Israel Avoids the Abyss – For Now

The Australian, 31/10

First indications that the violence in Israel and the West Bank is Being Contained

For the past four weeks, Israel and the West Bank have been hit by a wave of stabbing attacks by Palestinian Muslims on Israeli Jews, and by demonstrations and protests in the West Bank.  Palestinian fury derives from claims that Israel planned to change the ‘status quo’ banning Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif area.

The 37 acre area of the Temple Mount constitutes in many ways the epicenter of the long conflict between Israeli Jews and Palestinians/Arabs/Muslims.

It is the holiest place in Judaism.  As the site of the First and Second Temples, it is the most resonant reminder for Israeli Jews of their sense of remembered and ancient sovereignty in the land.

For Palestinians, Arabs and the wider Muslim world, the area is revered as the site of the al-Aqsa mosque, whose holiness is surpassed only by Mecca and Medina.

The fact of Israeli control of Jerusalem’s Old City since 1967 constitutes for many Palestinians a constant reminder of what they regard as the wrongs of the current situation, and the perceived historical injustice of Israel’s establishment.

So the area is a permanent flashpoint. Its potential  to ignite the flames of renewed conflict is ever present.

Some have assessed that the wave of attacks herald a third intifada, or Palestinian uprising.

But a number of indications suggest that while the wave of attacks is unprecedented in the decade since the end of the Second Intifada in 2005,  it does not currently appear to be set to turn into a mass uprising.

So is the violence being contained, and if it is, what are the factors underlying this? And will the current trend hold?

Jerusalem  has been flooded with an increased deployment of police reinforced by 1200 Border Police officers for the last two weeks.  Israel Police Spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld this week  contended that this deployment had on a tactical level succeeded in preventing attacks and containing the situation.

There has without a doubt been a numerical decline in attacks in Jerusalem, and a  similar reduction in incidents elsewhere in Israel over the past week (though not in the West Bank.)

A number of  additional elements have contributed to the tentative sense that the violence, if not yet defeated, is being contained.

Firstly, the agreement reached between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Jordanian King Abdullah II in Amman last Saturday lessens the plausibility of any claims that Israel plans to alter the ‘status quo’ on the Mount.

This agreement, in the first instance between Netanyhau and Abdullah, provides an Israeli guarantee that the ‘status quo’ on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif is not going to be changed.  The placing of cameras in the area will be a further positive contribution in making clear that no such change is being implemented.

Of course,  no evidence has emerged of an Israeli plan at any stage to change the status quo in the area.  Rather, one of the more notable constants since the capture of the area by Israel in June 1967 has been the continued prohibition of Jewish or Christian prayer on the Mount, despite its great significance to these religions.

But the perception of a danger to the al-Aqsa mosque, the product of a constant drumbeat kept up by Hamas, the Islamic Movement in Israel, prominent clerics and sometimes also by Fatah leaders including Abbas   has been the key element in firing up the incendiary atmosphere behind the attacks.

The agreement will not appease the youthful circles most closely involved in the violence. They are influenced by social media rather than high level politics.  But it may well reduce the general level  of apprehension regarding the situation on the Mount,  and thus lessen the broader support necessary to turn the current situation  into a large scale uprising.

Secondly, it is noteworthy that cooperation between the Israeli security forces and those of the Palestinian Authority has not broken down as a result of the current events.  The Palestinian Authority leadership does not control the young people carrying out the stabbings.  But if the PA wished to put its own structures behind the unrest, it could at a stroke transform it into something far more serious.

On a verbal level, the PA accepts the stabbings and describes the perpetrators as ‘martyrs.’  President Abbas contributed to the inflamed atmosphere underlying the attacks in a speech broadcast on PA TV on September 17th,  in which he called on Israelis/Jews not to place their ‘filthy feet’ on the Mount.

But the goal of the Palestinian President is to control and channel the unrest, not to escalate it.  The PA may benefit from unarmed protests and demonstrations, which keep the Palestinian cause the subject of world attention.  But Abbas does not seek a general, violent insurgency against Israel.

This reflects itself in the practical moves adopted by the Palestinian president. Fatah armed groups such as the Tanzim and Aqsa Martyrs Brigades played a key role in the attacks on Israeli population centers in the 2000-5 period.  Security cooperation broke down in autumn 2000 and was a key prelude to the mayhem that followed.

But this time around, in spite of his rhetorical condemnations, Abbas evidently prefers not to throw away the relative stability of the last years.  The Tanzim and other Fatah armed groups have been instructed not to engage in the violence.  The official PA security forces are continuing cooperation with Israel.

Thirdly, there is a more nebulous element here, harder to quantify but nevertheless apparent in conversations with Palestinian residents of Jerusalem.  The general chaos in the surrounding area – in Syria, Sinai, Iraq and so on – has not escaped the attention of either Palestinians or Israelis.  This serves as a disincentive to participation in violence among wide sections of society.  It is easy to launch an uprising, harder to know where it may lead.

The Second Intifada was not that long ago. It is still remembered by all those over the age of 30.  The suffering that it entailed, and the surrounding examples of what a general breakdown in civil order can produce are  probable contributors to the fact that the demonstrations and protests of recent weeks have stayed small, numbering in the hundreds rather than the thousands.

Fourthly, the attacks are emerging not from organized structures, but rather from a milieu of young Palestinians too young to remember the last Intifada, who receive their information from social media, where claims that Israel is about to change the status quo on the Temple Mount proliferate.

The experience of the Arab Spring shows both the power but also the limitations of loosely organized or non-organized groups of youth inspired by social media.    Activity generated by social media is immensely difficult for the security forces of a government to combat.   There is no means to infiltrate or have forewarning of a person who is convinced by a message on social media, and then chooses to go out and commit a murder using instruments available in most kitchens.

But other than expressing anger, a leaderless, directionless trend of this type ultimately is capable of only a limited impact.  The stabbings will not produce any gains for the Palestinians. Nor will they have any particular effect on internal Palestinian politics.  In the agreement reached in Amman, Israel refused a Palestinian demand to return to the pre-2000 ‘status quo’ on the Temple Mount, according to which Israeli security forces would not enter the area and the age of worshippers was not restricted.  The reason for this refusal, clearly, was to dispel any attempt to claim that the wave of stabbings had achieved a concrete concession from Israel.

Fifthly, the Palestinian Islamist movements Hamas and Islamic Jihad have thrown their support behind the protests and stabbings, and are seeking to derive political capital from them.  A number of the attacks were committed by individuals with connections to  the Islamists.  Five individuals connected to Hamas were arrested for the murders of Eitam and Na’ama Henkin on October 1st.  Muhanad Alkubi, who killed IDF soldier Omri Levy on October 18th, was also in contact with that movement.  Islamic Jihad claimed credit for the attack in Jerusalem’s Old City on October 3rd, in which Nehemia Lavi and Aharon Bennett lost their lives.

But there is a gap between the desires of Hamas and Islamic Jihad,  and their abilities to implement them.

Hamas wants to turn the current unrest into a mass movement which it can direct – as much against the Palestinian Authority as against Israel.

Abbas is unpopular. Palestinian elections have not taken place for nearly a decade.  Hamas would like to increase the demonstrations and attacks on the West Bank, and assume the leadership of them, turning them into a mass movement which could result in the collapse of the Palestinian Authority and the movement’s seizing the leadership of the Palestinians.

At the same time, Hamas wishes to avoid another destructive war with Israel in its Gaza enclave.  The reconstruction of the damage suffered in last year’s round of fighting is still under way.  So focusing the unrest on the PA fiefdom of the West Bank would suit its purposes.

Islamic Jihad, which is a purely paramilitary group, rather than a military-political one like Hamas, is also energetically seeking to fan the flames. The movement has been the main factor in the demonstrations and protests close to the Gaza border itself.

The intention of both these movements is to launch larger scale and more sophisticated terror attacks against Israelis, along the lines of those witnessed during the Second Intifada.

Such attacks would win the support of the fluid population of very young Palestinians who are engaged in the current violence, and bring the situation to a new level of gravity.  It is worth remembering that at the height of the Second Intifada, 130 Israelis were killed in a single month of attacks (March, 2002).  By contrast, the last month has seen the deaths of 11 Israelis.  Hamas and Islamic Jihad want to raise the price.

But no such large scale, ‘quality’ terror attacks have yet taken place.  This is not by chance.  While a decision by a single individual as a result of incitement to carry out a stabbing is very hard for the intelligence structures of Israel (and the PA) to detect in advance, this is not so with regard to larger scale attacks, which require a network of skilled personnel, prior knowledge, and direction.

Structures of this kind are vulnerable to penetration, and to surveillance.  Israel eventually managed to defeat the Second Intifada through a combination of intelligence work and targeting of commanders and activists of the organizations engaged against it.  The networks which enabled this still exist in the West Bank.  These, until now, have prevented the Palestinian Islamist organizations from carrying out attacks which would necessitate a more determined Israeli response and thus increase the gravity of the situation.

There is another factor which should give pause to even the circles of Hamas, with regard to the advisability of encouraging a further deterioration of the security situation.

On October 22, the ‘Damascus Province’ of the Islamic State issued a video featuring a heavily armed militant speaking fluent, Palestinian-accented Hebrew.  It was the latest in a series of clips issued by the organization supporting the current wave of violence. In the video, the man issued blood-curdling threats against Israeli Jews, promising that the Islamic State was coming ‘from the north and the south, from Sinai, from everywhere’ and that ‘not one Jew’ would be left alive ‘in Jerusalem or across Israel.’

The inspiration for the wave of knife attacks is fairly obvious.  It is the Islamic State which has ‘pioneered’ murder with cold steel in the Middle East.

If Hizballah, with its paramilitary methods, was the inspiration and spirit behind the Second Intifada, the corresponding inspiration today is the murderous religious fervor of the Islamic State.

Earlier this month, the Israeli authorities arrested seven Arab citizens of Israel in the Nazareth area. They are accused of establishing the first Islamic State terror cell in Israel.

Renewed low intensity war would almost certainly herald the arrival of Islamic State west of the Jordan River.  Current indications suggest that while Israelis and Palestinians glimpsed that abyss in the strange and bloody October of 2015, it has not yet been entered.  Friends of both peoples should be hoping that this situation continues to hold.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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1 Response to Israel Avoids the Abyss – For Now

  1. Pingback: Palestinian Violence Part of Worldwide Islamic Terror (summaries of 2 articles, with links, from Daily Alert) « Israel Activist Alliance

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