Nobody knows whether this unprecedented spate of Palestinian “suicide stabbings,” combined with a dismally familiar upsurge in West Bank clashes, Gaza rocket fire, Israeli counterstrikes, Israeli Arab demonstrations, right-wing extremist violence, and more such grisly stuff constitutes the start of another protracted round of conflict.
But the portents are not good. This is a stabbing war born of insistent, hysterical intolerance. And the proven futility of spilling more blood — the sheer sickening, depressing futility of it all — is all too evidently no deterrent.
This flareup stems from the energetic dissemination of the false claim that Israel is about to permit Jews to pray on the Temple Mount, and/or otherwise change the policies that Israel has maintained at arguably the world’s most incendiary holy site. The lie has been assiduously spread by enemies like Hamas, Fatah, and the extremist Northern Branch of Israel’s Islamic Movement, widely peddled in mosques and on social media, and bolstered too by spectacularly irresponsible Israeli Arab politicians, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (who used the UN General Assembly platform to accuse Israel of sending “extremists” into Al-Aqsa Mosque) and those Israeli Jewish right-wing leaders who have misleadingly and pyromaniacally asserted that the Netanyahu government is weighing new policies.
Netanyahu himself should have acted more speedily than he did to ban MKs from deliberately provocative visits to the Mount, and to distance himself and his government more decisively from the right-wing talk of possible changes to a half-century’s “status quo.” When an Israeli minister breaches the prohibition on Jewish prayer during a filmed visit to the Mount — step forward Jewish Home’s Uri Ariel — the entire Muslim world is watching.
As we are now witnessing — every few hours in recent days — impressionable young Palestinians have been persuaded that their God requires them to kill, and if necessary be killed, to “protect Al-Aqsa.” Words are fueling murderous deeds in this latest iteration of the conflict; urgently needed now are different words — honest, wise and sensitive words, by responsible leaders — to help begin the process of trying to de-escalate it.
It’s not that often that I feel moved to praise the pronouncements of Secretary of State John Kerry, but he hit the nail on the head this weekend in stressing the importance of upholding the status quo at the al-Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount “in word and deed.”
The situation is not yet irreversible, but we’re certainly on a slippery slope. The fragile mosaic of our daily lives in these parts is starting to crack. We Jews and Muslims live in constant contact. And banal contact, these days, is a source of fear.
My journey to work begins not far from two Palestinian villages that sit within Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries and from where Molotov cocktail and stone-throwing attacks have become frequent of late. It takes me past Abu Tor, a mixed neighborhood currently overflowing with tension, where a Palestinian youth was shot at the weekend as he threw a firebomb at troops during a demonstration. Nearby is the Sultan’s Pool, where the fact that an outdoor concert by ex-Haredi rapper Matisyahu passed without terror incident on Saturday was cause for relieved celebration. A ten-minute walk from our office is the Old City, where the threat of stabbings has now reached such heights that police have deployed metal detectors at various entrances to provide psychological comfort; practically, of course, they are of negligent value: Jews are being attacked with knives, screwdrivers and scissors, all of which are as plentiful in the Old City’s shops and homes — on the supposedly “safe” side of the metal detectors — as in any other neighborhood. Similarly, security guards at shopping malls are checking everybody’s bags and clothes more carefully now — which is admirable in theory, except that Israelis waiting in line for security checks make for a particularly vulnerable target.
In the stabbing-wary Israel of October 2015, Jews are crossing the road to avoid Arabs and so, too, are Arabs crossing the road to avoid Jews. Here’s an irony: the safest pedestrian combination these days may well be a Jew and Arab side by side.
Abbas’s last chance
At the root of this already bitter, potentially dire new lurch into bloodshed, as ever, is the clash of narratives — and it is to that battlefield that responsible leaders are now urgently called.
The most disappointing personality, in this context, and the man who could do the most to help lower the flames is Abbas. While not directly fostering terrorism, Abbas seems to be morphing increasingly into his late, unlamented predecessor. Where Yasser Arafat assured his people that there were no Jewish temples in Jerusalem and thus no historical legitimacy for modern Jewish statehood, Abbas now derides the notion of a Jewish connection to the Temple Mount and vows that the Palestinian flag will fly “over all the walls of Jerusalem.” Even as he asserts his opposition to violence, he has helped parlay the lie about threats to Al-Aqsa; for months, he has allowed his Fatah loyalists to encourage car-ramming and other terror attacks to ostensibly safeguard the mosque; he continually sends feelers for unity arrangements with the Islamist murderers of Hamas; he turns a willful blind eye to the desecration of Al-Aqsa by the Palestinian agitators who take weapons into it and use it as a military base for violent confrontation with Israeli forces.
His defenders say we’ll miss him when he’s gone, and his successor will indeed almost certainly be more extreme. But as things stand, Abbas’s will be a legacy of failure — for his people and ours: Israel, no matter that it must separate from the Palestinians to maintain its Jewish character, its democracy and its soul, dare not entrust sovereign legitimacy to a Palestinian nation that is not truly prepared to live alongside what it acknowledges is a rooted, legitimate, revived Jewish state. And Abbas, in his effort for statehood, has self-defeatingly chosen to ignore that awkward fact. Until the Palestinians internalize Israel’s right to be here — here, of all places — their quest for independence is doomed.
There is an almost surreal aspect to this particular eruption of conflict: Israel has been plunged into a terror war because of a false assertion that it intends to allow Jewish prayer at the holiest place in Judaism. This rather begs the question of why Israel would not allow Jewish prayer at the holiest place in Judaism, which it captured and liberated, to a great outpouring of Jewish emotion in the 1967 war.
The answer? Utilizing the rabbinical halachic consensus that forbids Jews from setting foot on the Temple Mount for fear of desecrating the site of the Holy of Holies, Israel’s defense minister 48 years ago, Moshe Dayan, took the pragmatic decision not to fully realize renewed Jewish sovereignty at the Temple Mount, and therefore not to risk a religious confrontation with the Muslim world. Instead, Israel opted to bar Jewish prayer there and to permit the Jordanian-run Waqf authority to continue to administer the Muslim holy places. That Israeli forbearance has all too evidently been misunderstood and misrepresented among many Palestinians as evidence that the Jewish state has no genuine attachment to the Mount. That Israeli forbearance is now rewarded with violence.
Just as Israel must acknowledge and respect the Muslim attachment to the Haram al-Sharif — as its policies since 1967 have done — so, too, the Palestinians must acknowledge and respect the Jewish attachment to the Temple Mount. Arafat emphatically failed to do so. Abbas now has what may be one last chance.
Not everybody will heed him, but he remains a relatively credible, relatively moderate figure. And de-escalating this round of conflict is as important for Palestinians’ interests as it is for Israelis’.
There will be no Palestinian state unless or until Israelis can begin to believe that the Palestinians genuinely seek co-existence. The particular nature of this phase of violence, the specific ostensible cause, is bloodily indicating to Israelis the absolute opposite: It suggests that the Palestinians have a knife-wielding, even suicidal intolerance for the Jewish state’s connection to Judaism’s holiest place, and that Moshe Dayan’s historic decision in 1967 has hardened intransigence rather than encouraged the reciprocal imperative for understanding and compromise.