Middle East cycle of violence escalates

11 October 2015 9:22 am

It was ever thus but it’s getting worse. As Reuters reports, over the last 11 days we have seen four Israelis and 21 Palestinians, many of whom had carried out knife attacks, killed in Jerusalem, the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Gaza and Israeli cities.

The flashpoint at the moment is around the events at the al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem's walled Old City and fears that Israel wants to change the status quo at Islam's third holiest shrine, revered by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and by Jews as the Temple Mount. Hence the “popular” acts of violence, triggered in recent weeks by Palestinian protests against Israeli security sweeps at the al-Aqsa mosque

Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, blames the attacks on “incitement” by the Palestinian Authority. He told US Secretary of State John Kerry that the Palestinian Authority's campaign of incitement "was causing this wave of terrorism".
But this is isn’t the real reason for the violence. The reality is that there is growing frustration over continuing Israeli settlement-building in the West Bank. Just as importantly, people are angry about the lack of any prospect for a peace deal and the creation of Palestinian State.

Palestinian resentment has also been stoked by increasing vigilantism by extremist Israeli settlers. Three months ago, it resulted in the deaths of three members of a Palestinian family, including a toddler, in an arson attack. Slogans in Hebrew, including the word "revenge", were found sprayed on a wall of one of the firebombed houses. Mr Netanyahu telephoned Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to condemn the attack, telling Mr Abbas Israel's security forces had been ordered "to use all means to find the murderers", Mr Netanyahu however made it clear this week made it clear that Israel is not embarking on another large-scale security operation.

And the violence has continued.

The reality is that Abbas and Netanyahu are both under pressure.

The risk for Netanyahu is a collapse of his right-wing government, which is largely friendly towards the settlements, even if there are some restrictions on large-scale expansion. The alternative government could see the centre-left Labour party enter into a coalition with Netanyahu, with demands for limiting settlement expansion and restarting the peace process with Abbas.

Meanwhile an opinion poll has found that two-thirds of Palestinians want Abbas to resign. They reject the Palestinian leader’s failed political program of cooperating with Israel to reach a negotiated two-state settlement. They believe that Abbas is politically naive, having followed a strategy of giving Israel what it most desires—full Palestinian security collaboration—not in exchange for an end to the occupation but as a prologue to it. The program stays fixed, even when the epilogue never comes.

The great irony is that the leader of an ostensible liberation movement has come to be seen as such an asset by his occupier that Israel considers his resignation a national security threat. The alternative is Hamas and the Islamic State.

Netanyahu and Abbas are on borrowed time. At this stage, Israeli fundamentalists are agitating for greater access to, and the right of Jewish prayer at, the al-Aqsa complex (the site of the ruined Jewish temple of antiquity. Their continuing vigilante attacks are priming conflagration. At the same time, Palestinian youths have again donned their keffiyehs, the traditional scarf, wrapping it around their faces to hide their identity and protect against tear gas. They are throwing stones and Molotov cocktails outside the squalid refugee camps near Jerusalem and Ramallah, targeting the security forces or Jewish settlers. Security forces are responding with a mix of tear gas and live ammunition.

It hasn’t yet come to a third intifada. But the erosion of the authority of both the Israeli and the Palestinian governments is happening right now. Either one of them or both will lose control. To stay in power, they will have to talk.