Israeli leadership in crisis amid Gaza conflict and community violence

The Gaza conflict and violence between Arabs and Jews puts spotlight on Israel's divided leadership

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With sirens wailing amid daily fire from Gaza, rockets launched from Lebanon and intercommunal violence raging on the streets, Israel’s political leadership is beset by divisions and facing a deepening crisis.

Before conflict broke out this week with Gaza militants, Israel was in the grip of a political crisis after four inconclusive elections in less than two years.

The seemingly endless polls were accompanied by increasingly hostile speeches on the campaign trail, with vitriol intensifying and more far-right legislators entering parliament.

After failing to form a government last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s grip on power appeared to be slipping further on Monday when sirens blared in Jerusalem for the first time in seven years.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a meeting with Israeli border police in the central city of Lod, near Tel Aviv, on May 13, 2021, a day after Israeli far-right groups clashed with security forces and Arab Israelis. Late on May 12, Israeli far-right groups took to the streets across the country, clashing with security forces and Arab Israelis. Police said they had responded to violence in multiple towns, including Lod, Acre and Haifa. A state of emergency has been declared with entry restrictions and a curfew in the mixed Jewish-Arab city of Lod, where an Arab resident was shot dead and a synagogue torched. / AFP / POOL / Yuval CHEN
Benjamin Netanyahu is serving as caretaker prime minister after failing to form a coalition government. AFP

“Israel will respond with great force,” Mr Netanyahu said soon after, while rebuffing the mounting criticism.

“The test of leadership requires that the right decisions be made even when they are not understood at any given moment and their justification becomes clear later on."

Israeli authorities had already been censured internationally for the security forces' response to protests in Jerusalem, with hundreds of Palestinians and dozens of police officers injured at Al Aqsa Mosque compound.

Gaza rulers Hamas said violence around the mosque, which is the third holiest site in Islam, and elsewhere in occupied East Jerusalem sparked their rocket attacks on Israel.

Since Monday more than 1,750 rockets have been fired from Gaza, according to the Israeli military, which has launched nearly 1,000 air strikes on the Palestinian enclave.

Israel launches air strikes on Gaza after barrage of rocket fire

Israel launches air strikes on Gaza after barrage of rocket fire

On Thursday evening, Israel said three rockets fired from Lebanon had landed in the sea.

Although the army has widespread support among Israelis, most of whom complete military service, the sheer scale of fire shook the country.

The conflict killed at least 103 Gazans and seven people in Israel, while hundreds were wounded.

Against the backdrop of cross-border strikes, this week intercommunal violence broke out across Israel with Jewish and Arab mobs on the rampage.

By midnight on Wednesday more than 370 suspects had been arrested in a few hours, with police reporting widespread arson and attacks on drivers and passers-by.

Leaders from across the political spectrum condemned the violence, while Mr Netanyahu vowed to “eliminate this anarchy” and put soldiers on the streets if necessary.

But as the premier adopted an iron-fist approach, some Israeli Arabs and Jews organised rallies together.

“This was a truly powerful evening in Israel, in such a tough and depressing time,” said Alon-Lee Green, co-director of the Standing Together organisation.

“We created light that shows that there is hope for this place."

But with further incidents on Thursday night, including an attack on a journalist in Tel Aviv, there is no sign of calm on the horizon.

"We are in a very dire situation," Meir Elran, head of the homeland security programme at Israel's Institute for National Security Studies, said on Wednesday in Lod, which suffered consecutive nights of violence.

“This whole political structure in Israel is under question, we have a major problem of stability … we have a major problem of trust, of public trust in the government."

While Mr Netanyahu is serving as caretaker prime minister and facing a corruption trial, his opponent Yair Lapid is trying to form a coalition.

Uniting legislators and the public will not come easily after decades of division that are now entrenched in the political establishment, analyst Dahlia Scheindlin wrote in Newsweek.

“For years in Israel, the leadership entrusted with serving its citizens has been pumping hatred into the air,” Dr Scheindlin wrote.

“You don't light a fire and then spit on it after human lives go up in flames."