The international context of the current disturbances in the region is a mix of: (1) ongoing stresses of the Iran-Israel confrontation, (2) the continuing Arab-Israel conflict, (3) perceived declining in US hegemony and (4) the ongoing struggle between the West and Radical Islamists. Derived from the clash of ideologies and strategies occurring internationally, at the operational and tactical level, the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPTs) are - as before - the battleground and as always the net losers are the people. So, what is going on?
Some thought the signing of the Iran-US nuclear deal would mean Iran would stop meddling in the region. Many now argue Iran has a license to become more involved. Certainly Iranian proxies remain active against Israel, as seen by the actions of both Hezbollah and also most recently Hamas with rocket attacks into Israel and only yesterday their support for the killing of Israelis on a bus in Jerusalem. Iran has continued to press for the removal of Israel from the planet, which is certainly good reason for Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu to shame the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) into supporting the Iran-US deal last week; the silence was deafening!
The Arab-Israeli conflict is ongoing ideologically too and Israel’s actions to restrict Muslim Palestinian access to the Al Aqsa mosque, and then let some Israeli Jews go there, has obviously inflamed it. Within the context of the stampede at Mecca which claimed over 1,300 lives and recent remonstrating by Jordan about mosque access, Israel needs to be mindful that preventing Muslims from praying at their 3rd most holy site, particularly now, simply does not help security.
It is unlikely that Arab forces will rise up against Israel for now. There are many other distractions in the Arab world keeping everyone busy including Yemen, Syria, Iraq, the so-called Islamic State, the remnants of the so-called Arab Spring and Al-Qaeda, but Arabs are clearly unhappy with Israel’s restrictive measures. They take them very seriously and consider it, at least, unreasonable if not a red line; they are watching every move with interest.
US credibility in the region appears to have declined and the recent actions of Russia in Syria, not to mention the tragic bombing of a hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, fuel that narrative. What has been conveniently ignored though is a powerful counterview that American strength has actually increased. Although conveniently ignored within the Arab world, President Obama did push through the nuclear deal with Iran, despite strong opposition in a Republican Congress, ardent opposition from Israel and the best efforts to stop it dead by the active American Jewish lobby.
America is the sole superpower and will remain so. It is choosing to stay in the background; indeed Obama campaigned for the Presidency on an agenda to stop wars, not start them. Only fools and horses would misinterpret the current US stance as weakness. The US (representing the West as world leader) is not fighting Islam, it is fighting only those radical Islamists who specifically attempt to use violence rather than peaceful ways to seek the resolution of their grievances. The international context will remain complex.
The domestic context is challenging too, multi-layered and constantly changing. President Abbas raised the Palestinian flag at the UN the week before last and waxed lyrically about how he no longer felt obliged to be held hostage to the Oslo II Accords. In so doing he dropped the bomb many anticipated during his speech, but equally, as others have commented, he dropped it but did not detonate it; it could still go off! He did not tell the people to rise up; he still advocates a non-violent approach, but his words of freedom and statehood most likely have lit the blue touch paper and at least got the people thinking about their futures; it may be linked to the current violence in that regard.
Iran’s proxy, Hamas, has gone one stage further and declared the beginning of the 3rd Intifada, which of course is in their interests to do although it would appear they have not yet actually taken command in the field, despite the recent murder of 2 Israeli settlers in the West Bank by Hamas operatives and their cheerleading of the bus attack of yesterday. Hamas may consider themselves at Intifada but of course Gaza and the West Bank are not the same. Like Abbas’ Fatah, Hamas is watching developments and looking for the right time to act, if at all. For Hamas, like Fatah, timing is everything and maintaining the enduring hearts and minds of their people, is key.
The current violence has all the hallmarks of an Intifada. The Red Cross claims that over 1,000 Palestinians have been injured recently and news reports that 7 Israelis have been killed, stabbed or shot, more than 25 injured and over 20 Palestinians killed, including pregnant women, children and babies. What is missing, though, is leadership on the Palestinian side which makes the claims of a current Intifada less credible. The previous Intifadas most certainly had top down support; the current situation does not. The “lone wolf” attacks by Palestinians in Jerusalem appear neither orchestrated nor ordered. It would appear the attacks are from the people, who in the OPTs seem disappointed with their leadership. Maybe rioting at the many checkpoints is simply a rite of passage for an adolescent Palestinian, as much as it is a training opportunity for an Israeli conscript.
Recent musings by octogenarian Abbas about stepping down, the pursuit of his legacy and an appropriate line of ascendancy to lead the Palestinian people forward, has likely de-stabilized the Palestinians. That might well be the driving reason for the violence coupled with the ever present and never blinking eye of the media, which frequently provides coverage in support of their actions, often turns up in advance of protests, maybe inadvertently encourages the protest and coverage, and thus arguably fuels the whole. One could consider the current situation more of an Intra-Fada, than an Intifada. The unrest is against the common foe of Israel, granted in a physical sense, but by design it is may be directed in conceptual and moral terms through the frustrations of the people about their own leadership, hence internal and thus Intra-fada. If it continues well into November and/or the lethality of attacks increase still further, and the Palestinian leadership starts to actively support it, then an Intra-fada promptly becomes an Intifada and the game changes, but for now that has not happened.
The Palestinians seek a state. They are likely annoyed by the lack of progress, aggravated by Israeli reactions and what they feel are very heavy handed responses to events. Even Americans appear to have noticed Israeli’s perceived over-reaction. Israel maybe sees no need to make progress in the Middle East Peace Process (MEPP) as the current status quo is arguably better than the two state solution which many support outside the region, but some consider a pipe dream. Jerusalem as the capital of both Israel and Palestine is a red line the Israelis will simply not allow. A two state solution is maybe therefore just an idea and oft quoted only because there is nothing else to offer. The best the Palestinians can realistically hope for is a “state-lette” or state-within-a state sort of situation where - like in Areas A - they exercise security and governance control, as now. Constant Israeli settler action and occasional military infiltration into Area A questions whether or not the Israelis have any real intent to evolve beyond the current situation.
The Palestinians do not have the ways and means, capability or capacity to press their agenda - less Intifada – and the Israelis know it. It is an ongoing conflict situation which some argue is in neither’s interest to solve. Bibi Netanyahu would not survive politically if he changed his position and there have already been calls from the people to tighten defenses based on the recent stabbings, shootings and general violence. The Settlers are a law unto themselves and with the Orthodox challenge, Bibi must tread very carefully; his approval rating is dropping daily. So Israel simply holds the ring and over-matches Palestinians protestors. Israeli is massively stronger than the Palestinians from a security, economic and also political perspective; little real change is foreseen.
The Palestinian Authority Security Forces (PASF) have yet to act. Rather than stand between their people and the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) to prevent Palestinians advancing incrementally more lethal Israeli responses of CS gas, water cannon, rubber-coated steel bullets and ultimately bullets - they watch from the flank; leadership has not yet pressed them into play. This may be because of the recent video footage of PASF beating a Palestinian boy protester. Maybe they worry that their involvement and action may attract criticism about them being “agents of the occupation.” Maybe they are doing nothing linked to Abbas’ UNGA comments and his threatened disengagement from Oslo II, passing OPT security to Israel. Until the PASF step up as authorized by their leadership, it is best to refer to the current situation as an Intra-fada and hope that it will settle down in the days and weeks ahead.
An Intifada would help no one, least of all the Palestinians, who would be the net losers as history has shown previously. Not only would the Palestinians be no match for Israeli military forces, they would run the risk of losing international community support and also the desired funding that accompanies it. One in five Palestinians are on the PA payroll which will disappear if it collapses and violence spreads still further. Without these and other funds, the PA would collapse; and then coupled with increasing violence, Israel would simply secure the OPTs, although at great cost to their economy and arguably great cost too to their international standing. Maybe at that stage even the staunchest support from America would wane. Bibi gets two things from America, advice and $3 Billion a year to buy equipment; the Israelis always take the money! America still has influence and declining popular support for Israel is a risk Bibi will have to think hard about before he accepts.
For Israel it has always been about survival. The best thing Israel can do right now is to move to restore reasonable access to the mosque in an attempt to de-escalate the violence and create the conditions for a return to the prevailing version of “normality” seen within this troubled region. Progress on the MEPP would help unless Israel has completely written it off. Otherwise we may well see Intra-fada escalate into Intifada and then years of progress will be flushed away. There are better ways to ensure progress and both parties must now work to find them.