Palestinians Are Preparing for September, but Is Israel?

A simulation exercise by Palestinians, designed to help them assess what will happen after the UN vote in September, leads to a few conclusions. One is that widespread violence is possible - but not inevitable or desired.

In a little more than two months, the United Nations General Assembly is scheduled to discuss the Palestinian Authority's request for recognition of a Palestinian state within the June 4, 1967 boundaries. But for now, the Palestinian public is preoccupied with a range of other issues that have nothing to do with the occupation, the settlements or a popular uprising.

On Sunday, a World Cup preliminary qualifying match between Palestine and Afghanistan, played at Al-Ram stadium north of Jerusalem, ended in a 1-1 draw. In a previous round the Palestinians won 2-0, thus keeping their hopes alive, and now need a win against Thailand to move into the next round.

September Palestine - Amos Biderman - 08072011
Amos Biderman

That same day, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad announced that civil servants would receive only half their salaries because funds promised by Arab donor states have not arrived. And on Tuesday, Hebron held elections for its chamber of commerce. Nearly 2,000 residents voted in what was perceived as a cross-clan battle of generations over the city's economic future. Not a word was said about an intifada or the occupation.

Also on Sunday, however, the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, headed by Dr. Khalil Shikaki, conducted a simulation exercise relating to the September vote. The participants, past and present senior figures from the PA and Fatah, assumed the roles of representatives of the PA and the U.S. administration, and other key international figures. Three Israelis were also invited (including one of this column's co-authors ), who, alongside a Palestinian academic, played the Israeli government. Senior Hamas figures in the West Bank were invited to participate but refused because of the Israeli presence. The proceedings were held in Arabic.

In the first scenario, on the day of the UN vote, the United States and the European Union present separate initiatives to have the matter struck from the General Assembly agenda. Washington suggests recognizing a Palestinian state without setting its borders or capital; the EU suggests postponing the vote by a year, recognizing that negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians will be based on the 1949 armistice lines, and stipulating that if the parties do not reach an agreement within a year, the EU will recognize a Palestinian state within the 1967 boundaries, with Jerusalem as its capital. The Palestinian team rejects both initiatives. The Israeli team accepts the U.S. proposal and rejects the EU proposal.

The second scenario predicts an outburst of violence the day after the UN vote: The Israeli army kills seven Palestinians at a demonstration at Qalandiyah, north of Jerusalem. In response young, albeit unarmed Palestinians hold another demonstration there, and block the road to the Beit El settlement. Simultaneously, Islamic Jihad launches Grad rockets from Gaza into Be'er Sheva.

The second scenario seemed a bit far-fetched at first. However, a poll Shikaki released 10 days ago casts things in a different light: It showed that 65 percent of respondents support the UN initiative. Moreover, 52 percent say they will take part in "peaceful" demonstrations and processions to Israeli checkpoints after the vote; 76 percent want the PA to be active in Area C (which is under full Israeli control ) after the state is recognized - for example, by building airports, roads and housing, and deploying security forces - even if this means a confrontation with Israel. Fully 75 percent support the deployment of Palestinian security forces at the Allenby Bridge across the Jordan River, even if this means the West Bank's only access to the outside world will be closed for a few months. In other words, it is hard to say who will set the tone: the public or the leadership.

The third scenario has dozens of Palestinians killed and hundreds wounded by Israeli fire in West Bank demonstrations a few weeks after the UN vote. Meanwhile, rockets are being fired at Sderot and Ashkelon, the Palestinian security services are preparing to deploy in Area C and the Allenby Bridge, and the Israel Defense Forces has begun to take action against PA forces.

In this simulation the Israeli side proposes a cease-fire followed by direct negotiations on the basis of the 1967 boundaries, in return for Palestinian recognition of Israel as the Jewish state. The PA rejects this outright as unacceptable.

The Palestinian team's curiosity was piqued when the "Israeli" side established a national unity government with opposition leader Tzipi Livni. Seeming somewhat enthusiastic, the Palestinians noted that this might change the picture, since Livni is trusted by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his aides. However, the enthusiasm faded when it became clear that Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman would remain in the government (Lieberman was played outstandingly by a Palestinian ).

The simulation was broken off prematurely due to lack of time. Still, a number of interesting conclusions can be drawn from it. First, a new intifada is not inevitable. A flare-up may occur in September or shortly afterward, but much depends on the behavior of the IDF and the police; minimizing the casualties will help contain a confrontation. While there were relatively few participants earlier this year in the Nakba Day (commemorating 1948 ) and Naksa Day (commemorating 1967 ) protests, the September events will be on a larger scale.

The second conclusion is that the Palestinian leadership, like the Israeli government, does not want a violent, all-out confrontation.

Third, public opinion on both sides, along with the Arab and Israeli media, will play a crucial role (even more than in the past ) vis-a-vis the leaders' policy at this critical time - which may also reflect something about the character of the leaders on both sides.

The fourth conclusion is that bringing Livni into the government, even one led by Benjamin Netanyahu, could substantially change the relationship with the Palestinians.

And the final conclusion: It's very possible that Netanyahu will decide to undertake the same measures he is avoiding at present (i.e., a renewed construction freeze in the settlements, or negotiations on the basis of the 1967 boundaries ) after blood is shed.

Mounting violence

The IDF has discerned, with growing concern, an increase in violent incidents between residents of Palestinian villages and settler outposts. The settlers are also targeting military authorities, particularly senior Central Command officers. The multi-week campaign of abuse aimed at the commander of IDF forces in the West Bank, Brig. Gen. Nitzan Alon, is starting to resemble extremist settlers' behavior between 2005 and 2006, in the period after the Gaza disengagement and before the evacuation of Amona in the West Bank.

Apart from the massacre of the Fogel family in the settlement of Itamar in March, there has been no significant rise in the number or intensity of terror attacks. It is hard to see the Netanyahu government even considering settlement evacuations right now. Still, the extreme right is stepping up its violence, apparently for ideological reasons more than due to current events.

Most of the dramatic deterioration in the territories over the past two decades occurred in the wake of religious strife. Baruch Goldstein's 1994 massacre of Muslim worshipers at Hebron's Tomb of the Patriarchs spurred the first wave of bus bombings following the Oslo Accords. The opening of the Western Wall tunnel in September 1996 sparked serious riots, while the official trigger of the second intifada (though it probably would have erupted in any case ) was Ariel Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount. A series of arson attacks on West Bank mosques, the latest in a village north of Ramallah a month ago, is evidence that the hallucinatory right-wing fringe is aware of this history.

Counting bodies

This week, parents who have lost children in terror attacks protested the state's plan to return terrorists' bodies to the Palestinians. Defense Minister Ehud Barak slammed the idea of returning some of the bodies and ordered a review of the decision regarding the others. This about-face reflected communication problems between Netanyahu's and Barak's bureaus, and army commanders. The Prime Minister's Bureau blamed the army for the snafu. Yet a few months ago, that bureau instructed the army to close the cemetery for terrorists by returning the bodies interred there. Netanyahu's staff also at one point approved the IDF Spokesman's declaration concerning the return of 84 bodies "in accordance with the prime minister's directive."

Under Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, the IDF is refraining from public disputes with the political echelon.

Israel's gestures to the Palestinians last Ramadan were quite negligible. Now, with things approaching boiling point ahead of September, such gestures assume greater significance. If the political echelon does not allow the army any leeway to make decisions (halting the return of the bodies is a good example ), the army has no "safety valves" to lower the pressure.

Compared to other issues on the agenda, the return of the bodies is a fairly negligible issue and Israel could have gone a little farther without having to pay a real price.