In Israel, the last few days have been dramatic, full of anguish and bitter tears. We’ve seen a rise in terrorist attacks against Israelis, as well as clashes between IDF soldiers and Palestinians (mostly youth), leaving scores wounded and at least one death. It seems that the leader of the Palestinian Authority, President Abbas, is losing control of events.
The attacks include the murders of Eitam and Naama Henkin in the West Bank on Thursday. In Jerusalem Rabbi Nahmia Lavi and Aaron Bennett were stabbed to death by a Palestinian in the Old City of Jerusalem on Saturday night. Bennett’s wife and two-year old baby were wounded. A Jewish teenager was wounded in another stabbing attack early on Sunday. Rockets were fired from Gaza, although not by Hamas.
In response, there have been retaliatory attacks against Palestinians in the West Bank as well, with stones being thrown at Palestinian cars. The IDF is operating in the West Bank and has responded to the fire from Gaza.
The terrorist group, Islamic Jihad, just released a video promising new suicide attacks against Israelis. In the video, entitled “Message number 1”, a Palestinian terrorist is just about to board a bus full of civilians:
The Weakness of Abbas
In the midst of these events, President Mahmoud Abbas, called on the UN to protect the Palestinians, although it’s not clear what he imagined the UN would or could do. This is particularly outrageous as it is the Palestinian Authority’s (henceforth PA) continued incitement against Israel that has contributed to the latest outbreak of violence. When Abbas says that “we salute every drop of blood spilled for the sake of Jerusalem.. every martyr will be placed in Paradise.. they have no right to defile them [the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Church of the Holy Sepulcher] with their filthy feet”, the message is not lost on the Palestinians: terrorist attacks are encouraged.
Why is President Abbas, who cooperates with Israel on security matters, inciting against Israel? One of the reasons is his sinking popularity among Palestinians. In fact, a commonly held view these days is that Abbas is losing control. This is a situation that has been developing for years. Half a year ago, an unnamed military official told Israel’s perhaps leading newspaper analyst, Nahum Barnea, that the PA is completely absent from the refugee camps, abandoning them to lawlessness. In the analysis, Barnea wondered what will happen, with the PA weakening, after the end of the High Holidays, which is always a time of tension (note: they have just ended). The corrupt PA’s finances are in dire straits, with massive unemployment and widespread poverty.
In a worrying report published in the Times of Israel today, Avi Issacharoff shows how hope has deserted the Palestinians. There’s no faith left in President Abbas and the peace talks, his recent speech at the UN was met with indifference and if new elections would be held Hamas might have enough support to win. The Palestinians who were interviewed confirmed the perception that the Palestinian Authority has cracked down on terrorists and stopped attacks against Israel. More disturbingly though, they also confirmed the Israeli claim that the Palestinians haven’t given up on the idea of liberating all of “Palestine”, which would spell the end of Israel.
It seems that President Abbas is in a truly impossible situation. On the one hand, he is forced to crack down on terrorists, who enjoy more popular support than the corrupt institutions of which he is the head. On the other hand, he is too weak to actually give up anything of substance in negotiations with Israel, never having done a single thing to ready the Palestinians psychologically for the necessary concessions on the Palestinian side. He famously declared on Israeli TV that he has given up on the possibility of returning to the city of Safed where he was born and which is inside Israel. Yet, in negotiations he hasn’t been able to give up on the Palestinian “right of return”, even knowing that Israel would never agree to it as it would mean the end of the Jewish state. Since he doesn’t seem to wish for a return to the bloody years of the second intifada, he has in the last few years tried to leverage international support in the diplomatic arena to pressure Israel. Meanwhile, his grip on leadership hangs by a thread, and in a bid to bolster his credentials on the Palestinian street he incites against Israel, gives large handouts to Palestinians in Israeli prisons and supports “martyrs”.
We’ve heard many analysts describe the recent clashes as a possible start of a new intifada. Even Nahum Barnea, mentioned above as a leading analyst, said so. On the other hand, he and others also said as much last year after the horrible attack on worshipers in a Jerusalem synagogue which left 4 people murdered and 8 wounded, but where things eventually calmed down.
The violence of recent days is nourished by the issue of the Temple Mount, used as a focal point for Palestinian anger and frustration. (See my post: unrest on the Temple mount) As things stand today, it’s not clear whether the tensions will subside. The PA may be able to crack down if it wishes to do so. Both cracking down and refraining from doing so are both risky options though. Increased violence could easily spiral out of hand, leading to the rise of more extreme groups such as Hamas in the West Bank, while a crack down would only cement the growing unpopularity of the PA.
As Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu calls for “expedited destruction of perpetrators’ homes, the extension of administrative detention for offenders, additional security forces in Jerusalem and the West bank and limiting Palestinian access to the Old City and Temple Mount in Jerusalem”, the PA’s situation becomes more precarious. If it plays along, it risks being seen as traitors. If it doesn’t, and continues to incite and support terrorism, it may become a target for reprisals itself. Prime Minister Netanyahu has also little choice in how to proceed. After a deadly string of attacks he must be seen as doing something. Netanyahu ran on a security platform and has already come under intense criticism from the Right for not doing enough, including from ministers in his own government. Inaction is presently not an option.
The next few weeks will tell if the Palestinian street truly wants to launch a third intifada. What seems clear is that President Abbas is on his way out, unable to control events and unable to offer Palestinians an alternative. It make take a while longer, but it seems to be a matter of time. If Abbas is out, the popular ideas for what a peace agreement may look like may be out as well. As a member of the old guard, any remaining hope for a peace deal is attached to him, however misplaced this hope was to begin with. Israel should get ready for the day after Abbas, who celebrated his 80th birthday this year, but in the meantime find creative ways to reduce tension. Israel’s strategy can’t only be based on punitive measures, which however necessary, won’t do anything to deal with the root causes. As a last thought, perhaps it’s time for Israel to kick the PA out and assume complete control before the situation gets out of hand. It would mean assuming full responsibility of the entire West Bank until a functioning civil administration can be built up, with which it may be possible to make peace. This may yet turn out to be the best way forward.
Recommended reading: The Impossible Abbas, by David Horowitz, founding editor of the Times of Israel
Update: Right after I finished the post I saw that the Economist just published an article called “The West Bank Tires of its Government“. Make sure to check it out!