February 27, 2024 | The Liberal Patriot

Preventing a Ramadan Explosion in the Holy Land

How Israeli self-restraint and American diplomacy can ward off potential escalation during the upcoming Muslim holy month.
February 27, 2024 | The Liberal Patriot

Preventing a Ramadan Explosion in the Holy Land

How Israeli self-restraint and American diplomacy can ward off potential escalation during the upcoming Muslim holy month.

The Muslim holiday of Ramadan begins on March 11 this year. How Israel handles this month-long festival of fasting by day and feasting by night will exert significant influence on the wider conflict in the Middle East—and a possible hostage deal between Israel and Hamas that yields a pause in the current war in Gaza could help mitigate the prospects of unrest. Other players may have significant roles to play, too.

First, it is important to understand the role Ramadan has played in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over recent years.

The 11-day war between Israel and Hamas in 2021 was undeniably connected to Ramadan. It began after Israeli police, amidst security concerns, closed the plaza outside one of the gates of Jerusalem’s Old City at the start of Ramadan. Nightly clashes erupted in the city, holy to all three monotheistic faiths. Tensions further escalated over reports of the possible eviction of Arab families from homes in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah (the eviction never occurred). Soon enough, the Iran-backed terrorist group Hamas began to fire rockets out of Gaza. In the final days of Ramadan, the violence spiraled into all-out war.

Not surprisingly, the Islamic Republic of Iran played a significant role in stoking that clash in 2021. On al-Quds Day—a day created in 1979 by the regime’s first Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to make the last Friday of Ramadan a flash point between Israel and the Palestinians—current supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei exhorted Palestinians to “continue their legitimate, morally correct fight” against Israel. He hailed the use of “precision missiles,” and glorified “martyrs” from terror groups.

The following year’s Ramadan also proved violent. Hamas leader Khaled Meshal threatened that his group would “escalate in Ramadan, and we are on the verge of hot days.” He was not wrong. The month of fasting was preceded by a week of terror that left 11 dead in Israel. After the holiday began, a terror shooting attack rocked Tel Aviv. Senior terrorist leaders encouraged their followers to attack Israel and warned of a “crime against al-Aqsa Mosque during Ramadan.” Clashes soon erupted on the Temple Mount, where Palestinian agitators threw stones and shot fireworks at Israeli police who responded with tear gas and rubber bullets.

All signs pointed to another major conflict in 2022. But the policy of Naftali Bennett’s government was an important factor in preventing a large conflagration. As Prime Minister Bennett’s national security advisor Eyal Hulata, now a colleague at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, told us, “the key was making sure that the Palestinians saw blue, not olive, uniforms.” In other words, the presence of police rather than military troops was a psychological distinction that may have helped keep a lid on a wider conflict. Admittedly, a short war between Israel and Palestinian Islamic Jihad did erupt that August, with some 1,100 rockets fired into Israel eliciting nearly 150 strikes by the Israeli Air Force.

Ramadan in 2023 passed without major incident. This was early in the tenure of the current government led by Benjamin Netanyahu. If anything, political unrest on the streets of Israel in response to the government’s attempts at a judicial overhaul overshadowed the Palestinian arena.

This Ramadan could look a lot more like 2021. War has been raging in the Gaza Strip since Hamas perpetrated a mass slaughter of 1,200 Israelis on October 7 and took 241 Israelis and foreigners, including Americans, hostage. The subsequent war has brought destruction to Gaza, even as the Israeli military tries to limit civilian casualties in a brutal urban warfare environment where Hamas uses human shields. War on Israel’s northern border kicked off one day after the Hamas assault when Hezbollah attacked Israel; Hezbollah has since carried out more than 700 attacks on Israeli territory.

As it fights Hamas in Gaza and against Hezbollah on Israel’s northern border, the Israeli military has also operated almost nightly in the West Bank, arresting as many as 7,000 suspects, killing more than 200 terrorists, and destroying homes of those convicted of carrying out violence against Israel. The last few days alone have witnessed a terrorist attack near Maale Adumim, a drone strike against an Islamic Jihad commander in Jenin, and rock-throwing by Palestinians at Israeli vehicles. The West Bank is so volatile that today there are more Israeli military battalions operating there than in Gaza, according to a former Israeli official we spoke to earlier this month. This is to say nothing of the Iran-backed militias attacking Israel and the United States out of Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.

In short, the region is on fire. The White House desperately seeks to prevent a wider war, particularly as America enters a presidential election cycle. Israel continues to work with Washington to this end, focusing primarily on the war in Gaza, while endeavoring to prevent other fronts from exploding. Israeli solutions have ranged from aggressive action to pre-empt terrorist attacks in the West Bank, to potentially offering greater freedoms to Arab residents of Jerusalem, to offering financial perks to the Palestinian Authority. While this might all sound helpful, none of these measures will matter amidst efforts by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to forge a unity government with Hamas. This initiative is deemed a nonstarter by the government in Jerusalem, which seeks to delegitimize (if not destroy) Hamas above all else.

But there’s another factor that could undermine efforts to contain a violent Ramadan: Israel’s right-wing minister for national security, Itamar Ben Gvir. The minister has vowed to bolster security in the West Bank and Jerusalem since the war began, messaging directly to his right-wing and religious supporters. His rhetoric has been troubling to some, including statements promoting the re-settlement of Palestinians outside of Gaza.

Israeli forces under Ben Gvir’s command—regardless of whether they wear blue or olive—have the potential to set off a chain reaction that nobody wants. Tensions are already rising over the security-related limitations that Israel may impose on prayers at the al-Aqsa Mosque during Ramadan.

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu must now consider sidelining Ben Gvir to the extent possible, for the sake of Israeli national security. The prime minister has the authority to take control of the Israeli police and other internal security forces under his command—and he should do so, at least temporarily during Ramadan. Doing so won’t be easy, given that Ben Gvir is a key pillar of the Netanyahu government. Should Ben Gvir decide to walk away, Netanyahu would have to either replace his party in the coalition or face the prospect of new elections.

In the end, the real key to preventing a Ramadan explosion this year likely lies in a hostage deal between Hamas and Israel. Obviously, the Israelis are eager to make a deal that would see the release of more than 100 hostages held by Hamas for more than four months—and they are pushing hard for a deal before Ramadan begins. The French hosted meetings in Paris last Friday to that end, and those talks yielded an outline agreed upon by all sides. Negotiations are ongoing in Qatar, with some further signs of optimism.

Should a deal be reached in the next few days and weeks, it could lower the temperature across the region. If the last ceasefire was any indication, it could lead to a cessation or reduction of violence on the northern border with Lebanon, and perhaps mitigate security crises in the West Bank and Jerusalem. The United States could tout such a deal as providing respite to the Palestinian population in Gaza. Such a message might resonate across the Arab world during Ramadan, and ultimately make it easier for the Saudis to reengage on normalization talks with Israel.

A hostage deal during Ramadan might have one other positive impact. It could provide the Israelis and Egyptians the time they need to iron out a plan to deal with the estimated 1.4 million Palestinians currently sheltering in tents and temporary housing in the town of Rafah. The Israeli military will need to conduct ground maneuvers in Rafah soon to destroy the remaining Hamas battalions, block tunnels between Egypt and Gaza, and stop the transfer of weapons to Hamas. But a plan to evacuate civilians is urgently needed before this crucial battle can occur.

As always, there are many moving parts. Several malign actors—Iran, Qatar, Turkey, Hamas, Hezbollah—could play the role of spoiler. If there was ever a time for the United States to wield its influence as a superpower on these actors, this would be it. Washington must convey clearly to Qatar that it is time to get Hamas in line. The U.S. must also convey to Iran, Turkey, and the other Hamas backers that this year’s Ramadan cannot spin out of control.  

Calm must be brokered soon. A ceasefire during Ramadan is urgently needed. After that, war will almost certainly resume, with the goal of defeating Hamas’s military in its entirety. But this objective must be achieved without sparking a regional conflict. With a little effort, a wider conflagration could be contained… at least for now.

Jonathan Schanzer is senior vice president for research at Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Mark Dubowitz is chief executive office. Follow them on X @JSchanzer and @MDubowitz.


Israel Israel at War Palestinian Politics