 million Arab citizens (“Israeli Arabs” as opposed to
Palestinians who are not Israeli citizens) and this law renders them officially second-class citizens.
Obviously this applies to other non-Jewish citizens too. Many Israelis see this
as undermining democracy, saying that Israel is the nation state of the Jewish
people and a democracy. Tzipi Livni said that some of
Netanyahu's ministers thought the law was “a mistake,” and added “It's not too
late to apologize (again), to amend and introduce equality. Israel is the
nation-state of the Jewish people, on that we all agree - for equal rights for
all we still need to fight.”
The law was passed by 62 votes to 55 after a
heated eight-hour debate during which opposition and
Arab MPs tore up the printed text of the law, waved black flags and
shouted “apartheid.” Mordechai Kremnitzer, Professor of Law at the
Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said
the bill would “remove the mask so as to reveal the ugly face of
ultranationalist Israel in all its repugnance.” Rabbi Steven Wernick, of the
United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said “Israel is losing its soul and
weakening its democracy and Jewish character. Its beacon of light on the
nations is now dim. Even I am having difficulty seeing it.” One Israeli
newspaper said Netanyahu regarded Israeli Arabs as a “nuisance” and “has
visited Arab communities only rarely, and has never shown any interest in the
culture or distress in Arab society here.”
Benjamin Netanyahu has
been prime minister for 11 years. In November defence minister Avigdor
Lieberman resigned over Netanyahu agreeing to a ceasefire with Hamas. The
departure of Lieberman’s party from the coalition left Netanyahu with a
majority of only one. He tried hard to correct this but in the end the cabinet
decided to hold the elections, due in November 2019, in April. There are fears
that this could result in a more extreme right wing government.
Pray for revival in Israel so that many Israelis will come
to faith in Jesus (cf Rom 11:25-26).
Pray for the spread once more of Christianity, in the face
of persecution, in countries surrounding Israel, that many will come to faith
Pray for Israel and the Palestinians to act with justice
towards each other, and for an end to corruption and violence.
Pray for the welfare of
Palestinians, especially in Gaza, and for the proper provision of the necessities
Pray for the right people
to be elected to government in Israel in April.
Pray for the protection
of Israel, surrounded as it is by enemies seeking its destruction, and against
the bias and antisemitism in the world, including the UN. (Many Christians see
the bias in the UN and widespread antisemitism as setting the stage for the
biblical predictions to be fulfilled of the nations gathering against Israel -
Zech 12:3; 14:2).