The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict is Becoming More Religious

By Michael Freedman, University of Haifa

[Image Credit: PBS Newshour]

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has again seen fresh violence. This included terrorist attacks in several Israeli cities, violence in the West Bank, and the killing of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. In addition, a recent nationalist flag march in the Old City of Jerusalem was marked by violence across the city.

For observers of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, recent events should sound familiar. Indeed, it is almost a repeat of last year’s violence of May 2021. This raises the following questions: why is violence breaking out now (again) and what are the main factors driving the violence?

To answer these questions, this article builds upon a growing theoretical literature, which examines how religious conflicts differ from regular nationalist conflicts. First, religious conflicts tend to be more deadly, violent, and recurring, compared to regular conflicts driven by greed, ethnicity, or nationalism. Second, religious conflicts tend to revolve around sacred territory. For many actors, it is untenable to divide sacred territory, making political compromise more difficult. Third, religious conflicts may be more prone to violence during religious holidays, as they tend to make religion more salient and prime in-group identity for religious believers.  

In reality, most conflicts around the world are a combination of nationalist and religious elements. In addition, conflicts can also evolve over time or differ for different actors. Below, I describe how the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is transforming into a more religious conflict, with religion overtaking nationalism as the core motivation.

First, religious conflicts shape who the relevant elites and groups are. Thus, new (religious) actors are increasingly filling larger roles in the conflict. For example, one could trace the outbreak of the violence to a series of attacks carried out by ISIS supporters in Beer Sheva, Hadera, and Tel Aviv. These attacks were carried out despite condemnation by the Palestinian nationalist political party Fatah, which is being increasingly relegated to the sidelines.

On the Israeli side, Religious Zionist groups and far-right politicians such as Itamar Ben-Gvir are also playing a larger role in the conflict. In Israel’s mixed cities – including Jerusalem, delicate relationships between Jews and Arabs are threatened by Jewish religious groups (known as Garinim Toranim) that are trying to tilt the demographic balance and strengthen the Jewish identity of the city.

At the same time, new (religious actors) are also helping prevent violence. In the previous round of violence, some religious leaders helped lower religious violence via religious dialogue or by acting as peacemakers between the groups. On the political level, the United Arab List (Raam) – an Islamic party whose support is crucial for the survival of the Israeli coalition – froze its support for the coalition until there was a reduction in violence.

Second, no matter how the violence starts, it always seems to come back to Jerusalem and the Al Aqsa Mosque.

In the immediate aftermath of the terror attacks in March 2022, the violence seemed to dissipate. However, the convergence of Ramadan/Passover/Easter provided fresh fuel to the fire. Rumors that Jewish groups planned to sacrifice a goat at the Temple Mount on Passover eve saw deadly clashes at the compound and a resurgence of the violence.

Similarly, the violence in 2021 was highly driven by events in Jerusalem, where religion was used by both sides as a way to mobilize and justify violence. For example, Hamas launched rockets, after issuing an ultimatum, in order to defend Jerusalem and the Aqsa Mosque. Furthermore, violence in Israel’s mixed cities was largely fought by mobs, who used religious messages on social media to rally the masses.

While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was originally nationalist in nature, it is increasingly taking on religious hues. Thus, a closer examination of the religious factors dividing Israelis and Palestinians is very important for understanding the dynamics of the conflict and for evaluating ways to help lower the future occurrences of violence. 

Ultimately, we ignore the religious nature of the conflict at our peril. Efforts by secular actors have arguably failed to resolve thorny religious issues. Perhaps it’s time to give new actors an opportunity to help resolve the conflict.

Michael Freedman is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Haifa. His research focuses on religion, citizen-state interactions, and conflict in Israel and the Muslim world. His work combines big data approaches with experiments and in-depth interviews. He tweets at @FreedMichael23

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