The consequences of Wednesday’s death of a Palestinian Authority minister following clashes with Israeli soldiers and Border Police officers will become clear in another few days.
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PA Minister Ziad Abu Ein, who died at a West Bank protest, will be buried in a big funeral in Ramallah on Thursday. Then come Friday prayers, which are expected to be accompanied by a wave of protests led by Fatah and the PA. The events of this weekend – the extent of clashes between Palestinian demonstrators and Israeli security forces, and of the resulting casualties – will indicate whether this is a crisis that can be halted in its tracks, through a joint effort by Israel and the PA, or a turning point that will lead to an escalation in the territories.
Whether or not calm will prevail depends largely on whether Israelis and Palestinians continue to coordinate their security efforts in the West Bank. On Wednesday Fatah leader Jibril Rajoub said the PA would stop working with Israel on security. On Wednesday night Palestinian leaders met in Ramallah to discuss continued security coordination.
The Palestinians could take a major step to protest Abu Ein’s death, in response to people’s expectations in the West Bank – although such a step may be confined to the realm of rhetoric. Even if it happens, Israelis and Palestinians can be expected to resume at least informal contact to make sure they don’t lose control of the situation altogether.
Israel has proposed a joint investigation of Abu Ein’s death that would include an autopsy in which an Israeli pathologist would be involved, in an effort to help calm tensions. Autopsy results are slated to be released tonight. In the meantime, the Israel Defense Forces will deploy two additional infantry battalions and two Border Police companies in the West Bank.
Israeli officials say they think PA President Mahmoud Abbas would rather avoid violent, widespread clashes.
In the early post-Oslo days, when Gadi Eisenkot – whose appointment to IDF chief of staff was confirmed by the Turkel selection committee on Wednesday – headed a brigade in the West Bank, army officials liked to talk about a scenario known as “the strategic corporal.” This referred to something that happened on multiple occasions: There would be a pinpoint failure by a military force that would have strategic ramifications, such as a major wave of popular Palestinian violence that would disrupt the peace process. Right now there is no peace process to speak of, but the “strategic corporal” scenario remains a threat.
Abu Ein’s death could have extensive and damaging consequences – because he was a minister, because the incident was caught on video, and because of the symbolism of what took place. Abu Ein was a man of stature: a minister, a veteran Fatah activist, a close friend of jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti (with whom he was rearrested by Israel in 2002), and a former Israeli prisoner. (He was a member of a Palestinian cell that planted bicycle bombs in Tiberias in the 1970s, killing two Israeli teenagers in 1979, and he was released in 1985 in a major prisoner exchange known as the Jibril deal.)
Despite the claims of senior PA officials, the footage of Abu Ein’s death does not appear to indicate that he was killed on account of extreme IDF violence. Abu Ein was an older man, a heavy smoker with health problems who got caught up in a violent confrontation with Israeli forces that involved shoving and possibly also tear gas. The footage doesn’t show a soldier firing at him or a police officer beating him. But the sight of a Border Police officer grabbing him by the neck and shoving him backward is bad enough on its own.
These images were shown on an endless loop on Wednesday on Palestinian TV. The young man shoving the minister is a Border Police driver. There are apparently some things that never change in the territories: The army prepares thoroughly for the protest, stations a battalion commander to monitor the forces and keep everyone restrained, and in the end a Jeep driver who joins in the fray without even a helmet or a protective vest causes a major incident.
Abu Ein’s death could be a taste of the kind of incidents to expect in the next few months. This election season can be expected to take place under a shadow of tension on the security front, and the election could tempt various groups to escalate the security situation in a bid to undermine the Netanyahu government and indirectly affect his chances of reelection. And since there’s a scent of possible political revolution in the air, the government could intentionally heat up conflicts so as to convey determination (and win some votes).
The first indication of this can be seen in comments made by one of the more cautious Likud ministers, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon. On Tuesday he hinted that Israel was responsible for attacking Syria, and told lawmakers that Israel was determined to act to prevent its enemies from arming themselves, if they are crossing red lines. “Red lines” is the code name Israeli leaders have been using for years to prevent Hezbollah from arming itself with advanced weapons.
Israel generally keeps mum about these kinds of things, but it seems Ya’alon’s comments were spurred at least partly by the domestic political situation: Likud is losing traction in the polls, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is rumored to be willing to give Ya’alon’s job as defense minister to Habayit Hayehudi chairman Naftali Bennett if he wins the next election.
Ya’alon is also reaching out to settlers, as indicated by his speech at a yeshiva in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc that was broadcast on Wednesday on Army Radio. It’s no secret that his relationship with extremist settlers is tense; they expected a lot more assistance from the defense minister than they got. Now Ya’alon is left trying to make up with them ahead of the Likud primary if he wants to survive the upcoming power struggle with Netanyahu and keep his seat. This could explain Ya’alon’s attack on the Obama administration, telling the yeshiva students approvingly that the current U.S. president won’t be in the White House forever.
But now is the time for extra caution as Ya’alon – along with outgoing IDF chief Benny Gantz and his successor, Eisenkot, who will take office in two months – work to prevent the security situation from deteriorating.