How Israel And Palestine Got To This Explosive Moment

October 15, 2015 2:46 p.m.

For months now Israelis and others have been asking whether the sporadic acts of terror on the West Bank and in Jerusalem officially herald the Third Intifada—a Palestinian uprising against Israel. Although the title is far less important than the tragic consequences, a simple answer might be that we don’t identify the Third as such because we are conditioned to look for the Second. That is, as much as the Second Intifada, which ran from 2000-2005 and lead to an estimated 3,000 Palestinian and 1,000 Israeli deaths, differed from the First (1987-1991), so does the current wave of violence differ from both previous ones.

Whether or not we use ”Third Intifada,” it will be viewed as a mixture of three forms of violence: independent individual initiatives (lone wolves); periodic demonstrations/stone-throwing gatherings; and organized terror operations. Its intensity will depend on the overall atmosphere of despair, the level of motivation of the Palestinian security forces, and whether one individual initiative prompts others to try (copycat).

Recent outbursts of violence have been largely confined to the Jerusalem area, primarily to the site in the Old City known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Arabs as Haram al Sharif (Noble Sanctuary), and did not constitute organized terror operations. The West Bank seemed a separate, calmer world and Israel proper—that is, inside the Green Line (pre-1967 lines)—seemed almost immune.

Yet, in recent days we have experienced a sudden upsurge in violence, mostly of the “lone wolf” and stone-throwing gatherings variety. It has been most intensive in Jerusalem, but also engulfed the West Bank and Israel. Here and there, incidents of organized terror and use of firearms were also reported, and Gaza did not remain calm either.

So why now? A false conviction that Israel was altering the status quo on Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif triggered waves of violence in years past. Yet, certain recent developments re-ignited those suspicions, generating tension and eventually violence. There’s been a reversal of longstanding Rabbinical prohibition on Jews entering the holy compound; an ensuing dramatic growth in the number of Jewish visitors coupled with high visibility visits by religious politicians; repeated occasions of Jewish prayer where none is permitted by Israel; and bolder statements by Israeli politicians and community leaders about the need to alter the status quo, which was established by Moshe Dayan in 1967 when the Israel Defense Forces won control of East Jerusalem along with the West Bank and Gaza.

The status quo’s main feature, now fiercely contested, was prohibition on Jewish prayer on the site. It also prohibited Israeli security forces from entering the Al-Aqsa mosque—violated last month when Israeli intelligence showed Palestinian youth were amassing stones and firebombs inside, presumably to be aimed at Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall below. It allowed Israelis to visit the Temple Mount only during certain times. However, the number of Israeli visitors has increased some ten fold, leading to an increase in hours for them and raising Muslim suspicions as to Israel’s intentions. And under the status quo, the Waqf (Islamic trust) runs the Mosque and the compound even though Israeli law applies.

As more extreme national-religious Israeli Jews, emboldened by the election results seven months ago, sought to test the elasticity of the restrictions on their access to the site, the more extreme elements in the Muslim community (Israelis and Palestinians alike) seized the moment. The message that the Jews are out to marginalize Islam and “Judaicize” its shrine spread like brushfire. It proved potent enough to serve as a common denominator, however temporary, between such bitter rivals as the religious Hamas and secular Fatah. The more extreme element of the Israeli Muslim community was even more visible and outspoken in spreading rumors and calling for sacrifice in the form of demonstrations, provocations and violence. Young Palestinians in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza soon followed and the current wave of mostly youth terror erupted.

However, the Jerusalem story has a broader context.

President Abbas’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly on September 30 was more significant than Western media noticed. Having built expectations for a moment of historic proportions and then failing to deliver, it was that last straw for many. This promise of a “bombshell,” such as the dissolution of the Palestinian Authority (PA) or an end to security coordination with Israel, did not materialize and the expected reward (from the U.S. or others) for not dropping it has been nowhere in sight. Indeed, the vague text of Abbas’s speech was viewed as his proclamation that he is resigned to failure. He based his presidency on the assumption that he had a deal: He would provide Israel with security (which both the IDF and Shin Bet confirm he consistently did), and in return he would receive statehood. This has not happened and is not likely to on his watch.

Those in Abbas’s close circle who urged him to unleash the bombshell in his speech even if only to attract attention and force some international action, were disappointed with his diluting the message in response to the urgings of Secretary of State John Kerry—with no concrete reward. They offer a cynical interpretation of the advice Abbas received from the Secretary: “Put some more money in the parking meter and wait for me. One day I’ll get the Iran thing off the agenda and will then tend to the Palestinian issue.”

Doubtful that even “after Iran” the Palestinians—rather than Syria, ISIS or some other global crisis—will attract U.S. attention, and noting that their issue was totally absent from President Obama’s UN speech, the Palestinian leadership sought to reinvigorate Abbas’s UN message by taking steps on the ground that were more in line with the absent bombshell. This was as much to allow a frustrated street to release some steam at Israel (rather than the discredited PA) as much as an attempt to attract Israeli and international attention. Thus, for the first time in years, Israeli sources reported that the PA security forces watched—and did not intervene – when waves of stone throwing protesters clashed with Israeli settlers and the IDF. Moreover, there were indications that senior PA security officials encouraged the youth to take to the streets.

As matters were spiraling out of control, Israel undertook several steps:

1. The government announced a series of new harsh security measures; flooded the streets of Jerusalem with everything the Israeli police could mobilize; considers deploying troops in the city and decided to install checkpoints between East and West Jerusalem.

2. Netanyahu’s stated commitment to the status quo in Jerusalem became louder and more frequent and Israeli politicians—Jews and Arabs alike—were barred from entering the site. An effort was made to coordinate a trilateral—Jordanian, Palestinian, Israeli—statement attesting to the fact that no change has taken place, but President Abbas and King Abdullah refused.

3. Somewhat more effective has been an approach to the settler leadership on the West Bank. With growing concern that settler violence (including Price Tag Jewish terrorism) will ignite the area, the settler leadership unanimously agreed to convey the message, yet they too are cognizant of the limits of their control.

4. Both directly as well as via various third-party diplomatic channels, Israel has conveyed repeated messages of assurances as well as concern to the Palestinian political and security leadership, urging continued coordination. Likewise, the Egyptian hotline with Israel on the one hand and Hamas on the other has been operating nonstop.

But it’s not all about the PA. Even if the PA has stepped back from the ledge, other actors are playing roles. Hamas is eager to trigger an Israeli action against the PA which will weaken it further. However, having internalized the lesson of last year’s assassination of three Israeli Yeshiva students which morphed into a devastating Israeli offensive in Gaza, Hamas’s instructions to operatives have been to lay low. On the West Bank to incite, agitate, even participate, but to the extent possible, with no Hamas fingerprints. In Jerusalem the opposite is the case: Hamas seeks prominence in “defending Islam.” Indeed, quite a few of the stabbings originated in Hamas strongholds in East Jerusalem. One threshold yet to be crossed by Hamas is unleashing its massive affiliates in West Bank refugee camps. With PA security forces careful to stay out, crossing that threshold will turn the situation substantially uglier and may prove hard to contain.

Still, even if the level-headed among Israelis and Palestinians were to prevail, the challenge of reining in the young generation may prove challenging. In East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, young Palestinians, attuned mostly to social networks, express long-felt hopelessness and frustration violently. On the West Bank, young Jews (commonly referred to as “the Youth of the Hills”) have long defied sober elderly advice. Youth on both sides seem beyond the control of respective authorities. And respective Palestinian authorities—both the PA and Hamas—appear too weak to challenge them for fear of taking Israel’s place as their target.

Thus, the current wave of violence has much to do with motivation: that of the Palestinian youth to kill Jews even if likely to get killed. It’s about the motivation of the Palestinian security organizations to disperse crowds before they start throwing stones; to prevent them from approaching Israeli settlements and IDF outposts; and to search for terror cells in the West Bank, whether they belong to Hamas, other ‘rejectionists’ or Fatah’s own Tanzim. And it’s about the motivation of Muslims everywhere regarding the safety of the Al Aqsa Mosque and its environs.

Concurrent with efforts to contain violence by force, reducing the reasons for the young to become Shaheeds, increasing the motivation of the PA troops, and removing all doubt concerning the status quo of religious practice in Jerusalem are thus key to restoring sanity. And yet, that concept is totally absent from the present Israeli discourse. Focused exclusively on the use of force—justified though it certainly is, the mention of hope has all but lost legitimacy.

While the idea of a peace agreement seems as remote today as it has ever been, somehow the Israeli body politic behaves as though there is no room for options between the exclusivity of the use of force on the one hand and the presently utopian permanent status agreement on the other. While this wave of violence demonstrates just how badly the parties have lost their way, the absence of a mature adult presenting alternatives in an authoritative way is an equally sad commentary on the state of mind of the relevant international players.

Lead image: Palestinians carry a wounded man during clashes with Israeli soldiers at the entrance of Erez border crossing between Gaza Strip and Israel, in the northern Gaza Strip on Oct. 13.

Nimrod Novik, who served as a foreign policy advisor to Shimon Peres during his tenure as Prime Minister and Vice Premier, is Israeli Fellow of the Israel Policy Forum, a non-partisan US organization that supports and advocates for a path toward a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A veteran of track-two diplomacy, Novik is a Senior Associate at the Economic Cooperation Foundation (ECF) in Israel.

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