Is Mahmoud Abbas to blame for the recent terror attacks?
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Is Mahmoud Abbas to blame for the recent terror attacks?

After synagogue bloodbath, many world leaders joined Israel in condemning incitement and pointing at PA chief, though Shin Bet says he isn’t responsible

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas addresses a rally commemorating the fifth anniversary of Yasser Arafat's death in the West Bank city of Ramallah, 2009. (photo credit: Issam Rimawi/Flash 90, file)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas addresses a rally commemorating the fifth anniversary of Yasser Arafat's death in the West Bank city of Ramallah, 2009. (photo credit: Issam Rimawi/Flash 90, file)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s response to the latest wave of unrest and terrorism, which culminated Tuesday morning in a deadly killing spree at a Jerusalem synagogue, can be divided into three subcategories — operational, political, and diplomatic.

On the ground, he ordered an increase of security forces in the streets and instructed authorities to destroy the homes of terrorists. He also initiated legislative initiatives, such as changing the law so as to allow the interior minister to revoke the citizenship of Israeli Arabs who call for the destruction of the state.

On the diplomatic front, the prime minister’s efforts focused on lamenting Palestinian incitement, crying foul over continuous anti-Israeli agitation, especially from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Atypically, Netanyahu has been talking more about incitement than about Iran in recent speeches and meetings with world leaders.

During brief comments before his recent meeting with the European Union’s new foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, for instance, he used the word “incitement” four times. During an address to the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly last Wednesday, he uttered it eight times.

Netanyahu has good reasons for doing so. Earlier this month, Abbas called on Palestinians to prevent Jews from entering Jerusalem’s Temple Mount “by any means possible.” A few days later, he warned against extremist Jews “contaminating” the Temple Mount compound. He also praised Rabbi Yehudah Glick’s attempted assassin as “a martyr defending the rights of our people and its holy places.”

There can be no denying that these comments, plus those made by other senior officials in the PA and his Fatah movement, did their part to increase the tensions, inspiring many angry Palestinians to take out their frustration in violent ways.

So can Abbas be held responsible for Tuesday’s cruel terror attack by having rhetorically fertilized the ground for it? (He quickly condemned it, at the Americans’ explicit request.)

The Israeli government’s answer was an unequivocal yes. “This is the direct result of the incitement being led by Hamas and Abu Mazen [Abbas], incitement which the international community is irresponsibly ignoring,” Netanyahu said on Thursday morning, minutes after the attack occurred. Later, at an evening press conference, he went even further, asserting that incitement lies at the very core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a statement to the media at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, November 18, 2014. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a statement to the media at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, November 18, 2014. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“There is daily, even hourly, incitement on the streets of the Palestinian Authority,” he said. “There, not only do the most reprehensible murderers become the heroes of Palestinian culture, but there is unending, constant incitement against the very existence of the State of Israel, against the security of Israel’s citizens, in schools, the media, mosques, everywhere, and this is the root of the conflict: The refusal to recognize — and educate for — the existence of the state of the Jews.”

The blame for the attack “rests entirely” with Abbas, agreed Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman. “The systematic incitement he leads against Jews, including his statement that impure Jews may not enter the Temple Mount, provides the guidance for such heinous attacks.” Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett made similar statements.

A screenshot from a cartoon published on the Facebook page of the Fatah movement depicting three Jews fleeing as a car driven by a Palestinian tries to run them over.
A cartoon published on the Facebook page of Abbas’s Fatah movement depicting three Jews fleeing as a car driven by a Palestinian tries to run them over.

“While we make an effort and call for calm, the brutal incitement of the leaders of the Palestinian Authority continues and worsens,” echoed Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein. “Their dispatchers are not repulsed from murdering worshipers inside the synagogue sanctuary itself.”

President Reuven Rivlin praised Abbas for condemning the attack. “However, that is not enough, he must act vigorously against incitement,” he added. “We keep hearing of incitement against Israel. These things should not happen.”

Many in the international community seem to agree with the Israeli government, and as condemnations of the attack poured in from world leaders Tuesday, many picked up on the incitement theme. The EU’s Mogherini, for instance, did not mention Abbas by name but presumably had him in mind when she called on the sides to “refrain from any action that would worsen the situation by way of incitement.”

US Secretary of State John Kerry said, strikingly, that the attack was a “pure result of incitement of calls for days of rage,” when calling on the Palestinian leadership to condemn this act. “They must begin to take serious steps to restrain any kind of incitement that comes from their language, from other people’s language, and exhibit the kind of leadership that is necessary to put this region on a different path.”

Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird declared that “any statements of incitement are completely irresponsible. Those leaders who regularly issue them cannot plead ignorance or look the other way when terrorist attacks like today’s occur.”

The National Jewish Democratic Council said the attack “taking place as it did, so far from the neighborhood in which the terrorists lived, represents a premeditation that was encouraged by incitement from within their community.”

US Senator Rand Paul, a Republican, said: “This is a horrific act of violence that should be universally condemned. We must demand that Palestinian leaders stop the incitement, which they have committed in word and in deed.”

The list goes on.

“Incitement yields terror” seemed to be the unanimous diagnosis of the current crisis. With Abbas firmly in the culprit’s seat.

Enter Shin Bet chief Yoram Cohen. “Abu Mazen [Abbas] is not interested in terror and is not leading towards terror,” he said Tuesday during a hearing at the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. “He is also not doing that under the table.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Shin Bet intelligence chief Yoram Cohen at the Israel Defense Forces headquarters in Tel Aviv, July 2014 (photo credit: Haim Zach/GPO/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Shin Bet intelligence chief Yoram Cohen at the Israel Defense Forces headquarters in Tel Aviv, July 2014 (photo credit: Haim Zach/GPO/Flash90)

Abbas is not calling for violence; his men are also not involved in stirring up tensions among Palestinians in East Jerusalem, Cohen said. On the contrary, Abbas is opposed to a Third Intifada, he asserted.

To be sure, Cohen did say that Abbas’s words — especially his appeals to “protect” the al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount — could be interpreted by some as a call to arms. “There are figures among the Palestinian community who are likely to take the criticism given by Abbas as a legitimization for action.” And yet, his testimony to the Knesset seemed to clearly contradict the narrative of the country’s political leadership, the narrative gaining international traction.

Netanyahu rejects the notion that Cohen contradicted him. “There is no gulf between me and the head of the Shin Bet,” he insisted during his Thursday evening press conference. It’s true that Abbas doesn’t send out terrorists or directly promote terror attacks, the prime minister allowed. But, Netanyahu went on, the PA, which Abbas heads, and he himself, sometimes say things that “do promote terrorism in the sense that they incite violence in the people who hear these things.”

Science Minister Yaakov Peri, a former Shin Bet chief, agreed that Cohen and Netanyahu don’t necessarily contradict each other, but leaned some way toward Netanyahu’s assessment. “Abbas is inciting,” he said. By holding provocative speeches and praising terrorists, added Peri, Abbas is definitely contributing to a hostile atmosphere in which more and more Palestinians feel emboldened to attack Israelis. Still, he cautioned, that’s not the same as actively encouraging physical violence against Israelis.

In other words: By using inflammatory and incendiary language, Abbas might be fanning the flames of a Palestinian street already ablaze with hateful passion. But he cannot be directly held responsible for the execution of deadly terror attacks.

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