No easy answers

The conflict over al-Aqsa has been a catalyst for an outburst of frustrations at Israel’s restrictive policies toward Palestinians in Jerusalem.

UAL-Ta'al MK Ahmad Tibi holds a Palestinian flag on Temple Mount (photo credit: Courtesy)
UAL-Ta'al MK Ahmad Tibi holds a Palestinian flag on Temple Mount
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Nobody is ready, yet, to attach the “I” for the intifada word to the violence raging for weeks across Israel and the West Bank – the weeks-old spasm of Israeli, Palestinian violence has yet to earn a name.
Neither warring side seems ready to put a name to the tirade of knifings, shootings, stone-throwing, fire bombings, running people down with cars, and Israel’s tough and deadly responses, all taking place in a mad cycle of violence since mid-September.
Even dozens of dead and wounded on both sides haven’t led any experts or officials to finally declare this spasm of violence as the start of a third uprising.
So many waves of violence in the past decade have either segued into full-blown war or petered out, experts say, so it’s still a tough call to say whether the current confrontations will wind up shaking the political kaleidoscope or dissipate into thin air.
Some Palestinians, and Israelis, too, see the spate of largely lone-wolf attacks by young men and women – many even shy of 20 – as the start of a Palestinian “Arab spring” or a youthful uprising minus the involvement of traditional armed or established groups.
Others feel it’s just a matter of time before Hamas, Fatah and the other organizations assert control by helping to finance more sophisticated attacks. Many see the confrontations at high risk of growing deadlier unless measures are taken to calm the situation.
For now, most of the Palestinian protesters and attackers don’t seem to be taking direction from above, though various Palestinian militant groups and factions from Islamist Hamas to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah movement appear to be involved in organizing some of the demonstrations that have erupted in clashes with IDF troops in the West Bank.
At first, the bulk of the knifings, car ramming attacks and shootings characterizing the violence seemed centered in Jerusalem.
The city has been an epicenter of Palestinian anger at perceived Israeli attempts to exercise greater influence over the Temple Mount, a powerful symbol in the Arab world as the site of the golden Dome of the Rock and Islam’s third-holiest mosque, al-Aqsa.
Palestinian anger at seeing Israeli officials making frequent visits to the mosque’s plaza and hinting at a plan to change prayer arrangements there has exacerbated frustrations over movement and construction restrictions in the parts of the city in which they live, and watching neighbors thrown out of homes claimed by Jewish settler groups.
The conflict over al-Aqsa has been a catalyst for an outburst of frustrations at Israel’s restrictive policies toward Palestinians in a city Israel views as its capital, but which Palestinians aspire to make the capital of a would-be state they seek to establish in the West Bank and Gaza.
But since the first attacks, violence has spread well beyond Jerusalem – even engulfing parts of Israeli Arab towns and villages – just as in past uprisings when initial confrontations were centered in the holy city and then moved further afield.
Despite these signs of spreading unrest, various experts and conflict watchers feel it’s still too early to talk about Palestinians having any particular strategy. Most see a popular outburst of anger rather than a strategy to win a quick resumption of the years of peace talks few people seem to believe will actually yield a two-state solution anytime soon.
But Israel’s effort to crush the violence by wounding or killing dozens and jailing hundreds may fan the flames instead. Traditional terrorist groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, currently seen as uninvolved in the confrontations (beyond some egging on over social media), may step into the fray and begin organizing suicide bomb attacks, analysts say.
For now, however, the Palestinian assailants are mainly young men and women, acting as lone wolves either after posting their own angry diatribe on Facebook or viewing the pages of peers already felled or wounded after knifing, shooting or ramming into an Israeli with a vehicle.
“This is purely an outburst of frustrations,” says Palestinian researcher Khalil Tafakji, of the Mapping and Geographic Information Systems Department of the Arab Studies Society in Jerusalem. “There’s no intifada here,” he tells The Jerusalem Report. “People are fed up,” says Tafakji, of Israel’s isolation of Palestinians in East Jerusalem from those living in the West Bank and Gaza through a system of security barriers.
Mena chem Klein of Bar-Ilan University says he detects what he calls “patterns” in the current violence but no organized strategy on the part of the Palestinians – a tendency to target security personnel or Orthodox Jews perceived by Palestinians to be settlers (whether their victims live across the so-called Green Line or not).
“I cannot see any planned strategy here by the Palestinian Authority or any armed groups. This is very different from the second intifada. Here we’re talking about lone wolves,” Klein, a political scientist and author of a book published earlier this year called, “Lives in Common: Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem, Jaffa and Hebron,” tells The Report.
Abbas, who is seen as having about as much to lose as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the fray, appears to be trying to tamp down the violence.
However, anger at Abbas has been on the rise among Palestinians frustrated with the tensions and lack of improvement on the ground, and their own fears at the spiraling violence. Many of the youthful protesters are seen as just as angry at Abbas’s Fatah-led establishment, and its alleged corruption, as they are at Israel.
“This is going to get worse. I cannot rule out that Abbas will step down,” says Klein.
“At a certain point, armed groups can try to seize the opportunity to institutionalize the uprising, and then we may see terrorist attacks like suicide bombers in buses and cars,” he adds.
Under such a scenario, Israel would have to step up its own armed involvement in the West Bank, and particularly if security cooperation with Palestinian police were to collapse along with Abbas’s rule.
Israeli media focuses more on the daily attacks on Israel’s own civilians and soldiers, but clashes have been taking place well inside the West Bank, in such places as Hebron and the environs of the Yitzhar settlement on the outskirts of Nablus.
Many of these confrontations involve settlers clashing with Palestinians, with a smattering of protests against Israeli forces in the West Bank.
Klein and other experts see a potential for the unrest to escalate much more, and segue into a full-fledged uprising if Abbas’s Islamist extremist rivals in Hamas or Islamic Jihad seize control of these events.
Moshe Elad, a lieutenant colonel in the IDF reserves once involved in coordinating security with the Palestinians and now a lecturer at Western Galilee College in Acre, also sees no Palestinian strategy in the current violence.
But based on uprisings past, Elad explains to The Report, “There’s a tendency for terrorist organizations to commandeer the situation later, as in the first intifada in 1987, which also began as a popular revolt.”
Elad is uncertain as to whether the latest violence will wind up as a third intifada but believes flare-ups of unrest seem likely to continue, adding that bursts of unrest seem to occur at shorter intervals than they did a decade ago.
So far, he says, Hamas has tried, but failed, to step into the action, when a call it issued to carry out suicide missions against Israelis went unheeded and the violence even appeared to subside. But Elad worries about what may lie ahead.
“It is difficult to tell what may happen next. One big attack could reignite it all,” he says.
How extensive or devastating a new intifada might be would likely depend on Israel’s and Palestinian militant groups’ responses since a spike in the death toll on either side could obviously escalate the situation.
Dr. Mahdi Abdel Hadi, the head of PASSIA, The Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, sees angry youths lashing out at what he calls “the people sitting on the sofas” – referring to both Israeli and Palestinian leaders offering young people in East Jerusalem too many barricades and too few options for development.
Hadi compares the young Palestinian attackers and protesters to counterparts who launched the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011, more out of anger than with any particular strategy in mind, yet they wound up toppling their regimes. Though the masses of demonstrators are nowhere near the numbers there were in Cairo, the potential seems to be there, he says.
“All the factions in the PLO, the PA, are sitting on the sofa watching from a distance, from the sofa and political saloons, like it was in Egypt. That’s why there’s no leadership or guidance, or anyone providing directions for the day after,” Hadi tells The Report.
Hadi sees Palestinian youths as angry at Israeli settlement expansion on land Palestinians want for a state, as well as frequent closures and other restrictions, including police often barring the young from attending prayers at al-Aqsa mosque citing security concerns.
“It’s the Jerusalem youth rising up to say, ‘Over my dead body are you going to Judaize Jerusalem.’ “It is not a surprise what happened. It has been expected for the last three years when the spark would take place. Al-Aqsa mosque was the place. Jerusalem is the space. And the youths are the players,” says Hadi.
As Hadi sees it, Israel’s tough crackdown against the knifings by killing most assailants at the scene and arresting hundreds is fanning the flames of protest and violence, not resolving it.
Watching Israeli officials encourage citizens to arm themselves and attack Palestinians suspected of terrorism makes many Palestinians feel “the settlers are there to kill us, they have a license to kill,” he says.
Ha di feels only Israel, as the power in charge in Jerusalem and of West Bank land it has occupied since 1967, has the strength to stop the violent spiral by removing troops from the streets and lifting closures of Palestinian neighborhoods – steps unlikely to happen as long as Israelis keep coming under attack.
“It’s up to the Israelis to take that bold, wise decision,” Hadi says.
In retrospect, previous Palestinian uprisings against Israel all appeared to have a strategy of pushing their cause for an Israeli withdrawal from occupied land so they could achieve a state. In 1987, Palestinians exploded in anger when the world seemed to be ignoring their cause as Israel set more and more settlement facts on the ground.
Six years later, the Oslo Accords were born, ushering in a Palestinian self-rule authority that was supposed to lead to a peaceful two-state solution. Only it didn’t, and so a second intifada erupted in 2000, and five years later Israel pulled troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip, hinting it was ready to take similar steps in parts of the West Bank.
But the Gaza pullout backfired when Hamas Islamists who reject Israel’s existence seized power there and ousted Abbas’s people. At least four wars with Israel have ensued over rockets fired by Hamas and other Islamist terrorists at Israel – violence that has also contributed to derailing peace efforts between the sides.
Meanwhile, for Israel’s part, Jewish settlement expansion in the West Bank has sapped Palestinian confidence in talks and eroded the amount of land left for them to build a state.
Many observers envisage a renewal of diplomacy for a two-state solution of the conflict as an obvious way to ease the violence.
Yet few experts see any easy way to do that, and some even question whether side-by-side statehood is still a viable option.
Elad, a graduate of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, doubts the US administration of President Barack Obama will press either side for the concessions necessary for a peace deal.
The United States and Europe seem more preoccupied with the threat of ISIS spreading its influence in war-torn Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan than with the festering Palestinian issue.
Likewise, many Palestinians and Israelis see little prospect of Netanyahu moving thousands of settlers out of occupied land so the Palestinians can build a state there.
Klein sees Israel as “unwilling to pay the price domestically, and right-wingers who would resist” the types of territorial concessions necessary for such a solution to come about.
Hadi, the Palestinian academic, says that as far as he can see “the two-state solution is dead.”
So what to do instead? There’s no easy answer it seems. A single state or a confederation of Israeli and Palestinian entities are two ideas the analysts throw about.
“We have to come up with something creative and different,” Hadi says.