Israel and the Palestinians slide deeper into conflict

Stabbing attacks are multiplying, PA security forces are shrinking away in the West Bank, the IDF is getting more deeply involved and more Palestinians are joining the clashes

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Palestinians pray as Israeli policemen watch in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Wadi al-Joz, October 9, 2015. Israeli police declared an age limit on Friday for Palestinians wanting to enter the Old City, only allowing males above the age of 45 and all females to enter. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Palestinians pray as Israeli policemen watch in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Wadi al-Joz, October 9, 2015. Israeli police declared an age limit on Friday for Palestinians wanting to enter the Old City, only allowing males above the age of 45 and all females to enter. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The events of the last few days show a deeply alarming trend: Three or more Palestinians, mostly East Jerusalemites, are daily attacking Israelis — knowing that they are likely to die in the attempt. These are a kind of suicide attacks. They are far less devastating than the bus and restaurant and market bombings of the Second Intifada, but they are motivated by the assailants’ desire to become martyrs. The upsurge of these kinds of attacks is all the more disquieting given that the overwhelming majority of them are not organized by a terror group or known orchestrator, but rather are carried out by “lone wolf” terrorists.

This simply didn’t happen at this kind of rate during the Second Intifada. At its height, in the spring of 2002, that strategic onslaught of terrorism was producing horrific suicide bombings every few days. But today, we have entered an almost surreal reality of attack after attack every day, mostly carried out by young Palestinians (mostly, but not only male) with no known previous involvement in terrorism, willing to kill and to die “for Jerusalem” and “for al-Aqsa.”

Is the day drawing near when one of the terrorist organizations will try to initiate a Second Intifada-style suicide bombing inside Israel? For now, at least, there is no intelligence information indicating this. But that does not mean no such plans exist.

Hamas does not want to declare all-out war against Israel, and to completely destroy its relations with the Palestinian Authority. Therefore, it apparently will not initiate this kind of attack. The same can be said of Fatah’s well-armed Tanzim forces. But it may well be that within Islamic Jihad, with the encouragement of the Iranians, there may be those who will — if only to “steal the show” and show up the “paralysis” of the rival terror groups.

Even without these kinds of bombings, the relentless daily attacks are sowing fear and deep disquiet among Israelis. This is a kind of assault not previously encountered. The closest precedent was a rash of knifings in 1990, on a much smaller scale, also motivated by concern for ostensible threats to the al-Aqsa Mosque.

Part of Israelis’ concerns stem from uncertainty: what exactly are we facing, and how is it going to develop? It’s not (yet) a popular uprising. In the Palestinian twittersphere, some are calling it the “al-Quds Intifada” — the Jerusalem uprising — much like the al-Aqsa Intifada of 15 years ago. But that’s just what would-be opinion-shapers are branding it. Are we truly entering a Third Intifada? It’s still hard to say with any certainty. Something has clearly shifted, however, and things are unlikely to revert to the way they were. The status quo that has prevailed since 2007, rooted in close coordination between the Israeli and PA security hierarchies, is coming to an end.

Uncomfortable meeting

The crack, or possibly the rift, in security ties between Israel and the PA is not official, and may not be irreversible. Nobody on the Palestinian side has formally declared that coordination is over. Quite the opposite. PA President Mahmoud Abbas is ostensibly maintaining it. His security chiefs met with their Israeli counterparts this week, despite all the problematics and sensitivities of such a meeting at a time like this.

Word of the meeting leaked out, and the PA promptly denied that it had taken place, claiming that it had rebuffed an Israeli invitation to meet. In fact, according to an Israeli source, PA officials — including Nidal Abu-Dahan, the head of PA National Security, Intelligence chief Majed Faraj and Preventive Security chief Ziad Habalreeh — discussed ways to calm the situation with their Israeli counterparts. The PA officials emphatically did not announce an end to the coordination, or any plans for such a rupture.

In fact, earlier this week, PA security officials safely extracted Israeli solders who had entered PA territory by mistake, and also carried out a series of more than 20 arrests among Hamas activists.

But the PA security chiefs did, nonetheless, convey a sense of disquiet to the Israelis. What they were wondering was, what happens next? As in, if they help calm the situation, and thwart the upsurge in attacks, what will the Israeli government do for the PA? Faraj, who is regarded as particularly close to Abbas, was one of the officials making this concern clear, the source said.

Israeli suggestions to withdraw forces from certain areas, and allow the PA to deploy there, were met with hesitancy. For instance, there was talk of the PA placing forces at the northern entrance to Ramallah, across from the IDF’s Judea and Samaria HQ. The Israelis pointed out that it was an affront to the PA for Palestinian youths, including Hamas supporters, to be running riot so close to the PA’s own West Bank capital. But the PA officials were disinclined to act decisively to completely douse a fire they feel was started by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his ministers surrounding al-Aqsa.

There was also talk of encouraging a greater Jordanian role regarding the contested holy site, specifically for King Abdullah to reassert a more direct role in the oversight of the Muslim holy places there. Such a move, it was thought, might constitute another de-escalating step, to follow up on Netanyahu’s ban on MKs and ministers, Jewish and Muslim, from visiting the site.

In truth, however, another reason for the PA security chiefs’ hesitation was that most of the demonstrations taking place in West Bank cities in recent days and weeks have been organized by Fatah activists, not senior Fatah officials directed by Abbas, but Fatah and Tanzim figures some of whom are close to the leadership and some of whom directly work in the Fatah bureaucracy. The PA security apparatuses have no interest in entering into confrontations with these people. And the absence of the PA forces was indeed conspicuous this week during clashes in Bethlehem, Tulkarem and Ramallah.

This may also explain the dramatic rise in the numbers participating in these protests and clashes. Now, hundreds are gathering — 10 times as many as was the case a mere two or three weeks ago.

Fatah wants to play a role in the confrontation against Israel, in part so as no to lose more of the Palestinian street to Hamas. All this unsurprisingly hinders Israeli-PA security coordination. And that’s not about to change.

The bottom line: The PA forces no longer can, and no longer want to, do what they were doing a few short weeks ago.

A case in point: Three days ago, gunmen from Ramallah opened fire at an IDF command post in Beit El. These were Fatah-Tanzim gunmen. The PA security forces told them to desist, but it is unlikely that this order will be heeded for long.

Abbas’s thinking

It may be that the current situation has its perceived benefits for Abbas. He’s not ripping up relations with Israel altogether, and he is not directly responsible for the deteriorating situation. But the escalation is producing so much anxiety in Israel that, Abbas may be calculating, Netanyahu may resort to widening his coalition, to bring in the center-left National Union, and perhaps even freezing settlement construction.

In this context, Abbas’s insistent refusal to condemn the terror attacks is telling. In the past, he did condemn all attacks and bloodshed. This time, he has been silent, and his Fatah colleagues have been hailing and praising the attacks.

The breach between Israel and Abbas, as reflected in his speech to the UN General Assembly last week, was followed, predictably, by the planned dispatch by Abbas of a delegation to Gaza to discuss a unity government with Hamas, except that Hamas refused to host Abbas’s emissaries.

Again, it is not impossible that this new wave of terror will be calmed for a while. But the fundamental causes will remain. The coals will keep burning unless or until there is a substantive diplomatic process — even in the highly unlikely event that the specific issue of al-Aqsa is effectively addressed.

For now, the cycle of violence is well and truly in motion: Palestinian attacks, in some cases bringing Jewish “revenge” attacks, and more Palestinian attacks, and wider Palestinian demonstrations, with a rising insistence by Fatah that it play a role. The PA security forces shrink away. The IDF has to intervene more directly — as in this week’s operation by undercover forces near Beit El. And the deterioration accelerates.

Last weekend, after the terror attack near Itamar in which Naama and Eitam Henkin were gunned down in front of their children, some 40 incidents of Jewish attacks on Palestinians were reported. That constitutes a portent of what could unfold during the olive-picking season, which is now getting under way. Each week’s Friday prayers constitute another event that potentially widens Palestinian participation in protest and violence in Jerusalem and the West Bank.

In a classic Catch-22, each new Palestinian terror attack prompts pressure on the government to cancel work permits for tens of thousands of West Bank Palestinians in Israel and for the imposition of a closure on the territories — as Zionist Union’s Isaac Herzog, of all people, urged on Thursday. Such a step would likely be disastrous, and would probably mean that rather than 3,000 Palestinians participating in West Bank protests against the IDF, we would see 30,000 or more.

At which point, any attempt to halt a popular uprising would become almost impossible.

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