RAMALLAH — The billboards at the northern entrance to Ramallah offer city residents particularly low prices for Hyundai 4×4 vehicles. The ads for the luxury cars make quite a contrast to the sight just a short distance away, on the road from the Israeli checkpoint to what used to be the City Inn Hotel.
The entire road has turned black, far darker than the familiar color of asphalt. Bits of burnt tires lie everywhere, and rising columns of smoke are visible when I pass. During the first days of the Second Intifada, in late September and early October 2000, this was the main site of conflict between Palestinians and Israeli army troops.
Thousands of people, including armed men, came here every day. At first they threw stones, but very quickly they began firing at the headquarters of the IDF’s Judea and Samaria Division. The Israeli army would respond with heavy gunfire and the crowd would disperse in all directions. Snipers from elite IDF units took over the top floors of the City Inn in an effort to strike the armed men, but quite a few unarmed demonstrators were shot as well. Several weeks later, not much was left of the City Inn. While the flags of many countries still flew at the entrance to the building months later, the hotel eventually closed down.
That was 15 years ago. The area has been rebuilt since then. More and more new buildings, together with fancy shopping centers, were constructed in what used to be a war zone. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas lives just a few hundred yards from the junction. A children’s amusement park was built here, together with an enormous monument. The City Inn building was sold and has been under renovation.
But then came the latest escalation, the “Al-Quds” intifada,” and it seems that the hotel building remains cursed. Several dozen, or several hundred, young Palestinians have been gathering here almost every day over the past few weeks to throw stones at Israeli troops, who keep them from approaching the checkpoint.
One Palestinian source claims that the demonstrations at the junction began after settlers attacked the homes of Palestinians who live near the junction. Israeli officials claim that students from Al-Kutla, Hamas’s student association at Birzeit University, provided special transportation to the junction in order to create friction with the Israelis and gain some more points in Palestinian public opinion. Fatah activists, teenagers and children joined the Hamas supporters.
Although the daily crowds are not particularly large, they are large enough to create the renewed sense of a “popular intifada.” The (mostly) knife attacks of this new surge in violence, predominantly in and around Hebron and in Jerusalem, show that something unusual is afoot. Facing Palestinians bent on perpetrating terror attacks and willing to die in the attempt, security forces face a near-insurmountable challenge, especially when there is no terrorist infrastructure, no commanding officer, no single person or small group in charge.
The new ‘normal’?
It may be a new model of intifada, but contrary to the opinion of several commentators and experts, it will not be going away anytime soon.
The incitement to violence is not coming entirely from the Palestinian establishment (though there is some of that too). It is much more dangerous: it is grassroots, with people using social media to bring others on board. Every attacker who is killed and every demonstrator who is wounded brings in a few more potential terrorists. It is just like the Hydra of classical mythology, a many-headed monster who grew two heads for each one cut off.
This new intifada has succeeded in rousing the Israeli public from its apathy toward the goings-on in the Palestinian arena. Abbas, Fatah and Hamas are all back in the headlines — in negative contexts, to be sure — and suddenly familiar voices are being heard regarding the need for a political arrangement or for separation. The terrorists have succeeded in creating an understandable panic, sometimes hysteria, in Israel. The incident that took place on Wednesday night in Jerusalem — the killing of a yeshiva student in a bizarre case of mistaken identity — is evidence of that.
Ramallah, by contrast, seems relatively indifferent. On Wednesday morning, the downtown area was full of merchants, shoppers, vehicles. All the talk in the Palestinian media about the “Al-Quds Intifada” seemed almost disconnected from day-to-day life here. The Ramallah café above Abu Amar Square seemed peaceful and calm, as did its patrons. Palestine Today’s special television broadcast showed what was going on in other areas of the West Bank, mainly Hebron, but nobody seemed too interested. Intifada 3.0 may be raging in the streets of Jerusalem and Hebron, but here, at least, most of the people appeared preoccupied with making a living.
That is not to say that all in Ramallah are unsympathetic to the new wave of Palestinian attackers. Jawad, who owns the florist shop next door to the café, launched into a political monologue as he prepared a bouquet of roses. He said that the entire Palestinian public sees the terror attacks (“actions,” he called them) as a legitimate response to Israel’s purported damaging of Al-Aqsa Mosque and alleged settler attacks.
‘We want peace and don’t want war… But the settlers’ attacks on Palestinians have got to stop’
“For us, they are gangs of criminals, and the attacks on Jews are nothing more than a protest,” he said. “We want peace and don’t want war; let me be clear about that. But the settlers’ attacks on Palestinians have got to stop.”
Mohammed, who owns the natural juice store in nearby Manara Square, declared that this is not an intifada, yet. “In the current situation, the Israelis understand only force. When they feel a lack of security, they search for a solution. It has never mattered to them until now. Ninety percent of the public supports ‘actions’ [terror attacks] today, and even the Palestinian Authority and the security services do not condemn them.”
“The Palestinian Authority cannot force the Palestinians to be inactive,” he said. It can’t, certainly not at a time when it is not providing solutions. They are trying to calm things down, but they know that they have no ability to do more than that.”
Mohammed, whose juice shop is considered particularly popular, laid out the political-diplomatic situation of the Palestinian Authority and its leader in precise terms. On the one hand, he explained, the PA security agencies work to prevent terror attacks on Israelis and even prevent gunfire from within demonstrations. Yet on the other, they will not attempt to stop demonstrations completely, and the PA and Abbas will not come out and condemn the terror attacks. The current situation is dangerous to the PA — “the tiger” could easily burst out of control — but for now it has no alternative. It has found a fairly comfortable middle ground: maintaining relative stability in the West Bank, arresting anything that even smells like organized terrorism, certainly if originating from Hamas; allowing demonstrators to let off steam at friction points such as the Beit El junction; not condemning terror attacks in Jerusalem and Hebron. The least bad of all worlds.
Demands that Netanyahu won’t meet
Palestinian Authority officials are well aware that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is under pressure. His assertion this week that Haj Amin al-Husseini, the grand mufti of Jerusalem, persuaded Adolf Hitler to carry out genocide was seen as proof of that. Palestinian Authority officials also think they know what happens when Netanyahu is under pressure. He withdraws, as he did from most of Hebron when violence spiraled following the opening of the Western Wall tunnel entrance on the Via Dolorosa in 1996.
This has given rise to an entire plan by the Palestinian Authority to put pressure on Israel in order to wrest substantial concessions from it. PA officials have made a list of demands that they will present to US Secretary of State John Kerry when he meets with Abbas on Saturday. The list seems unrealistic; perhaps the hope is that some if not all of the demands will be met.
The Palestinians’ demands are divided into three parts. In the long term, the Palestinians are asking to resume peace talks, with a limited timetable, for a Palestinian state based on the 1967 lines. In the medium term, the PA wants a series of meetings to discuss interim agreements previously signed by both sides that deal with security and economic arrangements. And in the short term, Israel is asked to take a series of additional measures such as stopping land expropriations, transferring parts of Area C to the Palestinian Authority’s control, stopping violence by settlers and, above all, restoring the status quo that prevailed on the Temple Mount before then opposition leader Ariel Sharon’s visit there in September 2000 — in other words, that the Waqf should decide who visits and when, including Jewish and other non-Muslim groups, rather than the Israel Police, which has been in charge of that decision since 2003.
When it is suggested to high-ranking Palestinian Authority officials in Ramallah that Netanyahu would not agree to such measures, and that agreeing to them would lead to the fall of his government, they did not seem too upset. “If there are no dramatic Israeli measures, we will stop the security coordination,” they threatened. As far as they are concerned, Israel is the only one that stands to lose in the current situation. The Palestinian Authority has no ability to control things on the ground in any case.
Netanyahu seems light-years away from agreeing to the Palestinians’ many demands; he is certainly not about to give the Waqf full authority over Jewish visitors to the holiest place in Judaism.
Arab sources said this week that Netanyahu had sent a proposal to King Abdullah of Jordan that Israel would reduce the number of Jewish visitors to the Temple Mount in return for a joint call for calm. But for the king and Abbas that is an insulting offer. Roughly 12,000 Jews go up to the Temple Mount every year; cutting that to, say, 11,000, would make no difference. (Netanyahu’s bureau denied making the offer.)
The enormous gap between what Abbas and Abdullah say Netanyahu needs to do to bring about calm, and what he would or politically could do, leads to a fairly bleak conclusion — there seems to be no “exit strategy” for a surge in terror and violence that is showing every sign of becoming the new routine.
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