As you’ve probably noticed in the news, we are now several weeks into a new spiral of violence in Israel and the Occupied Territories. The why? why now? and who? and what? are all fairly complicated. It starts against the backdrop of what appears to be the permanently stalled ‘peace process’. Unlike some other people, I don’t put peace process in scare quotes out of derision. I’m someone who believes deeply in it and the two-state solution which I believe is both the only viable and inevitable solution. For now, though, it simply doesn’t exist.
Against that backdrop you have an effort on the part of nationalist Jews and some religious Jews and especially religious nationalist Jews to alter the ‘status quo’ on the Temple Mount. This is both a technically complicated issue and endlessly controversial and inflamed. The second Jewish Temple was destroyed by the Romans in the sacking of Jerusalem in 70 AD. The area was left in ruins for centuries after until 691 AD when the Muslim Caliph built the Dome of the Rock on the plateau where the Temple had been. The first version of the Al-Aqsa Mosque was built on the same plateau in 705 AD (it was destroyed and rebuilt after successive earthquakes). For Muslims, this whole precinct which I’m calling a ‘plateau’ is the al-Haram ash-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary. For Jews it is the Temple Mount. For the Jews, the focus of devotion is a remaining section of the western retaining wall of this Temple complex. This is the Western Wall.
When Israel conquered the Old City of Jerusalem in the Six Day War (in addition to the Golan Heights, West Bank of the Jordan River and the Gaza Strip), then Defense Minister Moshe Dayan made the decision to leave the Mosques under the administration of an Islamic Trust called the Waqf (which itself has a complicated and honorary relationship with the Jordanian monarch). In essence, Dayan’s decision was to leave the Temple Mount and the mosques under Muslim control and largely keep Jews off the mosque compound. Jews could visit the area under the understanding that they would respect Muslim sensibilities but they would not be permitted to pray there. In essence, the Israeli state made the decision not to challenge what we might call Muslim ownership of Haram al Sharif even as it fell under Israeli sovereignty in a united Jerusalem.
On this Israel got a critical assist from Judaism. Under traditional Jewish religious law (“halakhah”) Jews shouldn’t go onto the Temple Mount at all (long story). For the Israeli government the decision was of course a pragmatic one – in addition to being wise. And this policy, almost universally referred to as the ‘status quo’, has been in effect since 1967.
But quite a lot has changed since 1967.
One of the biggest changes in Israeli society over the last half century has been the growth of the ultra-orthodox community and the related but quite distinct religious Zionist or religious nationalist community. And on the fringes at first and then not on the fringes there’s been a push to change this status quo. The changes range from the simple right to pray on the Temple Mount to various symbolic and non-symbolic assertions of Jewish control or dominance over the area to actually building a Third Jewish Temple. Traditional Jewish law is quite clear that this is not supposed to happen until the arrival of the Jewish Messiah, which is to say at the end of time. The plans range from building a Temple next to the Mosque, to somehow over or subsuming the mosques to simply destroying the mosques and building a new Temple where the old one was about nineteen hundred and sixty years ago.
In common parlance, the idea of rebuilding the Temple is totally insane, by almost every conceivable calculus. And I should make quite clear that this remains a very, very fringe position within Israeli society. No prominent political leader supports this idea. Nor does any party or really anyone who is seen as a serious member of society. But it’s not one or two people yelling on a street corner. There are organizations, groups and various hot heads that push this as a serious idea.
One of the most visible of these is a guy named Yehuda Glick, a prominent Temple rebuilding activist who survived an assassination attempt last year.
The more serious move is one to end the ban on Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount and more broadly to allow Jews (and Christians for that matter) to operate on the Temple Mount on equal terms with Muslims. Netanyahu’s government has said repeatedly that it does not support altering the status quo and will not allow it. But to understand this stance it’s important to understand something about Netanyahu himself. I take a backseat to really no one in my antipathy for Netanyahu. But the extremist he is often portrayed as in liberal US media significantly misses the mark. Yes, he’s committed to the basic principles of Revisionist Zionist ideology (in other words, he’s a Likudnik). But he’s fundamentally a pragmatist interested in “quiet” and perpetuating his own power.
What I mean by that is that he is most focused on preserving the broader status quo. So, famously, while two state types have wanted to end the division between the West Bank/Fatah and Gaza/Hamas and get an empowered Palestinian entity to reach a settlement with and while the hard right wants to reoccupy Gaza or even expel parts of its population, Netanyahu has said again and again that his goal is “quiet”. In other words, a de facto truce. You don’t send your rockets and we won’t send bombs. No solution. Just let it ride. If the question is what does Netanyahu want, it’s really all fungible. He wants as much settlement as possible, both because he believes in it and also because it’s critical to the strength of his coalition. But he also doesn’t want to go so far that causes him too much trouble internationally or in the US. He doesn’t want a Palestinian state but he doesn’t want to say he doesn’t want one either. It was clear that Netanyahu did not want or was not looking for the last war in Gaza and Hamas didn’t really seem to be either – both sides essentially stumbled into it. Netanyahu has no interest in resolving anything. He also has no clear agenda he’s trying to push. The current status quo – de facto permanent occupation with on-going settlement activity works for him, both politically and ideologically. Critically, it allows him to create more and more facts on the ground, more settlements, more de facto creeping annexation of land. And he’ll shift and turn, hem and haw as required by the politics of the moment to perpetuate it.
This is what people like me find so toxic and dangerous about Netanyahu – one of the things. If you think that everything’s going great for Israel and time is on its side, well this is all great. As I said above, one critical issue here is creating more facts on the ground with more settlements. There are many in Israel who think “Eventually people got used to the 67 borders. Now many recognize that Israel will never surrender the major settlement blocs along the Green Line (the de facto border between Israel proper and the West Bank). We’ll just keep taking more land and even though the current situation isn’t great we’ll just keep pushing forward and be in a better situation in 20 years than we do now. If you think that’s not the case, perpetuating the status quo is dangerous. My own take on Netanyahu is that there’s a heavy dose of denial in his quest for “quiet,” zero strategic vision or willingness to reckon with what that 20 years out situation actually looks like. But here’s where we get back to the Temple Mount.
I don’t think changing the status quo on the Temple Mount is some big agenda item for Netanyahu. And I take his government at its word that it has no intention of changing it. But Netanyahu is not a strong leader or a decisive one. And the desire to change it is growing among his constituents. This isn’t Menachem Begin’s Likud – both Likud and even more its allied parties are no longer the largely secular Likudniks. It’s much more tilted in the direction of different strains of Religious Zionism. And these are the people who are pushing for more and more, often provocative visits to the Temple Mount by status quo changing activists and pushing the envelope on praying on the Temple Mount etc. They have friends in the government who’d like to see a change too and they help facilitate it. Netanyahu may not want this fight. But he doesn’t want to alienate key parts of his coalition either. So he and they try to ride the tiger. Try to give these extremists enough free rein to keep on their good side while hoping it won’t go too far and also saying publicly that they don’t want to change the status quo.
To borrow a familiar phrase, the activists and their friends in government are trying to create symbolic facts on the ground that the government will have to react to.
That’s one side. Nationalist Israelis trying to change the status quo which has been in place for almost 50 years in the name of things that sound reasonable in the abstract (why shouldn’t everyone be allowed to pray there? what about religious freedom?) but are at a minimum deeply provocative and needless. And then in the background, though they’re a tiny minority are total extremists saying they want to rebuild the Temple and maybe destroy the mosques.
On the other side, you have Palestinians who are up in arms about the suggestion that the status quo is going to change (not a crazy proposition) and various groups spreading various wild conspiracy theories about Israeli intentions, inciting violence in defense of the mosques, etc. Fatah is part of this, Hamas is part of this. One of the key players is the Northern branch of Israel’s own Islamic movement. In going into detail above about the crazies who want to rebuild the Temple, I want to make sure I don’t make them sound more prominent than they are. They’re a tiny fringe. But I note them here both to give a sense of a full spectrum of activity on the Israeli far right but also to make clear that it’s easier for dark forces on the Palestinian side to incite and spread conspiracy theories and lies when you very much can go on the Internet and find Israelis who believe and are pushing for these totally insane things.
The upshot is that you have provocation and incitement on both sides. But I think there’s no getting around the fact the hysteria and violence over the Temple Mount started with folks on the Israeli side trying to change the status quo.
Now, in case it isn’t obvious, while both sides place vast sacred and symbolic importance on their precise locus of devotional focus, this whole battle is of course a microcosm and a symbol of the struggle for control of Jerusalem, which is of course at the heart of the conflict.
Now, before discussing why this is happening now I want to say a few things about what is happening now. There’s a lot of debate about whether this is the beginning of a Third Intifada or uprising. To me, it’s basically a semantic discussion at this point. But it’s worth noting that the First Intifada was largely defined by rock throwing and molotov cocktails, a low level form of street or riot violence that the Israelis learned they were not able to break. There was more extreme violence. But that was an outlier to the main story. The Second Intifada was a far more grotesque and brutal affair. This was the Intifada of suicide bombings and mass carnage out of nowhere. In both cases, the IDF and police responded with various countermeasures that at least in numerical terms led to many more deaths on the Palestinian side.
This new violence is something altogether different – low tech and intimate. Most of the attacks have been knife attacks in which the assailant is usually quickly shot and often killed. Needless to say, knives are extremely inefficient at killing large numbers of people. Thankfully, many of the victims have themselves survived. But this isn’t chanting at IDF troops in Ramallah and pelting them with stones. It’s also not the religious reverie and trance a suicide bomber stirs himself into before blowing himself up with numerous bystanders. These are rage attacks in which the assailant sees the eyes of the victim and vice versa. Also notably, almost all of the attackers are very young. Not just young men or teenagers. But in some cases as young as thirteen years old. Most of the attackers, though not all, come from East Jerusalem, a sort of jurisdictional no-man’s land between the clarity of Israeli Arabs who live in Israel proper and have full citizenship and the residents of the West Bank who are occupied, voteless and stateless. East Jerusalem was annexed to Israel after the Six Day War. In Israel’s eyes it is as much Israel as Haifa. The Arab residents were offered citizenship but most declined, not wanting to validate Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem. So Jerusalem is nominally united but also very much divided.
But Arab East Jerusalemites have most of the freedom of movement of everyone else in Israel. They can’t just be blocked off or barred from entering Israel proper like Palestinians in the West Bank. Notably, things have remained relatively quiet in areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority.
What the Israeli security establishment has been trying very hard to figure out is whether these attacks are being coordinated in any centralized way or whether they are organic or to use the language of social media – which has very much been spreading word of the attacks and rousing people to more – whether they are a sort of viral. The Israelis appear to have come to the conclusion that at least for now it’s largely the latter.
This poses real challenges for the Israelis. We can talk as a general matter about whether repression is an effective weapon against a violent mass uprising like the Second Intifada. But the Israelis had very specific things they could and did do. Using signals and human intelligence, you go into areas and destroy safe houses where bombs are made. You arrest or kill leaders who are organizing or exercising command and control over bombing operations. You disrupt organizations. These operations are bloody and brutal. But they can be effective.
Here though it’s much less clear what the security forces can do. I was particularly struck by this passage in an article in Haaretz a few days ago of a security cabinet meeting in response to the violence in and around Jerusalem. To give some context, Bennett and Katz are two right-wing, frankly extremist, members of the current government. The Defense Minister Ya’alon is plenty right-wing but also sane.
Several sources who took part in the meeting or were briefed about it, but asked to remain unnamed in light of the sensitivity of the issue, noted the Bennett and Katz pushed for action to “enforce the Israeli sovereignty in East Jerusalem.” The two claimed that despite the fact that Israeli law applies to the Palestinian neighborhoods in the city’s east, these are not really under Israel’s control.
During the meeting, Katz said that there was a need to “clean up” East Jerusalem’s Palestinian neighborhoods. Education Minister Bennett for his part claimed that there was a need to change the situation in East Jerusalem. According to him, though East Jerusalem neighborhoods like Silwan and Ras al-Amud are part of Israel according to the law, the level of security for Jews living there was significantly lower than in the rest of the country.
Their comments riled Acting Police Commissioner Bentzi Sau, who said they did not know the facts on the ground or the police’s activities. “When we have intelligent information, either ours or the Shin Bet, we enter [East Jerusalem] and make arrests,” said Sau. “Every night we conduct arrests raids in every neighborhood or refugee camp in East Jerusalem.“
Defense Minister Ya’alon echoed his comments, asking rhetorically if they suggest a wide-ranging military operation in Jerusalem like Israel conducted in 2002. “Do you want us to send the army? For what? [During Defensive Shield] we had targets and a terror infrastructure. Now, if we do, then the police and Shin Bet take care of it. “Do you want us to go around and confiscate all the kitchen knives in East Jerusalem?” he asked in a jab to Katz.
In so many words, Bennett and Katz were pushing to go in and just kick some ass and assert dominance, whereas Sau and Ya’alon are saying there just aren’t any legally or operationally meaningful asses available to kick.
As I’ve watched the commentary over this rash of attacks, a lot of it quickly settles down to who’s responsible, why it’s happening, are the attacks justified by the occupation, etc. etc. etc. All of these questions strike me as extended forms of denial and basically beside the point. Of course, it’s wrong and evil in all cases to randomly pick out innocent civilians on the street and stab them. It’s not justified by the Occupation. It can’t be justified by anything. But I think most of us know this. But it is just as obvious that it is unwise to pretend that all of this happens in a vacuum. The two peoples simply cannot live together with one side dominating the other. Or perhaps it’s better to say, this is how they will live together. And the rage and hatred is so strong on both sides that a long period of separation would be required in any case.
Jewish groups in the US have been circulating this powerful video of Arab-Israeli Lucy Aharish denouncing Israeli-Arab and Palestinian leaders both for their incitement to the current violence and their silence in the face of it.
It is worth noting that Aharish is no ordinary Israeli Arab citizen. She is the first Israeli Arab/Palestinian to be top news presenter on Israeli television, which means in Hebrew. Everything she says here is 100% right. And I’m glad the video is getting widely circulated. But the question is, what’s next? It’s particularly wrong for people in positions of authority to inflame tense and unstable situations or remain silent as things teeter on the brink. But true leadership at the leadership and the societal level means unraveling and resolving tense, unstable and unsustainable situations, which is pretty much the definition of the Occupation. There will always be malefactors and evil people and simple random chance with a match as long as there is enough gasoline on the ground.
We hear again and again that the chances for the two-state solution are almost over or are already over and that inevitably we’ll have a binational single state. Well, this is your binational state. In most of Israel proper Israeli Jews vastly outnumber Palestinian Arabs – the major exception is an area in the north called the Triangle. Jerusalem is the one place where big concentrations of Arabs and Jews live in one place, albeit highly divided geographically but nominally at least under a common sovereignty. It doesn’t work very well – to put it mildly. One state supporters would likely say, well, this isn’t what it looks like at all. One state means full equality under the law, full inclusion etc. etc. To which I would say, good luck with that. Democratic polities survive when there is some broad consensus about the essentials of the state’s aims. I think a stable, genuine civic equality is possible with mixed population in Israel proper. But that is in significant part because one side is much larger than the other. You can talk about full equality and inclusion but putting two people together with roughly equal populations and the kind of ingrained fear, rage and hatred we’re seeing on the streets today will just end up being oppression and domination for whichever side gets the upper hand. This is why I’m confident we’ll eventually get to two states – the question is just whether we get there through some form of negotiation or via a one-state interlude, followed by endemic violence, civil war, forced expulsions by whichever side can do it and more.
Puffing up our chests about whether stabbing attacks are evil is just a diversion. Of course they’re evil. But what do you do about it? What do you do about it after this flare up subsides? Many will say I’m blaming this whole flare up on people wanting to pray on the Temple Mount. I’m not. What I am saying is that this is the price – either paid in one big payment on in installments on layaway over time – of Israel’s and most of the United States’ collective denial about the big status quo of the Occupation and the unrealistic belief that it can just be perpetuated over time.