Israel, the Palestinians, and the question of governability – days of unrest ahead
The situation between Israel and the Palestinians has not been calm for decades. Now there are signs that a new wave of terror and violence is expected in the coming weeks.
Sadly, looking at the history of this conflict, this seems all too familiar. Yet, this time there is a new element – authority and governability on both sides has become a central factor feeding the escalation that might reach new heights very soon.
The Palestinians – lack of governance
In one corner is the Palestinian Authority (PA). Formed in the 1993 Oslo Accords, 30 years later it is a weak, corrupt and deeply indebted government. Five years of the Second Intifada, in which thousands of Israelis and Palestinians lost their lives in terror attacks and clashes, ended in 2005 after Israel systematically diminished terror groups’ capabilities.
Since then, all attempts to reach peace have failed, and no Palestinian state has been created, due to the intransigence of the Palestinian leadership, while the number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank has grown dramatically.
The Palestinians fell into a bloody internal feud, eventually breaking up in 2007 to two sub-entities: the PA-controlled West Bank and the Gaza strip, run by the radical Islamist Hamas terror organisation.
The PA is dependent on foreign funding, including money transferred from Israel – tax on Palestinians working inside Israel. Yet, Fatah, the organisation in charge of the PA, is wasting millions on fighting internal opposition and corruption.
In addition, it ‘invests’ millions in hefty dividends to Palestinians engaged in terror, alive or dead, in prison or to their families (pay-for-slay). The ageing 87-year-old Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) ‘celebrates’ 18 years of his four-year term in power as the PA’s President with no elections in sight.
The PA’s inability to assert authority is now acute in the northern part of Samaria in the West Bank, from Jenin to Nablus. In these lawless areas, Iran-funded Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and Hamas militant gangs terrorise the population and execute terror attacks on Israelis. Non-stop friction with Israeli forces, who are forced to step in instead of the incapable PA security forces, leads to more anger, as hatred is taught in schools and incitement is running wild on social media, calling on Palestinians to become ‘martyrs’ by killing Jews.
Israel – aspiring to regain governability
In the other corner stands a new Israeli government. Often labelled ‘the most right-wing (and religious)’ in history, it is headed by veteran Israeli PM Binyamin (Bibi) Netanyahu who presides over a coalition of ultra-orthodox and far right parties, as well as his own centre-right Likud.
The rise of the right in Israel also started after the Second Intifada. Israelis are not hopeful when they examine their neighbourhood. They see non-stop Palestinian terror of many types (rockets from Gaza, gunfire, knife stabbings etc.), and continued Palestinian rejectionism of what Israelis conceive as several painful compromise actions (for example, retreating from parts of the West Bank and leaving the Gaza Strip).
Israelis are also deeply worried about Iran’s aggressive activity across the Middle East to spread instability and terror, as Teheran is secretly developing nuclear weapons and openly threatening to destroy Israel. As a result, while the Israeli economy and democracy continue to thrive, public opinion has turned more and more hawkish.
This is the petri dish that spawned hardline right-wing politicians Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, who is notorious for inciting in the 1990s against PM Yitzhak Rabin. Shortly after signing the Oslo Accords, Rabin was murdered in 1995 by right-wing extremist Yigal Amir.
This is where governability and sovereignty become relevant to the uptick in tensions. Both Smotrich and Ben-Gvir believe in Israel’s right to fully annex the West Bank and deny Palestinian nationalism. To get /be elected, Smotrich promised his constituents, many of which reside in West Bank settlements, to install Israeli authority in these areas. Now Smotrich has ministerial powers that can potentially and gradually de-facto do so.
Ben-Gvir chose to run on a ticket of restoring security to Israelis, arguing Israel’s sovereignty needs to be revamped as a deterrent against terror. He touted tougher measures to reduce the high crime levels among Arab citizens of Israel (especially in the South). He is also advocating for harsh punishments for Palestinian terrorists, including the death penalty (only invoked in Israel against Nazi criminals). And, as the minister in charge of Palestinian prisoners in Israel, he is vowing to further harden their lives in incarceration.
This is a sensitive topic within Palestinian society, which sees the prisoners as hero warriors. The latter have already started warning of riots and violence in jail if Ben-Gvir has his way.
The latest escalation began in January. Clashes with the IDF, which is in the midst of a months-long ongoing anti-terror operation (‘Breaking the wave’) in the ungoverned areas of the West Bank, have resulted in more than 30 Palestinian deaths, almost all of them gunmen.
Acting on specific intel warnings of an imminent major terror attack, the IDF raided the Jenin refugee camp on 26 January. During the fighting 10 Palestinians were killed – eight terrorists and two innocent civilians.
Then terror hit the capital. On Saturday, 28 January, a Palestinian gunned down seven Jews outside a synagogue as they were finishing prayers in a suburb on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Shortly afterwards, a 13-year-old Palestinian shot and wounded two Jews in a street just outside the old city. Riots in Arab neighbourhoods of east Jerusalem also erupted. In Palestinian cities, locals ‘celebrated’ the deaths of Israelis with fireworks and by handing out sweets.
Why is a surge in violence expected?
Israel’s security forces report foiling hundreds of terror operations over the past few months, and many more are in the making. Several factors explain why escalation may be just around the corner.
First, we are quickly approaching the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, which begins on 22 March. Last year saw a significant spike in Palestinian terror in the leadup to and during Ramadan, leaving 20 Israelis killed. Incitement for terror reaches new heights during this period, rallying Palestinians around the myth that “Al-Aqsa is in danger” from Israel.
Ben Gvir’s stated policy feeds this false narrative – to symbolise Israel’s control over the holy places in Jerusalem, soon after being nominated as Internal Security Minister, Ben Gvir while formally complying with established status-quo visiting rule, nonetheless provocatively and defiantly visited the Temple Mount – a site sacred for Jews as the place of the ancient Temple, and for Muslims as the location of the Al-Aqsa mosque.
External factors are also at play. From the Gaza Strip, Fatah’s arch enemies – Hamas and PIJ –relentlessly increase their efforts to undermine the PA’s power, sending money, weapons and operatives to the West Bank.
Desperation is rife in the Palestinian camp. They gloomily view the current Israeli Government as extreme, while their own Government, the PA, is a de-facto failed entity. The ‘day-after’ Abbas, bloody and violent conflict is looming. Terror against Israel is encouraged, with PA officials actively participating in incitement – for example, the curriculum in Palestinian schools and official PA-TV urge Palestinians to kill Jews and glorify ‘martyr’ terrorists.
Many eyes will be examining how PM Netanyahu will manage an expected upcoming crisis. After successfully rebranding himself as the responsible, mature captain of his government, he will need to find a policy that will both curb Palestinian terror and rein in Ben-Gvir and Smotrich.