Headlines predicting the outbreak of a third intifada have proved wrong one more time, at least for now. This is the main conclusion from Tuesday's incidents in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Nonetheless, it seems that another substantial Israeli-Palestinian clash, with Jerusalem in the middle, is getting increasingly closer.
Tuesday's violent demonstrations occurred mostly in the villages around Jerusalem: Qalandiyah, Shuafat, Isawiyah, Al-Suwaneh and Abu Dis. There were also incidents in Hebron, in an area near the homes of settlers, and in Bil'in. But these were not mass demonstrations and their explosive potential was contained in large part because of the firm, albeit relatively restrained, response by the Jerusalem police. The police described the incidents during the past two days as a blatant failure of the Palestinians, both the Palestinian Authority and its Hamas rivals, to set the territories ablaze.
The village of Al-Suwaneh, which is on the foothills of the Old City, was one of the epicenters of Tuesday's confrontations. The security forces dispersed several dozen Palestinian stone-throwers without much effort. Once more it was shown that arrests by undercover policemen in broad daylight may be a greater deterrent (and of course a lot less damaging) than live fire against demonstrators.
Even though the young Palestinians arrested by undercover members of the Border Police will probably complain about the beatings they received, none of them needed to be hospitalized. Thus the police avoided adding fuel to the fire that Hamas and the Islamic Movement were trying to light. In a few hours, starting after noon, relative calm was restored to East Jerusalem. This happened despite the wild incitement in the Arab media of recent days, particularly in the Palestinian media, which aimed to encourage an outburst over the Temple Mount and launch what is already being called the Al-Quds intifada.
In a troubling and dangerous move, Hamas politicians like Khaled Meshal and Mahmoud al-Zahar joined forces with the heads of the Islamic Movement, who need confrontations over Al-Aqsa to receive heavy media exposure. Senior Fatah and PA officials joined the fray.
In this internal competition, and even though the demonstrations did not turn into a significant event, Hamas can register some achievements. On Tuesday, in the demonstrations organized by Hamas under the banner "Day of Rage," more people took to the streets in the West Bank and East Jerusalem than in similar demonstrations organized by Fatah the day before. Hamas still has a substantial support base in East Jerusalem as a result of the Islamic Movement's efforts. The Israeli Arab movement is proving capable of substantial organizational skill. Its blatant involvement in the events should certainly be cause for concern for political and security decision-makers.
Even though the events on Tuesday were more serious than anything similar over the past two years, it still resembled an intifada lite. The events contributed to the double game being played by the Palestinian Authority which on one hand takes part in incitement while on the other hand does not permit demonstrations in Palestinian cities that could flow out to IDF checkpoints. It was hard to find any passion in the demonstrators' eyes. By 1 P.M. some of the stone-throwers got into their cars in Al-Suwaneh and went back to their jobs - which meant going back to the Israeli companies many of them work for. In East Jerusalem, as in the West Bank cities, fatigue is discernible. The threat to the Temple Mount is not perceived as clear and present, despite efforts to incite.
Presumably, most Palestinians recognize that the restoration of a centuries-old Jewish synagogue in the Jewish Quarter does not in any way endanger the Al-Aqsa Mosque. The Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip who are calling for a third intifada may have nothing to lose, but in the West Bank, the vast majority of the people prefer to keep things calm.
The American condemnation that Israel deservedly received also contributed to the demonstrations of recent days. But when the Obama administration attacks the Netanyahu government, the Palestinian Authority receives a boost - for popular protests and toughening its stance in the proximity talks, which are for the time being in deep freeze. Despite the tough tone of recent days, it will still be the Americans who have to think hard to find a solution that will bring the two sides back to the negotiating table. It's doubtful whether the conditions they posed in recent days will enable such rapprochement.
David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy wrote Tuesday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must do something to cool America's anger. He proposes removing Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who was behind the whole affair. But Makovsky has lived in Israel, in part as a Haaretz journalist, long enough to know that while he has an interesting idea, it's not realistic. Getting in a tangle with President Barack Obama is one thing, but Rabbi Ovadia Yosef is an entirely different story. It seems that Netanyahu will find it easier to give back Jerusalem than get rid of Yishai.
Posted by Avi Issacharoff and Amos Harel on March 17, 2010
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