Israel on edge following weeks of violence

October 14, 2015

Monday was a difficult day. At 8:58 a.m., at the Lion’s Gate of Jerusalem’s Old City, a knife-wielding Palestinian attacker was stopped and killed. At 2:17 p.m., a female attacker stabbed a policeman and was shot. Shortly after 3 p.m., demonstrations turned to confrontations between Palestinians and Israel Defense Forces soldiers. At 3:21, two Jerusalemites, one, 21 years old, the other, 13, were stabbed. One of the attackers, a 13-year-old Palestinian, was detained. At 3:30, there were clashes near Ramallah. At 6:04, a soldier was wounded by a stone-thrower near Hebron. Around 6:30 in the evening, Gazan Palestinians forced their way across the fence into Israel. At 7:08 p.m., a settler who was driving was wounded. At 8:44 p.m., a Palestinian attacker was killed as he attempted to snap away a soldier’s gun.

At 4:30 p.m., I phoned Ziad Abuzayyad, a Palestinian politician, for an interview that didn’t turn out very well. “Why are you only asking about the Jews that were killed?” he asked me when I opened with a question about the stabbing that had taken place just minutes earlier. “You do not ask about the Palestinians that were killed. You are not objective. I cannot speak to you,” he said. 

The conversation lasted for about four minutes and was full of such rebukes, then ended when he hung up on me. Other conversations I had this week with Palestinians, most of whom preferred to remain anonymous, lasted a little longer but provided little more to help understand the situation. They were clearly afraid; they were clearly frustrated; they were clearly living in a parallel universe: What they were talking about was the opposite of what Israelis were talking about. A highly disturbing characteristic of the new “situation” is that facts are no longer facts. Israelis — that is, Jewish Israelis — feel attacked, terrorized. Palestinians — that is, Palestinians from the occupied territories and Arab Israelis — feel attacked, terrorized. 

In the popular annals of Israel’s history, Prime Minister Golda Meir is mostly remembered for her failure to prevent the Yom Kippur War and for some of her sanctimonious quips. One of those quips, often ridiculed for good reason, came to mind when a 13-year-old Palestinian boy stabbed an Israeli boy of the same age: “We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children. We cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children. We will only have peace with the Arabs when they love their children more than they hate us.”

A highly disturbing characteristic of the new “situation” is that facts are no longer facts. Israelis — that is, Jewish Israelis — feel attacked, terrorized. Palestinians — that is, Palestinians from the occupied territories and Arab Israelis — feel attacked, terrorized.

It is the saddest story — heartbreaking, really — about both boys, condemned by circumstances to have such a fatal meeting. The stabbing attack was a clear-cut case, you’d think. Two young Palestinians from Beit Hanina took a knife and, with ill intentions, attacked first a man, then a child riding his bike in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Pisgat Zeev. What’s not so clear-cut: Palestinian media reports and social media reports described the affair as an Israeli execution of a Palestinian boy. They used the photo of the attacker lying on the ground after he was stopped as the tool with which to incite the next day of horror.

And indeed, if Monday, Oct. 12, was a bad day, Tuesday was worse: two attacks in Raanana in the morning, two in Jerusalem. Three Israelis killed and several more wounded. Some of the attackers were Arabs working for Israeli companies or employers. They provided more fodder for Israelis who want harsher measures taken against all Arabs: opposition leader and former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman called to impose military rule on all Arabs, Israeli citizens included. Many Israelis are likely to be easily convinced that this is the only choice for Israel. A demonstration Tuesday, Oct. 13, by Israeli Arabs coupled with infuriating statements by some of their leaders, coupled with attacks carried out by Arab citizens — near Gan Shmuel, in Afula — made many Jewish Israelis suspicious of their Arab neighbors. In a residential building in Tel Aviv, someone asked neighbors to “talk about” the presence of an Arab resident in their midst. In Netanya, an Arab woman complained that her son was attacked by a Jewish man who was carrying a stick. 

Arab political leaders were playing with fire, but seemed not to care. Knesset Member Ahmad Tibi kept blaming Israel for breaching the status quo on the Temple Mount. Israel denied it. Tibi blamed Israel for an atmosphere that is “hostile and racist.” This is more difficult to deny: Recent events have made the atmosphere tense, and the reaction of some Jews has been hostile and racist. 

Again — a parallel universe. On the one hand, a Jewish population looking warily at the Arab neighbor — supermarket cashier, construction worker, pharmacist — not knowing, unsure, where the next attack is going to come from. On the other hand, an Arab population infuriated by the collective suspicion, by the language of politicians, by their feelings of isolation. Early in the week, in one of the most memorable moments of the “situation” thus far: TV cameras caught the Arab mayor of Nazareth as he was shouting at the leader of the Knesset Arab Party to “get out” of his city. “You ruined our city. Get out of here. There was not one Jew here today, not one,” Ali Salam, the mayor, shouted at Ayman Odeh, the Knesset member. These two also live in parallel universes: One wants to champion the cause of the Palestinian state, the other one wants to protect the economy and continue to coexist with the Jewish majority. Apparently, it’s becoming more difficult to have it both ways.

More parallel universes. 

What really happens on the Temple Mount? Jews and Arabs cannot agree. The Palestinians say: Keeping the status quo is a bluff; Israel is gradually eroding it. Israelis say: We are keeping the status quo. Tzipi Livni, hardly a fan of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said this week that, as an opposition leader, she must emphasize that amid all the criticisms she agrees with of the prime minister’s policies, she does not blame him for attempting to change the status quo on the Temple Mount — because he is not attempting any such thing.

Israeli police detain a Palestinian man suspected of stabbing an Israeli in Jerusalem on Oct. 9. Photo by Baz Ratner/Reuters

What really happens when attacks are carried out? In many cases, the Palestinians deny that an attack took place. Or they say that the Israeli attacks are more brutal — they do not agree to differentiate between military operations that end with civilian injuries and terror attacks on civilians. 

Why did this whole thing start? Israelis say: “Incitement and the Palestinian culture of terrorism, and their hatred of Israel.” Palestinians say: “We told you all along that frustration and lack of hope will eventually lead to violence.” 

What can Israel do to make it go away? Some say there is a need for a political horizon, a hope for peace. Others say political horizons simply result in more terrorism, as happened with Oslo in the 1990s, and as happened with Camp David before the Second Intifada. And besides, can anyone think seriously about horizons when the demands made by the Palestinians leadership are for Israel to “fully withdraw from the Palestinian territory it occupied in 1967, including East Jerusalem; a complete end to all colonial policies; a recognition of the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people including their right to self-determination and return; and the release of all Palestinian prisoners”? 

That is the list of demands presented earlier this week from prison by Marwan Barghouti, a Palestinian leader who was tried and convicted for murder in an Israeli court during the Second Intifada. It is the list of demands that attempts to justify to the world — his article was published by the British newspaper The Guardian — a new era of violence. 

Naturally, no Palestinian speaker could admit this, but as the days of strife in Israel became weeks, and as the weeks threaten to become months, one would assume that the interests of Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas are quite similar. 

Netanyahu would like to put an end to violence. That is his job as the leader, and Israelis — as the polls showed this week — are not so certain that Netanyahu is doing a fine job. Fifty-three percent of Israelis told pollster Menachem Lazar last week that they blame Netanyahu for the violent situation. That is, even though a vast majority of them — 84 percent of Jewish Israelis — think that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict persists because of “Palestinian refusal to accept Israel’s right to exist.” The great political philosopher Ernest Renan once said, “Suffering together unifies more than joy does.” The polls often validate his words.

Abbas also would like to put an end to violence. On Oct. 11, he had a meeting with a group of young — and feisty — leaders of the Tanzim, a militant faction of Fatah. You need to scale down the level of protest and restrain your people, Abbas told them. Some of them participated in demonstrations against Israel in recent weeks at which the tone was harsh and the tendency to clash with Israeli soldiers real. Some of them, according to reports from people who attended the meeting with Abbas, left it somewhat confused. They thought they were doing exactly what was expected of them. Others left frustrated: They weren’t sure that policies of restraint were what the Palestinians needed at this time. 

Abbas didn’t leave much room for doubt. The violence should be discouraged. The tension should be defused. The leaders of Tanzim got the message, and Israel’s security forces got it, too. At the Israeli cabinet meeting on Oct. 11, the representative of the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service — the principal branch that deals with intelligence on the Palestinian territories — told the ministers that Abbas does not initiate violence. In fact, that he attempts to stop it — clearly with mixed results. The Palestinian Authority can send its forces and task them with curbing demonstrations near IDF checkpoints. It can ask the young leaders of Tanzim to call off their plans in the hope that most, if not all, will do as told. But it cannot stop the Arab Israeli from Umm al-Fahm from running over an Israeli soldier and then stabbing her and three others (the suspect’s attorney said in court it was an accident). And it cannot stop the Palestinian from Beit Hanina from stabbing a border police patrolman in Jerusalem. And it cannot stop anyone from getting on a bus and shooting or stabbing people to death. And it is afraid to lose touch with the street: Abbas does not want a violent intifada, but he also does not want to be cast aside as the old leader who doesn’t understand the new era. As one Palestinian politician — not a huge supporter of Abbas — told me: “The people did not quite ask for his permission, so he should be carful as he tries to forbid them from doing what they want to do.”

Members of Zaka Rescue and Recovery team carry a covered body from the scene of an attack on a Jerusalem bus on Oct. 13. Photo by Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

Netanyahu knows all this about Abbas and is also walking a fine line. On the one hand, he decided to refrain from joining the loud chorus of leaders who engage themselves in continuous Abbas condemnation. On the other hand, at a media conference last week, Netanyahu highlighted Abbas’ role in inciting violence, and in his Knesset speech this week, he said that Abbas must denounce terrorism — Abbas doesn’t condone the attacks of recent days, but is adamant in his refusal to condemn them. Surely, some of the things Abbas said about Israel’s supposed violation of the status quo in the Old City of Jerusalem didn’t much contribute to an atmosphere of calm. Netanyahu was justified in being angry when Abbas called to keep the “filthy feet” of Jews away from the Temple Mount. But quiet messages delivered from his office to Abbas’ give the prime minister an incentive not to burn all bridges with Abbas. Netanyahu’s ministers, especially those with small portfolios or large egos, can entertain themselves by condemning Abbas. Netanyahu, until midweek, preferred quiet messages and keeping the hope for a certain accommodation.

The question of Abbas — the hope or the villain — was debated among Israelis this week as if it were a political question. The left clears Abbas of sins; the right sees him as responsible for the violence. Several Israeli ministers weren’t happy with the way Abbas was presented by military professionals. They had a point: Operational agencies tend to care much for operational cooperation and less for rhetorical belligerence. Several senior officers in these agencies were unhappy about the fact that ministers wanted to use them for political propaganda purposes. They also had a point: Ministers want headlines and want to appease their constituencies. The agencies have a day-to-day responsibility to keep Israelis safe and do not want political motivations to disrupt them from doing their job. 

Abbas is not an easily defined player in the drama that is unfolding today. He isn’t the first Palestinian leader who cannot be easily defined. The night of Oct. 12, in a conversation timed for the 20th anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, Martin Indyk, the U.S. Ambassador to Israel at the time of assassination, reminded me of that.

Rabin’s legacy is seen today through the lenses of the horrors of the Second Intifada, Indyk told me. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is also seen through the same lenses — so he is a villain, without question. But this isn’t necessarily the case if one buys into Indyk’s version of events — and one must admit that his version runs contrary to most Israeli narratives of the peace process. Indyk believes Arafat was a problematic leader. He believes Rabin had a way of handling him. He believes that had Rabin not been assassinated, the peace process might have succeeded. That is to say — my words, not Indyk’s, but I don’t see any other way of reading him — Arafat was not doomed to be a villain. He didn’t plan all along to become a villain. Had circumstances been different, he could have ended his life as a peacemaker, not a terrorist. 

What can Israel do to make it go away? Some say there is a need for a political horizon, a hope for peace.

Here is Indyk, talking about Rabin: “He was very clear-eyed about Arafat; he had no illusions about the artful dodger, as I used to call him. But he had a way of handling him that was very effective.”

So Rabin could have accomplished all of these things that his successors failed to accomplish? Even those among them whom we can agree were genuinely interested in reaching an agreement with the Palestinians?

“Yes, yes,” Indyk told me. “Look back at Rabin’s strategies from the days when he was first prime minister, back in 1974. He and [Henry] Kissinger developed a step-by-step approach. It wasn’t just Kissinger, it was Kissinger and Rabin. Oslo was designed by Rabin, not by Kissinger, but as a [similar] step-by-step approach. And Rabin understood very well the difficulties of achieving a final status solution, particularly on Jerusalem. He had a very clear view about a united Jerusalem.” 

“So what you mean,” I responded, “is that Rabin had two types of successors: those who did not want any steps, and those who wanted steps that were too big.”

“Step-by-step is a recognition that if you try to get to the end too quickly, you wouldn’t get there at all. I believe that Rabin would have found a way, because of the relations he had with Arafat, to defer final status negotiations further [while] going ahead with the Oslo process and with further disengagement from the West Bank,” Indyk said.

Israelis would very much like disengagement from Arabs. All Arabs. It is a dangerous and counterproductive instinct, but also one that is expected to occur in such times. 

But many of them also feel this week the way Yitzhak Herzog, leader of the Labor Party and head of the opposition, feels. In a Rabinesque speech at the Knesset on Oct. 12 (the language was Rabinesque — Herzog does not have the commanding presence of Rabin), Herzog was trying to be a hawkish seeker of separation from the Palestinians. Herzog was not proposing peace in our times. In fact, his speech included more than a hint that peace is probably impossible at this time — it focused on the prospect of disengagement from people with whom Israelis have had enough. Herzog probably figured that he has a chance at getting a hearing from the public for such an idea under the current circumstances.

“Had I been elected prime minister,” Herzog said, “you’d be standing today at the balcony in Zion Square and igniting large demonstrations all across the country.” He was right: Had Israel had a left-tilting government, the situation would have been much worse. The government in such a moment needs the ability to act calmly. But a right-wing and edgy public would hardly have given a left-of-center government much room to maneuver. Netanyahu, with all of his many faults, true or imaginary, is the stopper at the door of a more chaotic situation. He has to face a populist opposition from within (his coalition members that pressure him to build settlements because — they argue with zero proof — that is the way to stop terrorism), and has to steer the ship while keeping his crew intact (that is to say: his right-wing voters). 

Thus far (I am writing this article on Oct. 13), he has been able to do that under harsh conditions. 

It is not much. It is also not that insignificant.

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