Violence in Jerusalem Part III

 At the first, second, twentieth or maybe even the fiftieth glance, the current outbreak of Palestinian violence appears to be yet another repeat of an old scenario. However, a closer look indicates that there have been many changes to the old script. These modifications appear to be so significant that, if they remain unaltered, they could auger that a revision of Israeli-Palestinian relations may be underway. What those revisions may be, though, is anyone’s guess at this time.

As the period of violence progresses, certain truths have become more and more evident.

  • It has become eminently clear that the old forms of stability—those non-violent periods that were interspersed between increasingly-frequent periods of armed conflict—are becoming shorter because they are no longer tenable. The violent periods, however, no matter how long they last, are also less tenable because, as time passes, they accomplish less and less.
  • Most careful observers will agree that the trigger for the current round of bloodletting was an old and all-too-familiar one—political and diplomatic stasis caused by a failure to make obvious progress in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
  • Hamas does not tolerate anything more than symbolic acts of violence against Israel that originate in Gaza, but encourages extreme violence against Israel in areas controlled by el Fatah. El Fatah does not tolerate acts of extreme violence against Israel originating in areas under its control, but encourages it in areas under Israeli control—especially Jerusalem.
  • All the leading players in the drama that we have too often and incorrectly come to call “The Middle East Conflict,” have come to treat the dispute between the Israelis and the Palestinians as theatre. Each of the performers has been playing the same role for so long that how they act in public, both singly and collectively, has become familiar to all; and the lines that they speak became meaningless clichés long ago.
  • For all these reasons, and as the revivals of the drama increase in number, each celebrity thespian, whether his name be Abu Mazzen, Binyamin Netanyahu or Ismail Haniyeh, now finds that his freedom of action is becoming ever more limited to stretching, as far as possible, the limits that the current political and diplomatic stasis has imposed. However, none of these players has found a way to break through these bonds.
  • The central conclusion that almost all of Israel’s most senior security analysts have come to in the wake of the current outbreak of violence is that the belief, first enunciated by Chief of Staff Dan Shomron during the first Intifada, which has guided Israeli leaders ever since, has proven to be worthless. That belief states that in the absence of real peace negotiations, every attempt should be made to manage the Israeli-Palestinian dispute in such a way that lives are saved. The assessment today is that the dispute cannot be “managed” because a successful manager needs to be able to control, or at least influence, all the important variables. The current round of violence has shown beyond a shadow of a doubt that some variables, such as the willingness of lone youngsters to launch knifing attacks on Israelis, cannot be managed.


So, if nothing else, the latest round of violence has highlighted just how great is the dearth of imaginative, domestic leadership in both the Israeli and the Palestinian camps.

With no one capable of creating new policies, the fault lines within each society have become ever more apparent. Sometimes those fault lines are of little concern to anyone except for the members of the specific group through which the cleavage passes. In other cases, though, the resulting splits have had important domestic and even international implications.

A good example of the former can be found in Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox neighbourhoods. The current round of violence has made the rabbis in these areas absolutely apoplectic—but not for reasons that most people would suspect. Most of the Palestinian knifers have been dutifully following the advice that they have found on the internet (more on that later). Whenever possible, they have been attacking Israeli soldiers and the ultra-Orthodox. The rationale given on the websites is that the uniforms these people wear identify them as Jews. If only they are attacked, the argument goes, knifers can be assured that Arabs will be left unharmed.

This danger led the Israeli authorities to send soldiers into the ultra-Orthodox neighbourhoods, especially those that abut Arab areas, in order to protect the residents there. The ultra-Orthodox rabbis were beside themselves at this development. They oppose the very existence of Israel because it was not established by the Messiah and does not operate in accordance with Jewish law. They claim that it is their prayers, not the Israeli army, that protects them. According to the leading and most popular Haredi internet website, B’hadrei Haredim, the Palestinians’ attacks on Haredim have made their rabbis fear that their communities are now being sucked into dreaded “Israeliness” because they are being forced to share the same concerns and employ the same forms of protection as ordinary, secular Israelis.

Worse still, the General Staff wanted to assign members of the special ultra-Orthodox-manned infantry battalion to protect the ultra-Orthodox neighbourhoods. The generals reasoned that these soldiers would be more sensitive to the residents’ special religious and social sensibilities. That was the last thing the rabbis wanted. They oppose the very existence of such a unit because the members of that unit, by definition, spend their time soldiering instead of studying Torah. So strong is this opposition that the soldiers in this unit switch into “civvies” before going home on leave. Those who don’t are often assaulted by yeshiva students. The rabbis fear that allowing these same soldiers to appear in their midst while on duty would be a sign that the unit had somehow been legitimized…God forbid.

Examples of the second type of situation abound in both the Israeli and the Palestinian camps. For instance, Israeli politicians are finding that because Netanyahu has done nothing to formulate a new policy towards the Palestinians, there is nothing that can be used to rally the public into two clearly-defined blocs that would either be for or against such a policy. As a result, there has been a growing fragmentation of the Israeli body politic. And for that reason, some of the minority groups, and especially the highly-organized, PR-sensitive, extreme neo-nationalists, have gained an unprecedented ability to influence foreign and domestic perceptions of what today constitutes Israeli government policy.

In the opposing camp, Palestinian leaders continue to confuse control over constituents with effective governance. Their ability to control has remained largely intact over the years because they have more guns and more trained fighters. However, the lines of authority that emerge from and the lines of communication with their constituents have become frayed. This has left them uncertain and even confused about how to react in the current situation where teenagers are behaving independently of the systems of command and control that are in place.

More on both these developments in a moment. But first, some additional background.

Over the years, many new ingredients have been slowly added to the old Israeli-Palestinian political stewpot. These additional factors have subsequently further exacerbated what had long ago become an intolerable situation. Among other things, the Israelis and Palestinians have become such familiar enemies that, over the years, they have created some very effective defences against each other’s initiatives.

Their experience in trying to breach each other’s defences has taught at least some of the political leaders just how far they can go now without producing even more counterproductive and possibly disastrous situations. This is the primary reason for the stasis.

However, in some cases, this state of affairs has led some other leaders, especially those contending for the leadership of one or another of the radical political camps, into even greater adventurism. Last summer’s fighting in Gaza produced a particularly salient lesson in this regard. That exercise in bloodshed and ruin, initiated by Hamas’s most extreme wing, accomplished nothing except the destruction of much of Gaza’s housing stock.

In addition, each side also seems to have come to the realization that it has become increasingly difficult for any side to come up with a new and original, non-violent, political lever to use on the other. For example, the Palestinians had once been able to manipulate the foreign press, and therefore Western public opinion, very effectively. However, today, the plain fact is that, following the slaughter going on in Syria and Iraq, and the flood of Moslem refugees into Europe, the Palestinians have found it increasingly difficult to attract the attention of foreign media—even when there is violence—so that they can publicize their grievances.

Another factor influencing perceptions is that the Palestinians have been suffering more and more disappointments at the hands of donors who had promised money but had then failed to deliver on their promises. This has meant that the Palestinians, and especially Hamas, are finally having to decide whether they want to or can afford to continue to act towards Israel as they are expected to by hoped-for patrons, such as regional would-be hegemons Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

And maybe, most of all, over the years, the two sides have simply become too interconnected and too interdependent at the very moment that the two populations have been having less and less personal contact that might otherwise have helped to ameliorate tensions. There is more than just symbolism in the fact that close members of Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh’s and Palestinian Authority (PA) President Abu Mazen’s families chose to have medical procedures performed in Israeli hospitals rather than elsewhere, that Ismail Haniyeh’s sister received an Israeli residence permit after she married an Israeli Bedouin, and that Israel chose not to bomb the Hamas command bunker in Gaza during the last war even though they knew where it was located.

In Jerusalem, the employment structure is so integrated that if, for example, the Arab areas were completely sealed off, as Israeli neo-nationalist extremists have demanded, the Egged bus company in Jerusalem would no longer be able to provide even minimal service because a third of its drivers are Palestinian Jerusalemites. Some jobs have become so Arabized that, if Arab areas were closed off, it would be almost impossible to get a car fixed, a tire repaired or a hospital ward cleaned. Hadassah’s hospital would be unable to cope because so many of its leading doctors today are Palestinians. When I recently bashed my head and was taken to Hadassah’s emergency ward, the neurosurgeon who treated me, one of the nurses who assisted him, the orderly who took me for a CAT scan, and the man who cleaned up all the blood I had spilled on the floor were all East Jerusalem Palestinians.

The collapse of the last round of peace talks, which were managed by US Secretary of State John Kerry but which broke down in April 2014, should have acted as a warning of what was to come.

The US special envoy to the talks, Martin Indyk placed the blame for the failure of the negotiations on Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s intransigence. His assessment, backed by Obama’s national security advisor, Susan Rice, has since become conventional wisdom. However, it now appears as though Indyk’s portrayal of the reasons for the failure of the talks may have been coloured by personal frustrations; and that conventional wisdom is wrong.

After the negotiations withered into nothingness, there were many subtle clues that should have acted as a caution that the conventional wisdom was faulty. To begin with, the negotiators refused to detail in public what were the precise reasons for the failure of the talks.

The US State Department repeatedly insisted that not one side was to blame but that “both sides did things that were incredibly unhelpful.” However, State’s spokespeople never revealed what those ‘things” were. Most pundits dismissed the spokespeoples’ remarks as simple diplomatic fudging that was formulated and publicized so as not to alienate the two sides. That may be true. However, the wording was also an indication of a far more fundamental problem that Kerry was faced with.

Soon after the negotiations collapsed, I met up with one of the Israeli negotiating team members. When I asked him why the talks had broken down, he told me “We just came to the end of the road. We couldn’t compromise further.”

I had heard lines to that effect so often in the past that I involuntarily lifted an eyebrow. “No.” he interjected, “You don’t understand. This time we actually came to a dead end.”

It took me days of thought afterwards to grasp what his seemingly-elliptical phraseology really meant. It wasn’t easy because of all the “noise” I kept hearing and reading. In particular, it seemed as though everyone who was commenting on the diplomatic failure kept repeating what they had been saying for years…that Bibi was incapable of compromising, that everything depended on Israel’s willingness to give up the occupation, that Abu Mazzen was too weak to make peace… or whatever other mental baggage they were carrying.

However, as time passed, and based on what the Israeli had said, I slowly came to a very different conclusion—that Kerry, in good faith, had gone over every set of compromises imaginable, and could not find a single pair of even insubstantial tradeoffs that was acceptable to both sides. This realization was supported by an observation I had already made. At the end of previous negotiating rounds, most of those participants in the talks had usually issued leaks blaming the other side. However, they would also usually end their off-the-record rant with the phrase “if only….”—as though there might still be a chance of progress the next time.

After carefully reviewing the press reports that were published following Kerry’s departure from the region, I discovered that this time no one who was a party to the talks had used that phrase.

My impressions were strengthened further when former Foreign Minister Zippi Livni did what was expected of her and also blamed Abu Mazzen for the failure. However, surprisingly, and contrary to what Indyk had said, she also asserted that Netanyahu had accepted Kerry’s latest proposal. Her remarks about Netanyahu were not just surprising, they were mind-blowing. Livni, who was a major player in the talks, loathes Netanyahu and, to the best of my recollection, had never had a good word to say about the prime minister in the past decade. Her claim that Netanyahu had been flexible was therefore exceptional.

Other Israelis who claimed to know what had happened implied strongly that the talks had failed for one simple reason. The Palestinians, as had happened in the past, had demanded that final boundaries be determined first. Israel had responded that if final boundaries were to be discussed first, then the Palestinians would have to agree in advance that if an agreement on borders was reached, the Palestinians would announce that they would have no further territorial claims on Israel and no claims about what Israel does within the borders that had been agreed upon. The Palestinians refused. The Israelis assumed that this refusal arose for many tactical and strategic reasons, not least because it would have implied that once a boundary had been agreed to, the Palestinians would have ipso facto given up on their claim that they had a “right of return” to their ancestral homes that had been abandoned in 1948.

The Palestinians could not have agreed to the Israelis’ demands because devout Moslems believe that any land captured by Islamic armies becomes the property in perpetuity of the Waqf, the Moslem religious trust. And, even secular Palestinians would have had problems abandoning a claim to a right to return, which has become a dogma for three generations of refugees and their heirs.

Then, most recently, the former Israeli ambassador to Washington, Danny Ayalon, claimed that the talks had ended in disarray because the two sides had failed to make a grand, precedent-breaking deal. Abu Mazzen had refused to declare that Israel was the nation-state of the Jewish people, in return for Netanyahu agreeing that the June 4 1967 cease-fire lines would be the basis for negotiations on final boundaries. In theory at least, if Kerry did make such a proposal, a deal of such magnitude should have been too good for either side to refuse because each leader had stated repeatedly that the concession he was demanding of the other was absolutely essential for the talks to succeed.

If Livni, Ayalon and the Israelis I spoke to are correct, then the behaviour by both Netanyahu and Abu Mazzen during the past year becomes perfectly understandable. The peace negotiations had gone as far as they could go and had become sterile. This meant that that the two leaders then had to figure out how they could maintain domestic support for their rule despite the barren environment that had been created.

US Senator Stuart Symington once wisely said that no one, not even the biggest superpower, can cope with more than two and a half crises at any one time—two that demand immediate attention and another that can be kept on a back burner, but requires constant watching.

In Netanyahu’s case, he had become totally preoccupied with the Iranian nuclear issue and his inability to manage his cabinet as he wished. In addition, Egypt was engaged in a full-scale war with Moslem extremists in the Sinai and was cracking down on Hamas. This Egyptian policy was also having a major impact on life in Gaza. These Egyptian actions did not demand Israeli participation, but they did require constant, careful attention.

Abu Mazzen’s primary concern was Hamas’s constant attempts to gain supporters on the West Bank at el Fatah’s expense; and the bitter battles for power within el Fatah and the PLO. His primary “backburner” issue was his constant need to ensure that promised donor funds would actually arrive.

As I have already noted, the 2014 summer war in Gaza only served to highlight just how paralyzed the entire Israeli-Palestinian relationship had become. Hamas had hoped to use this open conflict to revitalize the “resistance” and Hamas’s claims to the leadership of the Palestinian cause. However, if anything, the more than 50 day war had had virtually no impact on Israel, on Abu Mazzen or on the rest of the Arab world. During the war, Hamas had thrown all the weaponry and tactics it had assembled over previous years at the Israelis. Nonetheless, Israel chose not to invade Gaza—as Hamas had apparently hoped. Had Israel done so, it would have had to cope not just with all the narrow alleyways that are perfect for snipers and hit-and-run fighters, but also the web of tunnels that Hamas had dug everywhere in the Strip.

The advent of the Iron Dome anti-rocket missile system had essentially enabled the Israelis to sit back, employ artillery and helicopter gunships to take potshots at Gaza, use limited ground incursions to blow up the entrances to tunnels leading to the Israeli border, and wait for Hamas to exhaust itself. In the end, all that Hamas was left with once a cease-fire was agreed to was the massive destruction of Gaza.

Once the cease-fire was declared, Netanyahu chose to simply ignore the consequences of the failed Kerry peace talks; and to ignore the costs of the Gaza war. Instead, in order to cope with his cabinet problems, he called new elections, which preoccupied the Israelis for months; and in order to pursue his preoccupation with the Iranian issue, he chose to heat up even further his in-your-face confrontation with President Obama.

Abu Mazzen also chose to virtually ignore the Gaza war. His preference was to pursue what had long before become his default diplomatic option. He launched well-publicized, but insignificant diplomatic moves that had little substance. Their purpose was to gain recognition for the PA in international organizations. These moves included having the Palestinian flag raised at the UN and issuing threats to take Israel to the International Criminal Court.

Israeli and most Western intelligence analysts say that, because he has been unable to accomplish anything of real substance, Abu Mazzen has lost almost all influence among the Palestinian masses. To counter the image that he has been a failure, almost everything he does is now directed at trying to convince his political cronies and his people that he actually has a grand strategy. He is said to have come to the conclusion—understandably—that the war against ISIS and the flood of refugees into Europe is leading European governments to ignore the Palestinian issue. For domestic reasons, he has always needed to have the European politicians talk constantly on television about the Israeli-Palestinian dispute in order to counter Hamas’s claims that he was not pursuing Palestinian national goals.

Therefore, in order to keep the Western public and Western governments focused on the Palestinian issue, he has adopted a formula that he believes will enable him to bring the Palestinian issue to the fore whenever he chooses. According to this Israeli analysis, Abu Mazzen believes that once enough of all the small successes he has had have accumulated into a whole dossier, the Palestinians might finally be in a position to request that the UN Security Council pass a resolution declaring formal statehood for Palestine. Even if that does not happen, though, every time that the proposal is raised again, it can gain Abu Mazzen the publicity he thinks he needs. As well, at any time, he can voice an additional dream that if and when the UN does declare statehood for Palestine, the Palestinians could then ask the UN to also proclaim that Palestine to be a state under occupation—and therefore subject to international support and supervision. In other words, the strategy has been designed to avoid confronting the need to find compromise solutions. Its premise is that the Palestinians, despite what they perceive to be Netanyahu’s intransigence, will eventually be able to accomplish all their basic political aims…and they will be able to do so without the need for formal peace negotiations with Israel.

In other words, from all appearances, by the spring of 2014, both Netanyahu and Abu Mazzen had concluded that the stasis that had set in could not be broken easily, and they would simply have to adopt tactics that would enable them to live with this reality. That thesis was put to the test when, three months later, Hamas, believing otherwise, tried to alter that situation by initiating yet another, now-standardized outburst of violence.

Hamas, at that point was in dire straits and was apparently hoping that another round of well-publicized, open battle with Israel might alleviate some of the problems it was facing. Iran had cut off financial aid because Hamas had felt obliged to support fellow Sunni Moslems in Syria in their fight against Syrian President Assad. Egypt had virtually sealed its border with Gaza and was in the process of destroying the tunnels bringing supplies into Gaza from Egypt. And Hamas was also facing the consequences of donor aid and budgetary funds from the PA that had been promised, but had never been delivered.

For all these reasons, and most galling of all, Hamas had become totally reliant on Israel for the delivery of even the most basic supplies.

Hamas clearly chafed at being in such a position. However, after the fighting ended, it could no longer even fall back on its tried and true way of expressing its displeasure, by firing rockets into Israel. That was because, while the UN might still be able to import some basic foodstuffs into the Strip, the delivery of almost everything else was now under total Israeli control. Most unsettling for Hamas was its dependency on Israel for the delivery of power. For a long while, Egypt had not repaired the high tension line that had once brought at least some electric power into Gaza. And when tiny Salafist groups in Gaza, such as the so-called “Omar Haddad Battalions” fired the occasional rocket into Israel, the Israelis would respond by halting or delaying the delivery of diesel fuel to the sole electric generator in the Strip. The power shortage had then led to widespread demonstrations against Hamas by Gazans who were sweltering under record-breaking high temperatures and who were seeing foodstuffs spoiling in non-functioning refrigerators.

Hamas responded to the restrictions that were being placed on it by the stasis by trying to reactivate its cells in the West Bank. However, Abu Mazzen’s security forces, working in tandem with the Israelis, had little problem quashing those efforts whenever they chose to do so.

Under these circumstances, small, but highly significant events that went almost totally unreported in both the domestic Israeli and the foreign press began to take place. I will note only a very few of these events to give you a taste of what the political stasis was producing.

  • Last spring, at the urging of neo-nationalist, settler-supporting members, the Knesset abolished the Future Generations Commission. That body had been established several years ago with the mandate to review all Knesset legislation, (from bills on education and health to the funding of settlements) to analyze what impact any particular piece of legislation might have on future generations of Israelis. By abolishing the commission, the Knesset effectively declared that all future legislation would be ad hoc, based on immediate political considerations (including those that might have a short or long-term impact on the peace process); and Knesset members would no longer be restricted by, or need to take into consideration, any long-term vision of what the state should look like to future generations.
  • And last spring, just when the BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) campaign against Israel was in full swing in North America and Europe, a poll revealed that the prime concern of most West Bankers (54%) was to increase economic ties with Israel. The signing of a peace treaty or a long-term cease-fire was considered to be less urgent. Those polling results should not have been surprising to anyone. An analysis of existing data indicates that, as of this year, more than 40 percent of the indigenous, non-governmental GDP of West Bank Palestinians living under Palestinian Authority (PA) rule comes from Palestinians working legally or illegally in Israel or the settlements. At the time the poll was taken, salaries for Palestinians working legally in Israel averaged 5100 shekels per month, while salaries for similar work in the PA was 1500 shekels per month.
  • In an extraordinary example of the “wisdom of crowds,” Israeli drivers, en masse, have already determined what the future borders of the Palestinian state will look like. The vast majority of Israel drivers have acquired the Waze smartphone app. That Israeli-invented app, maintained and updated by the drivers themselves, directs drivers to use what the drivers themselves believe is the safest and most direct route possible to reach any designated destination—including the use of tertiary and dirt roads where necessary. An analysis by the Israeli traffic police indicates that invariably, and with no external intervention, Waze’s contributors’ consensus directed drivers to skirt around, and where possible, to drive parallel to what almost all experts in the highly specialized and very technical field of boundary-drawing believe will be the future borders of a Palestinian state, if such a state comes into existence.
  • During the Second Intifada, which ran from September 2000 to February 2005, one of the primary sources of gunmen and suicide bombers was the Jenin refugee camp. This past summer, the camp once again became a bloody battleground. However, this time the gunfire and killing was not directed against Israel or Israelis. The bloodshed was the product of fierce battles between heavily armed el Fatah and Hamas supporters.

All these micro-happenings appeared to confirm the findings of public opinion polls in both Israel and in the Palestinian areas that people had become fed up with their leaders, that they held those leaders in low esteem, and that they were choosing to act independently of anything politicians might say or do. For example, a poll by Israel’s Channel 2 found that a whopping 71 percent of Israelis believed that Netanyahu was not doing a good job of dealing with the violence, while another poll discovered that two-thirds of the Palestinians wished that Abu Mazzen would retire.

At this point, a series of significant events took place. Abu Mazzen chose, for the umpteenth time to suggest that he might quit because of the low level of support he was receiving; and he then began issuing a stream of extremist statements that were critical of Israel…including a particularly bitter harangue at the United Nations General Assembly.

He appears to have believed that his statements would be a cost-free, effective response and riposte to Hamas’s claims that he had become an “accomplice” of the Israelis because he had also kept repeating that he remained committed to pursuing his goals without resorting to violence as Yassir Arafat had.

The fact is, though, that his remarks helped to trigger the current wave of bloodshed.

A second event was arguably far more important. The leader of the Northern Faction of Israel’s Islamic Movement, Sheikh Raed Salah, decided to try to fill the political activist void that the stasis had created. Salah’s group, which is estimated by some analysts to number as many as 140,000 Israeli-citizen, Moslem fundamentalist believers, has a religious and organizational philosophy that is very similar to that of Hamas and Egypt’s Moslem Brotherhood. Like both these organizations, Salah has spent years slowly building up his body of followers by, among other things, providing an alternate set of social services such as health clinics and educational institutions. Those who made use of these services were then organized into three bodies—the Morabitoun, made up of adult males, the Morabitat, a roof organization for adult women, and a youth organization called the Shabab al Islam.

Unlike Hamas activists in West Bank areas under Israeli control, Salah and his followers were careful not to use language in public that might lead to imprisonment under Israeli law. This care then enabled them to avoid arrest for what they did say because they were shielded by Israel’s laws protecting free speech. Most prominent among their allegations was a claim that the Netanyahu government was altering the status quo on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, known to Moslems as the Haram el Sharif, where the third holiest Moslem shrine, the el Aqsa mosque, is located.

One of Salah’s favourite tactics, which fits in well with both Israeli law and Israeli social norms is to position a phalanx of heavy-set matrons from the mourabitat at the gate of the Temple Mount, and make demonstrative Jewish neo-nationalists force their way through the gauntlet while the women scream “Allahu Akhbar” (God is Great) in their ears—as the news cameras roll.

Parenthetically, Salah’s statements and tactics have also had very considerable negative effects on Israeli Arabs. In order to compete with Salah for popular support Israel’s secular, elected Knesset members feel obliged to voice unstinting support for the Palestinians in the occupied territories at the very moment that Jews are being knifed. The behavior and volatile statements of these Knesset members can and does often lead to bloody demonstrations within Israel. This exacerbates the ongoing tension between Jews and Arabs within Israel itself; and those statements then detract from the Israeli Arabs’ constant fight for equal rights. A recent poll found that 54 percent of Israeli Arabs believe that the Arab Knesset members don’t represent them; and 65 percent believe that domestic issues of importance to Palestinians in the occupied territories have a higher priority to these Knesset members than issues of importance to Israeli Arabs.

The third, and arguably the most important event, Israel’s messianic neo-nationalists stepped up their campaign to allow Jews to pray on the Temple Mount.

Almost immediately after Israel captured Jerusalem in 1967, Defence Minister Moshe Dayan had published a policy directive about what the Jews could and could not do on the Temple Mount. That directive was based on the supposition that, henceforth, Israel would have national sovereignty over the site, while the Jordanian Waqf (Moslem religious trust) would, as had been the case since 1948, continue to have de facto “religious sovereignty” over the shrine. Unlike the directive that dealt with Abraham’s tomb in Hebron, where Jews were given rights to pray at certain hours for the first time, Jews were forbidden to pray on the Temple Mount. Dayan had based his orders on decisions that had been made by some of the leading rabbis of the time.

However, within a decade of that decision, a small group of religious messianists and hardline nationalists, led by Gershon Solomon, had begun to protest openly at Dayan’s directive. They didn’t get very far, and the existing policy was further entrenched in 1994, when, as part of the peace agreement with Jordan, the Jordanians’ and the Jordanian Waqf’s rights on the site were formally confirmed.

In other words, nothing having to do with sovereignty on the site had changed for more than two decades. In practice, Jews had virtually unlimited privileges to visit the Temple Mount, but not to pray there.

However, almost without any public notice, the number of political activists that supported the idea of Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount had been growing steadily. So too had their political power. Most of these activists belonged to the extreme neo-nationalist camp. That camp’s electoral clout was first demonstrated in 1992, when Labour, led by Yitzchak Rabin defeated the Likud, led by Prime Minister Yitzchak Shamir. At the time almost all the pundits and the foreign press attributed Rabin’s victory to a popular rejection of Shamir’s intransigence in the peace talks. In fact, the truth was very different. A careful study of the polling results indicates that a large number of neo-nationalists had either abstained from voting or had voted for minor parties in protest at Shamir’s decision to attend the Madrid peace conference.

These same activists did the same thing in 1999. In 1996, a wave of Palestinian terrorist attacks had led the Israeli public to elect Binyamin Netanyahu as prime minister by a narrow margin over Shimon Peres, who, before the Palestinian attacks, had been considered a shoo-in. However, during his term in office, Netanyahu had felt obliged for diplomatic reasons to implement the Wye and Hebron agreements that had been negotiated by Yitzhak Rabin prior to his assassination. This decision had angered the extreme nationalists and the messianists who had cast the ballots that had enabled Netanyahu to defeat Peres.

Once again, during the 1999 elections, the militant neo-nationalists, angry at the signing of the Wye and Hebron agreements, behaved very much as they had in 1992. This abstention led to a victory by Labour’s Ehud Barak.

Netanyahu emerged from his initial victory and his later defeat with two conclusions that he has never forgotten. They were:

  • The bulk of his potential supporters do not vote for a political platform. Their choice at the ballot box is determined by the level of fear that can be instilled in them.
  • Just as the minor parties can gain disproportionate leverage during coalition negotiations because they hold the balance of power, so too, and for the exact same reason, well-organized, militant factions within a party or within a political bloc can determine the outcome of general elections.

Ironically, the first person to implement a political strategy based on those conclusions was Netanyahu’s nemesis, Ariel Sharon. Sharon, at the time, appeared to be at the end of his political career. However, in one fell swoop, his fortunes were reversed. In 2000, he demonstratively announced that he would soon pay a visit to the Temple Mount. This then provided Yassir Arafat with the final excuse he needed to launch the second Intifada. The fear induced by that violence, and the support Sharon gained from the neo-nationalists following the Temple Mount caper, eventually led to his previously-unexpected election as the head of the Likud…and then to his popular anointment as prime minister. Ironically, as part of Israel’s attempts to quell that round of violence, Sharon ended up banishing the Jews from the Temple Mount for three years.

One of the reasons why Sharon eventually broke with the Likud to form his own Kadima party was that so many tiny factions within the Likud’s governing Central Committee had learned to use the leverage that they had acquired that anarchy and corruption had become endemic in that body.

After Sharon’s disappearance from the political scene as a result of his stroke, Netanyahu was able to stage a political comeback by courting the neo-nationalists whom Sharon, and his successor Ehud Olmert had eventually rejected; and by instilling a fear in potential supporters that Israel was facing existential threats.

Soon after, in 2013, a large number of messianic settlers made a strategic decision to join the Likud party en masse, but to vote in the general elections for the HaBayit HaYehudi party. Even though they were a distinct minority among Likud members, because they voted as a bloc, the settler supporters were able to determine the makeup of the Likud’s Central Committee. Once they did that, they were then able to determine the makeup of the party slate for the 2014 elections. And when, in the end, many of them also decided to throw their weight behind Netanyahu instead of voting for the HaBayit HaYehudi party—which had then led to Netanyahu’s surprising margin of victory—they were able to determine the makeup of the cabinet.

Just as pyramid-building corporate investors use minority stakes in companies as leverage to create huge conglomerates, so too, the messianic neo-nationalists were able to leverage their minority position at each level to create a cabinet that supported them, or least feared them, and was willing to allow them unprecedented freedom of action.

Among other things, the general political environment that Netanyahu had created encouraged cabinet neo-nationalist extremists in the government, especially Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel, Culture Minister Miri Regev and Deputy Foreign Minister Tzippi Hotovely to begin to visit the Temple Mount more often, and in the company of an ever-growing group of activists demanding that Jews be allowed to pray there. In keeping with modern political practice, they ensured in advance that they would be accompanied by television cameras ready to record any dramas that ensued. They seemed to be oblivious of the fact that the ensuing videos would be gleefully reproduced on those Palestinian activists’ websites that were intent on promoting the notion that Israel was intent on altering the status quo on the Temple Mount.

On the Palestinian side, another set of events was underway that would eventually create the body of activists from which the teenage knifers would be drawn.

The first intifada, which began in 1987, had initially been a true, bottom-up, popular revolt. It had commenced when a group of angry youngsters had taken to the streets in Gaza to protest what they believed (incorrectly) had been a deliberate attempt by an Israeli truck driver to smash into and kill the passengers riding in a car from Gaza. The rioting quickly spread to the West Bank. The protests were portrayed in the media as a protest against the Israeli occupation. However, even more than that, it was an outburst that had been caused by a youth bulge. Most of the Palestinian population at the time had been below marital age, and no one had even begun addressing the particular issues that the youngsters were facing—not the least of which was the inability of many of the young males to scrape together enough money to pay the bride price so that they could marry.

The rioters, however, faced major problems such as that they had no way to coordinate their activities, no one to act as their spokesman and no money. It took six weeks before the established Palestinian national organizations were able to get their act together and provide the demonstrators with the backing and the services they needed.

One of the conclusions that the Palestinians drew from that period was that if armed conflict began again, the Palestinians would need an organizational base, cadres trained in the preparation of and the use of armaments, and extensive financial backing. From almost the moment that Yassir Arafat arrived to take over rule in the newly created Palestinian Authority that was established under the terms of the 1993 and 1995 Oslo Agreements, he set about building exactly that kind of infrastructure.

As noted earlier, in 2000, Arafat chose to make use of the military and administrative body that he had built in order to renew the Palestinians’ armed struggle. The failure of the Camp David peace talks together with Ariel Sharon’s demonstrative attempt to tour the Temple Mount with a huge coterie of journalists and neo-nationalist messianists gave Arafat a perfect PR platform for ordering his forces to battle.

However, after an initial period during which the Israelis were in a state of shock, and during which they made almost every mistake possible, the very institutions that Arafat had built and that had shown themselves to be so effective during the initial stages of the uprising, proved to be his greatest long-term weakness. The hierarchically-run police and the Tanzim militia eventually provided the better-equipped and larger Israeli security forces with easily-identifiable targets against whom they could launch not just retaliatory, but also preemptive measures.

The current round of violence by individuals is partly a reaction to the failures of the second Intifada. Almost all of the Palestinian attackers this time have no institutional profile. Almost all have no criminal record. None are known to have belonged to a political party. And, most importantly, most have not attracted the attention of the Israeli security services in the past. Therefore, the Israelis have been unable to get intelligence information that once made preemptive arrests, retaliatory closures of whole areas and frequent house-to-house sweeps so effective

Therefore, the Palestinians’ successes to date can largely be attributed to their ability to avoid using PA, el Fatah and Hamas-affiliated bodies. In the not so distant past, both Abu Mazzen and the Hamas leadership had been able to exert crowd control through their use of their respective secret services, police, and armed political militias—el Fatah’s Tanzim and Hamas’s Iz e-Din el-Qassam brigades. Would-be terrorists had little choice but to coordinate their actions with one of these organizations.

This time, however, the needed organization ability and operational planning skills that were once provided by the formal administrative hierarchies have been replaced by the anarchic internet, and especially by the abundance of postings on social media forums such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp. Moreover, the use of kitchen knives has eliminated the need by wannabe martyrs to use those hierarchies in order to acquire weapons and explosives.

ISIS, which first began posting video messages about a month after the violence began encouraging the Palestinian to “kill Jews,” has become a wild card. These Sunni extremists, based in Syria, Iraq and the Sinai, have so far played only a bit role in the Israeli-Palestinian drama. That is because it is still preoccupied with its wars in Syria and Iraq. In the past, it largely ignored the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and, at least as of this moment, it has been unable to build a cadre of its own in the Palestinian areas. However, even at a distance, it is having an impact. According to Israeli intelligence, the videos it has posted documenting its successes have played a part in exciting Palestinian youngsters and in providing basic instruction in terrorist methods.

All these factors might still not have resulted in the knifings had there not been a particular confluence of the Jewish and Moslem calendars. Both calendars are based on the phases of the moon. However, the Jewish calendar is “corrected” by adding a leap month 7 out of every 19 years so that the calendar then approximates the solar calendar; and Jewish harvest festivals of Pesah, Shavuot and Sukkot can be celebrated at roughly the same, appropriate time each year. The Moslem calendar makes no such provision. Thus, Moslem holidays can fall during any season. This year, the four day Moslem festival of Eid el Adha took place at the same time as the Jews’ 7 day festival of Sukkot—and just after the Jewish NewYear.

Over time, Israel’s messianic neo-nationalists have made it a tradition to visit the Temple Mount during the festival periods, and especially the weeks between the Jewish New Year and the end of Sukkot. This year, the number of such visits went up by fifty percent. In some cases, the Jewish visitors were accompanied by messianic, neo-nationalist cabinet ministers who kept proclaiming that they wanted to see Jews have the right to pray on the Temple Mount.

Having lived their entire lives under a succession of authoritarian leaders, the Palestinians could not believe that these declarations by Israeli ministers were not Israeli government policy. As well, their religious feelings were already heightened by the solemn festival and the anti-Israeli homilies that they were hearing in the mosques. A clash with the boastful Jewish messianists was almost inevitable.

Almost immediately after the stabbings began, Israel arrested 490 Palestinians in Jerusalem alone, while the PA detained an estimated 1000 people in its area of control. But these so-call “preventative measures” have had no visible effect. That is because this time, there has been almost no way anyone could know in advance who will take a kitchen knife out of a drawer and where he or she will choose to attack.

In the past, when crises of this sort had broken out anywhere in the Middle East, the authorities had been able to prevent opposition groups from being formed because of the governments’ capacity to impose press censorship, tap telephones, and break up meetings of potential opposition leaders. With the advent and spread of social media, all that changed. It has been estimated that in Gaza and the West Bank, the number of social media users has doubled in the past five years. Once a critical mass of social media users had formed, tens of thousands of youngsters could surf to get information that would otherwise have been unavailable to them, and log into Facebook and Twitter to find like minds.

It was this development, more than any other, that shaped the more elderly protagonists’ behavior once the fire of violence was ignited. Hamas could not afford a direct confrontation with Israel for the reasons already mentioned, and it could not afford to let Islamic Jihad fire rockets at Israel either, because the Israelis always retaliated by bombing Hamas installations. The Israelis argued that since Hamas was the de facto sovereign in Gaza it must bear the responsibility for maintaining the cease-fire.

Hamas did eventually have to respond somewhat to Islamic Jihad’s craving for action. Islamic Jihad, was under growing pressure from it patron, Iran to do something…and doing nothing might have jeopardized its funding from Teheran. The compromise that the two Palestinian groups reached allowed Islamic Jihad to send youngsters to the wire fence separating Gaza from Israel. There, the youngsters could be filmed slinging rocks and dirty words at the Israelis.

But then, Hamas and Islamic Jihad faced a situation that they apparently had not considered. Under international law, the Israelis could fire live ammunition at the protesters the moment that the demonstrators tried to cross the fence into Israel. Pictures of the dead and wounded being evacuated from the vicinity of the fence were then dutifully posted on the web to show that not just the knifers in Jerusalem were making sacrifices for the cause. However, these videos did not have the same impact as the graphic images that were being produced on the West Bank; and the cost in dead and wounded were becoming intolerably high. So, the demonstrations at the fence were halted.

In any case, at this point, Hamas was far more interested in undermining Abu Mazzen’s rule than it was in hurting Israel. Of course, if it could do both, all the better.

Since the first knifing incidents had begun, Abu Mazzen has used all the force at his disposal to prevent attacks from originating in the West Bank, while encouraging such actions in Jerusalem. His message to the Israelis was, in effect “You won’t let me have a foothold in Jerusalem, so don’t expect me to do there what I do in the West Bank.”

Abu Mazen’s wannabe successors such as the former head of the Preventative Security Services Jibril Rajoub were openly critical of Abu Mazzen’s tactics and strategy. And Hamas has succeeded in encouraging youngsters in areas of the West Bank where it has strong support, such as in Hebron, to begin knifing campaigns of their own.

Abu Mazzen’s sole real success to date in countering his domestic opposition was John Kerry’s decision to make a renewed visit to the Middle East. However, even that visit turned out to be a disappointment. Abu Mazzen had hoped to use the opportunity to try to extract all sorts of concessions from the Israelis. Kerry, though, satisfied himself with extracting a promise from Israel to install closed circuit television cameras to monitor whether Jews were praying on the Temple Mount.

That decision may have helped to get Jordan’s King Abdullah and the Jordanian Waqf off the hook, but it has not resolved the underlying problem. No matter how sophisticated those cameras may be, they will not be able to differentiate between someone mumbling prayers or someone complaining about stomach gas. Moreover, the cameras will enable the Israelis to more easily track youngsters laying in supplies of rocks and Molotov cocktails at the mosques.

In Israel, the whole series of violent incidents has set off yet another round of soul-searching and introspection. The initial reaction was to ask why it was that 13 year olds might even be interested in stabbing other 13 year olds. Israeli psychologists and psychiatrists were soon mobilized by the security authorities in an attempt to try to understand the dynamics that were underway, and especially to figure out why so many of the attackers ranged in age between 13 and 20. Of particular interest was the question: Why have these teenagers been willing to undertake activities that will almost certainly lead to their deaths?

While these medical professionals have come to only preliminary assessments, certain characteristics of the web surfing by those Palestinian youngsters who have already taken part in the violence, have become immediately apparent. One conclusion is that the knifers’ behavior has many characteristics of another well-known psychological syndrome—teenage copycat suicides. Reports of a suicide by a teenager everywhere in the world are very often followed by a rash of suicide attempts by other teenagers.

It is also believed that another important driving force has been the postings by Moslem preachers, who give religious approval to actions against Israel. Particular significance is attributed to the cumulative impact of tens of thousands of Facebook and Twitter postings that have made the teenagers believe that they have communal approval for attempting murder. Other postings that focus on criticisms of the Palestinian leaders and their inability to lift the Israeli occupation apparently entice youngsters to believe that they must take responsibility for their people and that they have been tasked by fate to do what their elders have failed to do.

After coming to a desire to do something, a half hour surf of the web can provide these youngsters with confidence-building information such as how to make Molotov cocktails, how to sharpen a knife, and how to choose the right angle during a stabbing to have the greatest effect.

Of no less interest to the Israeli public is the fact that the recent events have held up a mirror to Israeli society. To begin with, most Israelis have commented on the high level of fear that the “lone wolf” attacks have engendered. At least during the initial phases of the violence, the level of fear among the public has been greater than it was even during the height of the second Intifada or while rockets fired from Gaza were landing in Israeli cities. That may be because the idea of someone creeping up behind you to stab you in the back may be more fear-inducing than the idea that an impersonal bomb may go off in the bus in which you are riding.

That fear has led to a series of embarrassing and even frightening scenes. The extraordinary level of anti-Arab racism that was latent in Israel previously has now been brought to the fore by the violence. Israeli Arabs are being regularly insulted on the streets. Jews have attacked other Jews, thinking that they were Arabs. Secular, Mizrahi Jews who do not wear a kippah have been complaining on television that they now leave their homes only when they need to because they end up being insulted incessantly because they look like Arabs. Worst of all so far, a series of videos were taken in Beersheba’s central bus station when an Israeli Bedouin began to stab and then shoot passengers. An Eritrean refugee was mistaken for an Arab and was shot by a guard and a soldier. As he lay helpless on the floor, a crowd, led by off-duty prison warders and a soldier, began to kick the Eritrean in the head and to beat him with a chair. Even uglier, the beatings were accompanied by out and out hysterical, racist screams by bystanders.

Some members of the Israeli government appear to have undergone their own fits of irrationality at best and hysteria at worst.

These fits highlighted the ever more evident fault line dividing the “present generation” of Likud leaders, such as Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon, Interior Minister Silvan Shalom and Energy and Infrastructures Minister Yuval Steinitz from the “next generation” of leaders, such as Public Security (police) Minister Gilad Erdan, Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev and Tourism Minister Yariv Levine.

The initial reaction of the security services to the outbreak of violence this time was calculated, sober and cautious. Their response was the product of a thorough self-critique that was initiated after the Second Intifada wound down in 2005. One of the central conclusions of that reassessment was that Israel’s over-reaction when that round of violence began—especially the use of deadly live fire—had actually been one of the prime reasons why the violence gained momentum in its early stages. In particular, the assessment noted that the use of an “iron hand” had led to daily public funerals, which had, in turn, had acted as consciousness-raising exercises and opportunities to mobilize new fighters.

A particularly perspicacious conclusion was that many of Israel’s actions during the height of the violence had been ineffective because the orders given to the army were based on Jewish and specifically Israeli mores and not the mores that are prevalent in Palestinian society. This observation then led the security services to recommend, among other things, that the demolition of homes in which terrorists lived, (a policy dating back to British Mandatory times), was totally ineffective as means to prevent future attacks by other would-be terrorists. For that reason, this decades-old policy was finally abandoned ten years ago.

The security services’ plan for a carefully-measured response to the violence this time was accepted by the “present generation” of Likud leaders, especially Defence Minister “Boogie” Yaalon. However, these party elders eventually had to bow to demands by the more populist “next generation” of ministers in the Israeli cabinet. These populists, with Public Security (police) Minister Gilad Erdan in the vanguard, are primarily interested in catering to the growing body of extreme anti-rationalists in the powerful Likud Central Committee. As a result, a policy of house demolitions was reintroduced and the exits from Jerusalem’s 26 Arab suburbs were sealed off or partially closed.

These cabinet divisions led to some scenes that can only be described as having the characteristics of the Theater of the Absurd. In keeping with the security services recommendations, Defence Minister Yaalon announced that, in order to prevent a re-run of previous funeral riots, the bodies of dead terrorists would be returned to the families for burial if the families promised in advance to hold the funerals at night with only family members present. On the other hand, Internal Security Minister Erdan, acting in response to demands for vengeance by Likud Central Committee members, announced that he would not release any bodies. As of the time of writing, Yaalon had handed over for burial 7 bodies that had been held by the army. Erdan, though, had decided to hold on to the 9 bodies in the possession of the police. Erdan had not indicated what he intended to do with the bodies.

In another peculiar move, Erdan decided to impose a night-time, unannounced curfew in particularly troublesome Arab neighbourhoods. The police’s water cannons were sent in every night to these areas to spray the homes and streets with “skunk water,” a foul-smelling liquid that sticks to whatever it lands on.

Skunk water, and the indiscriminate use of skunk water, possibly more than anything else, symbolizes the current Israeli-Palestinian relationship. That relationship has finally degenerated into a tragedy in which the only themes are fear-induction in the other and retribution by the other. There is no longer even any pretense on the part of any of the players to search for viable solutions. The absence of a reasoned and a reasonable political vision is now leading both sides to meet up at that most intolerable of political crossroads, where a constant, low drum beat of violence replaces both periods of stability and periods of open warfare. This political pathology, in turn, is in the midst of creating a rainbow of shades of mass sociopathy in both camps.


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