The first rains that follow the High Holy Days have come to Jerusalem. As always, a blessed relief. But no relief seems imminent from the renewed tensions that have descended on the city. A series of brutal murders and attempted murders of Israeli Jewish civilians by Palestinian Arab Muslims have taken place over the last two weeks. These have occurred against a backdrop of violent demonstrations and protests in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and increasingly among Israel’s Arab citizens.
For five years, Israel has lived a strange and contradictory reality. The Arab world is in an advanced state of meltdown. A number of formerly strong states have effectively ceased to exist. Syria, Iraq, Yemen are today merely names for areas in which sectarian militias battle one another. These states have collapsed along their ethnic and sectarian faultlines. The results have been bloody and are not yet over.
Yet on the edge of all this, the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea has remained quiet. An anomaly. This is the only place of non-Muslim sovereignty between Europe and India. The existence of a sovereign area successfully defended by the Jews – a group traditionally despised and ridiculed by Muslims – has long been a source of rage and humiliation for both Sunni and Shia.
Why then, at a time when religious and sectarian identity was everywhere breaking through the thin membrane of ‘national’ and ‘state’ loyalty had this area of non-Muslim sovereignty been spared major strife?
Four reasons: Firstly, the Jewish state, despite its small size, enjoyed a vast military and technological advantage over its neighbors/enemies. Any Islamist force wishing to make war on Israel needed to take into account that the likely result would be devastation for its own side, set against meager fruits in terms of damage inflicted on the hated enemy. Two powerful Islamist militias, Hamas and Hizballah, have been largely deterred in recent years through this equation.
Secondly, Palestinian Sunni Arabs watch the progress of events in the region, and this in itself acts as a deterrent against acting against Israel. Those of them who have Israeli citizenship benefit enormously from the western levels of social organization and liberty in Israel. Those in the West Bank are themselves able to live lives of a level of tranquility and comfort quite unimaginable to inhabitants of, say, Iraq or Syria. This gives pause for thought.
Thirdly, the Second Intifada was not that long ago. The armed structures that prosecuted it on behalf of the Palestinians were largely broken and are only now re-building themselves. The population remembers the chaos and suffering and again has cause to think twice before supporting a return to those days.
Fourthly, the Palestinian Authority leadership understands that it will not be the beneficiary of a turn toward the street. Its leadership and their families live well and peacefully in Ramallah. The IDF keeps them safe from regional and local demons. The political beneficiaries of the Second Intifada were Hamas. This time around, the forces that will emerge on the street are likely to be tied to or inspired by the example of the Sunni jihadis currently flourishing in Syria and Iraq.
These are all good reasons why Israel and the PA-ruled areas have been quiet over the last half decade. Nevertheless, that quiet has undergone a tremor in recent weeks. A Third Intifada is not quite here yet, but the momentum toward it is building.
What are the dynamics that are leading to this, which may yet prove stronger than the factors listed above?
Not for the first time in this country’s history, the spark that may yet be fanned into a fire is set on the area of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem. This is the site of the Jewish Temples, the second of which was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70. Today, it hosts the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, symbols of the many centuries of Muslim domination of the area.
The issue which is fanning the flames of the current events, repeated endlessly in Palestinian media, social media, and public discourse, is the supposed ‘threat’ to al-Aqsa. Naïve western commentary, predictably, is convinced that this religious fury and fervor must be concealing something else, inevitably socio-economic and secular in essence. But examples from the rest of the region show that religious and sectarian identity need to be taken seriously as forces in their own right. If the people involved say, again and again, that its about religion, then its worth listening to them. Thus it is in Syria. Thus it is in Iraq, and in Lebanon. And thus it is among the Palestinians.
The desire of a small group of Jews to have the right to pray on the Temple Mount, far from the mosques and without troubling them, is producing the wave of murderous fury which is currently gripping Jerusalem and its environs. Popular Palestinian newspapers such as al-Quds and al-Ayyam have been leading for months with details of this supposed threat. Hamas and the Islamic Movement in Israel reference it constantly in their propaganda. Social media sites affiliated with Fatah or Hamas such as the Shehab ‘news agency’ keep up the drumbeat of propaganda.
Thus a non-existent threat becomes the trigger for violence. Then, when Israel’s efforts to combat this violence produce deaths among the Palestinians, these too are added fuel to the flames.
We are not quite beyond the point of no return. The PA leadership is trying now belatedly to turn back from the course of confrontation. The factors listed above have not vanished. But the Palestinian Arab Muslim population of the West Bank is closer to a new uprising than at any time over the last ten years.
This time around, the ‘uprising’ has so far taken the form of nihilistic and barbaric attacks on individual Jews (including a small child in the case of the attack in Jerusalem’s Old City).
In 2000, the model for Palestinian armed activity was Hizballah. This time, the current model of local successful ‘resistance’ is obvious. It is the Islamic State. There is still time for the Palestinians to turn back from the course of collision. Hopefully they will choose to do so. The monsters likely to surface west of the Jordan River in the course of a new Intifada will serve the interests of neither people.