The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: A dangerous blindspot in the Middle Eastern Wars

Credit: Matthew Williams

Credit: Matthew Williams

(Originally published October 9th 2015)

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict dynamic remains a dangerous blind-spot in the current Middle Eastern wars which cannot be neglected by international and regional policymakers. Since the 50-day war in the Gaza Strip (2014) immense pressure has been building on the Israeli security apparatus attempting to contain the anger prevalent in Palestinian society, an unyielding anger which Mahmoud Abbas warns is evolving into a third intifada. These warnings have been accompanied by Abbas’s grave statement at the U.N which dealt yet another critical blow to the dying Oslo accords signed in 1993:  “As long as Israel refuses to commit to the agreements signed with us, which render us an authority without real powers. We therefore declare that we cannot continue to be bound by these agreements.” 

A new Palestinian revolt against Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, when it arrives (if it has not already began), should not come as a surprise to those who have been keeping a close-eye on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the last year. However there is good reason to be distracted; the Arab revolutions stunned the world in 2011, Syria, Libya, Yemen and Iraq remain consumed by civil war, Egypt has experienced two military coups and two revolutions, Iran and Saudi Arabia have been engaged in a regional cold-war, and the international community was rocked by the rise of ISIS and the resurgence of Al-Qa'ida. The Middle Eastern conflict has sparked the worst refugee crisis since World War II and the West and Russia have both directly intervened in or covertly fueled the Middle Eastern wars with the aid of regional allies. Old borders have deteriorated, new states and regimes are emerging, unprecedented demographic changes are occurring, while rebellion and revolt has been met with brutal counter-revolution which has produced volatile and bloody insurgencies.

These revolutionary changes are extraordinary, a blend of unprecedented historical developments and a modern creation that has produced the criss-crossing and seemingly illogical relationships that define the chaotic landscape of Middle Eastern politics. To some extent it is understandable why these new conflicts have cast a shadow, and to some extent, side-lined developments in the occupied territories. However Israel, despite Netanyahu’s best efforts to isolate Israel from the regional socio-political shifts, has not been immune to the changes occurring across the region and be able to ignore the immense contributions made by Israelis and Palestinians alike to the best aspects of the Arab revolutions. As Adam LeBor argues:

The Arab spring is withering across the Middle East, but blooming in Israel, where the Joint List, a coalition of Islamists, Arab nationalists and progressive activists, is the third-largest bloc in the Knesset, the Israeli parliamentArab activists are using the Jewish state’s robust democracy and independent institutions to push their agenda of radical, but peaceful, political change.’

However the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’s violent dynamic, the brutality of the recent Gaza War (which left 2203 Palestinians (over 10,000 wounded) and 72 Israelis dead), the subsequent ‘Silent Intifada’ in Jerusalem and the uglier aspects of the Israeli electionshave illustrated that many events in Israel and the occupied territories have mirrored the darker elements of the Arab revolutions which have generated, ‘as with…previous revolutions, extremism and drift.’  This modern extremism and violence has fused to the century-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict while the deepening contemporary and historical problems surrounding the two-state solution have become a matter of urgency.

The developments currently underway in the occupied territories have been incoming for some time. In the summer of 2014 the disappearance and murder of three Israeli teenagers Gilad Shaar, Naftali Fraenkel and Eyal Yifrach from Alon Shvut, an Israeli settlement in southwest Jerusalem and the kidnapping and burning of a 13-year old Palestinian teenager sparked the first of many acts of tit-for-tat revenge attacks and were a factor which helped catalyse the 50-day war. Paralleling the bombardment and invasion of the Gaza Strip by Israeli forces, protests and demonstrations condemning the military campaign escalated into violence after an Israeli settler shot dead an 18-year-old and injured three other Palestinians. Similarly the shooting of 21 year old Monir Ahmad Hamdan al-Badarin during clashes with Israeli soldiers in Hebron sparked weeks of violence in the West Bank in which several Palestinians were killed.

After the conclusion of the 50-day war, the tensions continued to bubble beneath the surface as exemplified by the tensions in Jerusalem from October to  December 2014. The protests, coined by many as ‘the silent intifada’ originated in the Shu’fat district and were shaped by cruel events which included a Palestinian ramming his car into a group of passengers waiting in the light rail station which killed a 3-months old baby and injuring several others(22nd October, 2014). This was swiftly followed by the shooting of a 14 year old Palestinian-American in protests two days later and  killing of a Palestinian man suspected of trying  to assassinate far-right Israeli activist Yehuda Glick. Glick, a U.S-born activist who was leading a campaign to dismantle the status quo on the Temple Mount established by Moshe Dayan in the aftermath of the  1967 War which forbade Jewish prayer and worship  on Temple Mount to ease tensions between Muslim and Jewish worshipers.

Credit: Matthew Williams

Credit: Matthew Williams

Following another car attack on 5th November, 2014  which left fourteen Israeli civilians  injured and one policeman dead Netanyahu contended that the lone wolf attacks were  ‘a direct result of incitement’ by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. The prime minister’s claims were debatable particularly after the expansion of illegal settlements (a key factor undermining any potential peace proposals and widely consider an antagonistic act against the Palestinian population) had been occurring during protests. Days before the attacks  ‘an Israeli government committee on 2nd November 2014 advanced plans for five-hundred settler homes in East Jerusalem, an official said, in the face of disapproval from the United States at construction on occupied Palestinian land.’This follows the proposed construction of 2,610 homes in the Givat Hamatos area which was disclosed by the activist group, Peace Now in early October.

The November 5th attack occurred hours after  renewed clashes occurred at the Holy Sites and the resultant shooting of the driver has resulted in more riots across the Old City, Shu’fat and Sheikh Jarrah. These lone wolf attacks climaxed when four Israelis civilians were  killed and eight injured as two Palestinians  armed with a pistol, knives and axes hacked their way through  a West Jerusalem synagogue  on 18th November.

However the surge in violence, protests and demonstrations by Palestinians has been mirrored by a surge in settler-led violence against the Palestinian population. According to  UN OCHA, ‘the number of settler attacks resulting in Palestinian casualties and property damage increased by 32 percent in 2011 compared to 2010, and by over 144 percent compared to 2009.’ while Al-Haqa, a human right groups based in Ramallah  ‘documented a significant increase in the number of settler attacks and in the severity of violence’ in the Occupied Territories. More disturbingly authorities have largely turned a blind-eye to the violence. According to a Yesh Din report, published in July 2013, only 8.5 percent of the investigations concluded by Samaria & Judea (SJ) District Police were indictments served against suspects who committed acts of violence. This was a poultry number when measured against 90.5 percent of all the investigations conducted which  were closed without an indictment being served against Israeli civilians acting violently against Palestinian civilians and property.

Recent incidents have illustrated the settlement crisis has only deepened. In July 2015, settlers murdered a Palestinian mother and her 18-month year old baby in an arson attack in Duma. Meir Ettinger, leader of the settler youths who conducted the attack, whose ideological views and previous arson attacks against churches and mosques were well-known by Shin Bet, remained at large until he conducted the terror attack. While the Israeli government condemned and described Ettinger’s acts as a terror attack, it was once again the actions of the coalition government that catalysed this savage inter-communal violence. On 29th July, days before the attack, Netanyahu had announced that 300 new settlements, following the dispute over territory in Beit El, would be relocated while also advanced plans for about 500 new units in east Jerusalem. This deadly attack was accompanied by the murder of a sixteen year old Shira Banki and the wounding of five others at a Gay Pride Parade by an ultra-Orthodox Jew who had been previously imprisoned for a similar attack in 2005.  Religious extremism in Israeli society is as equal a threat to innocent Israeli and Palestinian civilians as religious extremism is in Palestinian society.

Credit: Matthew Williams: Hebron

Credit: Matthew Williams: Hebron

Nowhere is Israel’s military presence in the occupied territories as marked as in Hebron. The city, whose name in Hebrew literally means ‘friend’, is a divided community plagued by violence, extremism, criminality, conflict over territory and inflammatory rhetoric that has so frequently encapsulated the wider Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The city is no stranger to controversy and has had a tortured history since the beginning of the 20th century. However the results of the 1967 war, the continued Israeli occupation, and the enduring settlement crisis have catalysed the area’s transformation into the equivalent of Berlin during the peak of the Cold War; a fractured city. It is a microcosm of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the wider conflict is in danger of ‘Hebronisation’.

The reelection of Netanyahu and his determination to hold onto political power required forging a coalition government as the Likud party ceded  political space to ultra-nationalist groups, advocates of the settler movement, and ultra-religious parties including United Torah Judaism, Shas, and Jewish Home. In the process of creating this fragile alliance, Netanyahu made it clear that there would be no Palestinian state and drew extensive criticism for his last-minute attempt to hustle right-wing supporters by posting an inflammatory warning on Youtube that a high turnout of Israeli Arab voters would threaten the stability of the right-wing government.

Several members of Jewish Home have taken prominent positions including Naftali Bennett being appointed as Minister of Education and ethno-nationalist Aylet Shaked as Minister of Justice. Bennett has stated clearly “continuing construction in Jerusalem and the West Bank” will remain a priority and that he would “do everything in (his) power to make sure the Palestinians never get a state.” Similarly Shaked has been mired in controversy following a ‘631-word excerpt (which) called Palestinian children “little snakes” and accused Palestinian mothers of raising their kids to become violent martyrs. And, the blog post said, it read as “a call for genocide” of the Palestinian people.’

Such a statement would have terminated the career of most politicians. However Shaked’s popularity was elevated and she helped the Knesset pass a law that imposes up to 20 years in prison on people convicted of throwing rocks at moving vehicles and labeled the act as an act of terror stating “Tolerance toward terrorists ends today. A stone-thrower is a terrorist and only a fitting punishment can serve as a deterrent and just punishment.”  Given the Knesset’s questionable record of prosecuting  settlers for similar acts against Israeli soldiers and Palestinians, the widening of what constitutes a ‘terrorist’ to absurd parameters, the length of the prison sentence and the context under which Palestinians choose to throw stones, the law encompasses the intensification of the occupation under Netanyahu’s government and the increasing power of pro-settler movements and ideological hard-liners in Israel.

“The deteriorating socio-economic situation in Gaza combined with an increase in population will breed extremism, desperation and further resentment.”

Is the re-election of the Netanyahu’s government a welcome prospect? Dr. Ahron Bregman, author of Cursed Victory: a History of Israel and the Occupied Territories, believes that Netanyahu’s reelection may be blessing in disguise for a renewed drive towards a two state solution:

“The coalition is…purely right-wing — and often religious — parties. Because of this, I believe that the international community will give the new Netanyahu government the cold shoulder…the Palestinians…must also compromise on certain issues…and not ‘use of suicide bombers to blow up innocent Israelis…now is the time for Barack Obama…to take the lead and apply the necessary pressure to the situation.”

The Israeli government has, historically, been dealt with in the peace process with the Arabs under a carrot and stick diplomatic approach. The 1979 Camp David summit led by President Jimmy Carter, Anwar Sadat, and Menachem Begin and the signing of the peace agreement was the culmination of  nearly a decade of negotiations during the closing stages of the  Yom Kippur War. This process included  three other wars (1948, 1967, 1967-1970) fought between Egypt and Israel which left an estimated 10,000 Israelis  and 30,000 Egyptians dead and thousands more wounded; these are numbers that dwarf the casualties in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The peace process was also enabled by a  relationship between the United States and Israel which became increasingly fractiousness during the 1970s, and a right-wing Israeli government which agreed to withdraw from the occupied territories in the Sinai and dismantle settlements  present in these territories.

The initial military campaigns launched by Sadat and Syrian president Hafez al-Assad in the opening stages of the Yom Kippur War shook Israel  to its core, despite the former’s ability to reverse the military gains of the Egyptians into a strategic victory. It was a humiliation for Israeli society, the equivalent of the United States’ Pearl Harbor, and a psychological victory for the Egyptians humiliated in the Six Day War (June, 1967); Israel’s military and political establishment had been dealt a bloody nose and its assumptions that their technological and military superiority could act as a deterrent against Arab aggression were discredited. The current state of affairs were no longer a sustainable strategy. In the aftermath of the Yom Kippur war attempts to stall the peace initiative of Sadat and the Egyptians and the failure of the Israeli government to adhere to American requirements led to numerous threats from the Ford administration to suspend U.S-Israeli arms deals. In return for their cooperation the Israelis were granted future military support by the United States, effectively a diplomatic bribe.

What we are now witnessing  is a similar unsustainable state of affairs as Yossi Melman contends: ‘The Israeli government continues to stick to the status quo as if nothing has changed…it is clear that the status quo is dying…Abbas and the Palestinians have also contributed to the situation…there is no willingness to deal with the bigger picture – the strategic reality.’

The Palestinians methods of resistance are currently semi-violent, they have not evolved into the suicide bombings of Hamas during the second intifada or terrorist attacks of the PLO in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. The Israelis have injured and detained hundreds of Palestinians and the continued closures of the Al-Aqsa mosque to Muslim worshipers have fueled fears that extremists in Israeli society are attempting to change the religious order in Jerusalem that has endured since 1967.  The bottle-neck in Jerusalem prevalent during the ‘silent intifada’ has been broken and  Netanyahu’s government faces the prospect of a massive uprising if it is mishandled, an uprising Netanyahu has vowed to greet with a “harsh offensive on Palestinian Islamic terror…adding” that Israel faced an “all-out war against terror.”

These  inflammatory statements and the narrative of terrorism, while prevalent among policymakers, holds less sway than it did during the first decade of the 21st century, the second intifada (2000 – 2005) during the Global War on Terror and when  George. W. Bush’s administration (which held a substantially stronger pro-Israeli stance than the Obama administration) held power in the United States.

The situation has changed in the United States. The relationship between Netanyahu and Barack Obama has deteriorated dramatically since the 50-day war. The Obama administration has warned that Israel faces isolation by pursuing its  inflammatory settlement policies in October. Obama has also threatened to drop the veto at the United Nations Security Council that America uses to block anti-Israel measures, in response to continued rejection of U.S demands   regarding the Middle East peace process. This impatience with Netanyahu is unsurprising as the situation deteriorates on ground and abroad for Israel.  Josh Earnest stated in early October:

“The United States is deeply concerned by reports the Israeli government has moved forward with planning for settlements in a sensitive area which poison the atmosphere not only with the Palestinians but with the very Arab governments with which Netanyahu had said he wanted to build relations.”

The tensions and harsh rhetoric spilled over into bickering and  insults being flung between the Knesset and the White House. An official in the White House was reported to have called Netanyahu chicken s**t, while U.S officials refused to give Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon an audience with Vice President Joe Biden the former previously accusing  John Kerry of being “messianic and obsessive” in regard to the latest failed peace-talks. Kerry. the U.S Secretary of State was also forced to apologise for stating behind a closed-door meeting that Israel was actively becoming an“apartheid state”. This is not the first major U.S official who has echoed Kerry’s statement. Jimmy Carter, the very man who managed the historic Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel, stated in an interview for Prospect Magazine  that “…there is zero chance of a two-state solution…The Netanyahu government decided early on to adopt a one-state solution…but without giving them [the Palestinians] equal rights.” Similarly public opinion is changing, despite the powerful influence and allies Israel have in U.S Congress. As Fawaz Gerges argues ‘polls of young American Jews show that…many of them feel less attached to…Israel.’ Furthermore ‘over 40% of American Jews under thirty-five believe that “Israel occupies land belonging to some else,” and over 30% report sometimes feeling “ashamed” of Israel’s actions.

“The settlement crisis is threatening to undo partition of the contested land, and created a bi-national state, overlapping homogenous enclaves - an artificially created Bosnia.”

Obama is now nearing the final year of his presidency and the outbreak of hostilities between the Palestinians and Israelis and a looming third intifada presents an opportunity to place the Israeli-Palestinian dispute firmly in  the international spotlight. The Syrian conflict has been a disaster for the Obama administration and leading from behind in Libya has produced violent civil war in an intervention which Obama has openly admitted as being one of his biggest mistakes as president. The peace process will not be completed during Obama’s tenure, however as history has taught us Israel bow to pressure when cornered by the international community and the United States through a delicate combination of condemnation, casualties, tense relations with the United States’ and diplomatic bribes.

Obama struck an important victory over AIPAC by securing the Iranian nuclear deal and refused to be held hostage to local politics and directly challenged Netanyahu’s interference in American politics. Netanyahu’s crude diplomatic approach,  the international condemnation of the 50-day war,  and Netanyahu’s attempts to undermine the Iranian nuclear deal  have isolated Israel diplomatically. Similarly his behavior at the Israeli elections,  his repeated dismissal of threats to curb settlement expansion, and the Knesset’s passing of legislation and laws aligned along disturbingly ethno-nationalist and racist lines have created conditions on the ground which are ripe for violent inter-communal conflict.

In-spite of  its technological and military superiority over the Palestinians, Israel has never been more vulnerable. The Israeli intelligence cannot stop a solitary and frustrated Palestinian from using a rudimentary weapon such as a kitchen knife, a car, a screw-driver, a hammer, a home-made Molotov, a stone, a sling-shot to make a political statement.  Asymmetrical warfare and counterinsurgency against protesters absent a political solution means perpetual warfare.  Adopting Yitzhak Rabin’s ‘break their bones’ policy and downgrading to sticks and cudgels to club and silence protestors, as they did during the first intifada, will only increase international pressure on Israel.  If the Palestinian uprising breaks out and is met with brute force it is the perfect opportunity for Obama to ‘translate his stated convictions into real policies’ and his ‘proposal must state clearly that rejecting American parameters will have consequences, such as the loss of financial support’ and set in motion transformative events in the occupied territories.

Flaunting  these proposals should include boycotts on products and services coming from the occupied territories and settlements, the latter of which represents a form of ethnic cleansing. ‘Ethnic cleansing is a well-defined policy of a particular group of persons to systematically eliminate another group from a given territory on the basis of religious, ethnic or national origin.’ Ethnic cleansing does not have to  constitute slaughtering an ethnic group to accomplish its objective. The settlement project, under the rubric of security, is demolishing Palestinian homes and seeks to eject local Palestinian and minority populations from the territories by encouraging or ignoring settler violence, intimidation, segregation, humiliation and imposing impossible living conditions on Palestinians in Gaza by completely dominating the land, sea and air surrounding the narrow strip.

Protests and violence in the West Bank are being accompanied by the legacy of the 50-day war in Gaza. The 50-day war was a draconian Israeli military operation which destroyed 20% of the Gaza Strip, the population of 1.6 million is set to increase to 2.1 million which is dependent on a trickle of humanitarian aid while reconstruction on $7 billion worth of damage to Palestinian infrastructure in the Gaza Strip has stalled. According to a U.N report ‘in the ‘abscence of sustained and effective remedial action and an enabling political environment…(with) virtually no reliable access to the daily lives of Palestinian Gazans in 2020 will be worse than they are now as safe drinking water, standards of healthcare and good education and the  affordable and reliable electricity  become distant memory.’  The deteriorating socio-economic situation in the Gaza Strip combined with an increase in population will breed extremism, desperation and further resentment against the Israeli security apparatus.

Similarly Israel faces a demographic time-bomb. The Times of Israel showed that ‘statistics indicate there are 6.1 million Jews and nearly 5.8 million Arabs living in the Holy Land, threatening Israel’s Jewish character like never before.’ The refugee problem, a product of the Jewish-Palestinian civil war and the First Arab-Israeli war has remained unresolved. The Palestinians (now Israeli Arabs) who stayed behind, after events in 1947-1948 forced around 750,000 Palestinians to flee, have grown from 150,000 to 1.2 million. In another generation or so there will be demographic parity between Israelis and Palestinians. Bregman argues that once there is a balance between the population of Jews and Arabs, Israel will face two options: ”one to offer them to participate in elections in which case you might have a Palestinian prime minister or to say no we are not going to let you vote in which case you are South Africa.” The latter option is the reality of apartheid.

Nevertheless dismantling the ruthless system established by the Israeli military administrationis one part of the problem. Kissinger’s general analysis in World Orderraises concerns about the future of the Palestinians if and when they secure independence.

“Order…must be cultivated; it cannot be imposed. This is particularly so in an age of instantaneous communication and revolutionary political flux…any system of…order, must be accepeted as just…It must reflect two truths: order without freedom, even if sustained by momentary exaltation, eventually creates its own counterpoise; yet freedom cannot be sustained without a framework of order to keep the peace. Order and freedom, sometimes described as polar opposites, should…be understood as interdependent.”

Credit: Matthew Williams

Credit: Matthew Williams

Israel stands to gain little from its current predicament. It seeks to impose order but the occupation’s short-term efforts to contain and repress Palestinian nationalism, Islamic extremism, protest and violence is exacerbating the long-term problems it will face in the future. As Mark Fiore argues ‘this fight can’t be a good strategic move for the Israel. What better way to prolong terrorism and hatred than by bombing kids…leveling huge chunks of one of the most densely populated cities on earth…Are they trying to make a little Mogadishu on their doorstep?’  Paralleling this inflexible military and political approach is the settlement crisis which is threatening to undo partition of the contested land, and create a bi-national state. The two rival ethnic groups in a generation or two will live intermixed in the same territory in overlapping homogeneous enclaves– an artificially created Bosnia. In a region experiencing severe ethnic, religious, sectarian and political upheaval, this spells future violence.

However aside from the problems on the Israeli side the international community must have a plan for the Palestinians after peace. A peace deal should reflect ‘practical accommodation to reality, not a unique moral insight’ and should be prepared in investing in a self-sufficient Palestinian state. The symbolic protests and push to overthrow oppressive regimes across the Middle East, while originally a welcome sight in regional politics, has been swiftly followed by counter-revolution, internal violence and civil war between political and religious parties vying for power in the political power in many of these countries. The moderates have largely been caught between the well-organised authoritarian security apparatuses and the radical rebel groups who, while possessing radical political agendas, are also well-organised military and political units. What would make an independent but institutionally and politically fragile Palestine an exception to the rule? Will Hamas behind its rhetoric that refuses to recognise Israel compromise behind the scenes?

‘The reality is not everything can be blamed on Tel Aviv. Political infighting, corruption and lack of civil society has fractured Palestinian society.’  There is a need for leadership in Palestinian society and the frustrations currently on display are as much a product of incompetent leadership as they are a product of the occupation. If the shackles of occupation are discarded can the Palestinians operate as an effective state without support from regional and international partners? After all regional Arab governments currently have their own priorities including democratic change, regime survival, counter-revolution and revolution and dealing with the threat of extremism and terror. The Palestinian dispute, while important, has lost its urgency in the Arab world as much as it has in the Western world. Rallying regional actors is equally important to a successful agreement.

It is the perfect storm for a crisis in the Holy Land. However within this storm lies the seeds for a potential renewal of peace talks and the two-state solution if the international community led by the United States (when combined with internal pressure by the Palestinians) force Israel into the corner of compromise. The Middle Eastern wars continue to escalate in their ferocity and a third intifada presents another potential challenge for policymakers struggling to navigate the overlapping conflicts across the region typified by sweeping change, heightened sectarian tensions and revolutionary politics. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, clearly, has not remained isolated from these regional developments and Netanyahu’s unilateral attempts to maintain the current order  have underlined and exacerbated the cost of the occupation for Palestinians and Israelis alike.  The two-state solution needs addressing urgently and the Arab-Israeli conflict remains an integral part of the current Middle Eastern wars and current events in the occupied territories emphasise the need to rejuvenate the peace process or usher in an entirely new peace program and address the bitter inter-communal conflict that has now rolled on for a century.

Matthew Williams