Israel’s reaction to rising unrest in Jerusalem, with the prospect of another uprising in the West Bank, could further escalate the situation, writes Hussein Ibish
Israel’s baffling policies only encourage a third intifada
After several days of violence in occupied East Jerusalem, talk is spreading of a new intifada. We’ve heard this many times since the second intifada petered out. But just because previous pronouncements have proved incorrect that doesn’t mean the current situation will remain manageable.
On the contrary, even if the current spasm of violence ebbs away without producing a sustained uprising against Israeli rule, all that would ensure is that Palestinian frustration and outrage will inevitably give way to another rebellion. Eventually, something’s got to give, and anger might trump judgement.
Jewish settlers continue to aggressively colonise Jerusalem’s flashpoint Silwan neighbourhood. Radical Israeli politicians have toured the area, declaring that these measures underscore the permanence of Israel’s rule in all of Jerusalem, including Muslim and Christian holy sites. Uri Ariel, Israel’s housing minister, apparently wants a piece of this action so badly he’s trying to move to Silwan.
On Wednesday a Hamas member from Silwan deliberately ploughed his car into a crowd of Israelis gathered at a Jerusalem light rail stop, killing a three-month-old baby. Many Palestinians see this rail system as the Jerusalem equivalent of the West Bank wall: a physical embodiment of claims on occupied territory, sending the message: “We are here to stay. And rule.”
On Friday, occupation forces killed a Palestinian teenager they accused of throwing Molotov cocktails. Palestinians and Israeli troops have clashed on numerous occasions at Muslim holy sites in occupied East Jerusalem, particularly the Al Aqsa mosque. Several extremist Israeli political groups said they were planning to march through these Muslim holy places in order to demonstrate and assert the permanency of Israeli control over them. Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas vowed to prevent that “by all means”.
Meanwhile, Israel is relentlessly pursuing major settlement projects in and around occupied East Jerusalem in the face of strong American and European opposition.
This summer, the situation often seemed to be teetering on the brink. On the eve of the Laylat Al Qadr Muslim holy night, clashes between occupation forces and protesters threatened to spiral completely out of control. It was the closest thing to a new uprising since the second intifada. Despite widespread outrage at Israel’s conduct in Gaza, the situation remained controlled.
Palestinian Authority security forces intervened on several crucial occasions, giving Palestinians the opportunity to evaluate the relative merits of another uprising against Israel in the cold light of day rather than the heat of the moment. Thus far, it seems, most West Bank Palestinians fear the consequences of another intifada enough to avoid one.
But neither of those tenuous contingencies can be relied on. At some point, PA security forces may decline, or be simply unable to, take the necessary measures to cool a boiling cauldron. And at some point the Palestinian public may lose their fear, however rational, of the consequences of another uprising. If the people become simply determined to revolt against the appalling injustices of the Israeli occupation, no matter the evident risks and come what may, nobody will be able to stop them.
Should they ever combine, the spark of organised incitement setting fire to the kindling of authentic and irrepressible public outrage represented by thousands of angry young men with no future could be highly combustible. Last August, Israeli security services claimed that Hamas had a plan to destabilise and eventually overthrow the PA in the West Bank, largely through organising a series of attacks against Israelis.
Israeli security officials say most of the unrest is spontaneous. Hamas is indeed still promoting another intifada in the West Bank. But the tensions in Jerusalem – which is almost certainly where another uprising would originate – don’t appear connected with those efforts. Instead they represent the frustration of ordinary Palestinians living under profoundly oppressive Israeli rule with no road map for liberation and no end in sight.
Israel blames Mr Abbas for the attack by the Hamas member and other violent incidents. If Israel was correct last summer in believing that there is a covert Hamas plan to overthrow the PA through a series of destabilising violent incidents, then blaming him for this attack makes no sense.
If there is no such Hamas policy, then Israel lacks a coherent account of West Bank realities and is simply lurching from one method to another of blaming all Palestinians for everything objectionable or indefensible.
Either way, there doesn’t seem to be any systematic Israeli approach to responding to rising tensions in Jerusalem, much less the potential for another uprising.
Israel’s policy towards Hamas in Gaza is certainly very aggressive at the granular, immediate level, but bewilderingly passive regarding the bigger picture. It appears committed to maintaining an unsustainable and dangerous status quo.
Israel’s reaction to rising unrest in Jerusalem, and the prospect of another uprising in the West Bank, evinces a similar strange dichotomy between highly aggressive street-level and day-to-day security concerns but no apparent plan – apart from additional provocative settlement activity – to help shape the long-term future.
This apparent passivity and trust in fate might be politically convenient for certain Israeli leaders. But strategically, and as a matter of national policy, especially for such a powerful and historically aggressive state, it seems utterly inexplicable.
Hussein Ibish is a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine