Israelis Brace for Possibility of Violence During Ramadan

There are positive signs around the region, too, such as the Saudi-supported Yemeni government and the Iranian-backed Houthis agreeing to a prisoner exchange in honor of the Muslim holy month.

Ronen Zvulun/pool via AP, file
Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Israeli finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, at Jerusalem, February 23, 2023. Ronen Zvulun/pool via AP, file

“Moon moon, come out soon/ We’re off to see the Ramadan moon/ Clouds shift, fog lift/ City put out your lights/ We want to see the Ramadan moon tonight.”
— Refrain from a children’s song by Yusuf Islam, formerly known as Cat Stevens 

Yusuf Islam’s cheerful ditty extols the virtues of the Muslim holy month, the start of which is determined by observing the first phase of the moon. On Tuesday, Saudi religious officials announced that Ramadan’s month-long daylight fasting would begin Thursday. 

Will this Ramadan welcome a “Peace Train,” or will it launch a new round of violence? Also, will this week’s Persian new year, Nowruz, and the coming Jewish Passover holiday on April 6, calm or exacerbate tensions?  

Of all the Mideast hotspots, the West Bank is the most closely watched. Even when it’s not Ramadan this is widely seen as a powder keg, where increasingly frustrated Arabs have in the past used the holy month for violence at the religiously significant Temple Mount — and where Israeli government hardliners are in no mood for concessions. 

There are positive signs around the region, too. The Saudi-supported Yemeni government and the Iranian-backed Houthis agreed to a prisoner exchange on the occasion of Ramadan. Yet despite this and a tentative Iranian agreement to stop arming the Houthis under a Beijing-backed Riyadh-Tehran pact, the cruel Yemen war may be far from ending. 

“Saudi Arabia must know that our relationship with Iran is not one of subordination,” a member of the Houthi political wing, Abdulwahab al-Mahbashi, told the Saudi-owned al Arabiya network last week. The statement indicates that, Ramadan or no Ramadan, the group is yet to lay down arms in the war it launched in 2014 against the recognized government. 

Back in Tehran, the supreme leader, Ali Hosseini Khamanei, dedicated his Nowruz address Tuesday to rosy economic predictions. He declined, though, to mention the recent Beijing-inspired detente with Riyadh. Mr. Khamenei would be hard-pressed to reconcile with Saudi Arabia, a country he has long bashed. 

One thing the aging Mr. Khamanei could not completely ignore Tuesday: the months-long anti-regime uprising. He briefly downplayed it as a “political problem.” While he spoke, hackers managed to broadcast “death to Khamenei” slogans from loudspeakers in the bazaar at Iran’s third largest city, Mashhad. Similar anti-regime slogans were heard across the country. 

Iran’s internal turmoil since last September’s death of Mahsa Amini is now a full fledged anti-regime uprising, while the reportedly ailing 83-year-old Mr. Khamenei’s health seems to be deteriorating. Although his death could fundamentally shake Iran, Ramadan could also catalyze chaos. 

Meanwhile, Israel is growingly concerned as Tehran nears a nuclear point of no return. In lieu of President Biden’s leadership, Israel may attack Iran as soon as in three months, a retired Israeli air force brigadier general, Amir Avivi, tells the Free Beacon. 

Yet, Israel’s own internal turmoil threatens its ability to conduct such an attack. Top reservists who oppose a government-proposed judicial reform, including pilots who could be involved in operations in Iran, are increasingly declining to show up for training.

As it prepares for its 75th Independence Day celebrations, Israel is more divided than at any point since its 1948 founding. Nearly completed legislation that symbolizes the deep fissures between religious and secular Jews would ban serving any leavened bread in hospitals, forcing Christians and Muslims to consume Matzos only during the weeklong Passover holiday. 

Mostly, Israelis are concerned about the return of violence during Ramadan. On Sunday, American, Israeli, Palestinian, Egyptian and Jordanian officials met at Sharm el-Sheikh in an attempt at calming the region as the holiday approaches. Just as with a similar gathering last month, the powwow was immediately followed by a terrorist strike.   

A Palestinian man shot and seriously wounded an Israeli-American, David Stern, a former Marine, near the West Bank town of Huwara immediately after the Sharm meeting was concluded. Huwara has been a focal point of violent clashes between terrorists and Israeli forces, while the Palestinian Authority has lost control over the entire northern West Bank area.  

On Tuesday, the Knesset canceled a ban on unauthorized Israeli citizens’ entry to that area. The ban has been in effect since the 2005 disengagement plan that ended the Israeli presence in Gaza and evacuated four Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The new legislation seemed to formally erase the policies of a former premier, Ariel Sharon. 

In a speech at Paris over the weekend, the finance minister, Betzalel Smotrich, said “there’s no such thing as Palestinians,” further inflaming Arab passions. As in Iran, West Bank passions seem to rise as the aging Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, is in the final stages of his hold on power, and as factions arm themselves for a possible succession war.  

Mr. Stevens and many Muslims see Ramadan as a time for peace and retrospection. Yet, from Afghanistan to the West Bank, violence has often marked the holy month. The last time Arab armies united in battle against Israel was the 1973 Yom Kippur War, launched on the sixth day of Ramadan.   


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