As though 25 years hadn’t gone by, the Israel Defense Forces this week went back to using some of the terminology of the first intifada. Beginning Friday morning, a special alert was to be declared in the territories, with security forces deployed there ahead of an expected wave of demonstrations, revolving around the prayer services in the mosques.
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The police, too, beefed up their presence, with an eye on the weekly prayers on the Temple Mount.
At this stage, the possibility of a “third intifada” exists mainly in the Israeli media and in the dreams of senior Hamas officials in the Gaza Strip. The media and Gaza are also the only two places in which the term “intifada” is even being invoked; the leadership of the Palestinian Authority usually avoids its use. Nor is there much talk of a third intifada on the ground − neither on the streets of Palestinian cities nor in the villages and refugee camps.
For the time being, the events give the impression of being a limited flare-up − a peak as compared to events of the previous months, but not yet constituting the sort of critical mass necessary to foment a prolonged, high-intensity confrontation.
At the moment, it appears that the common interest − or a partial one, at least − of both the PA and Israel will help subdue the present tension. The real problem lies in the longer term, owing to a mounting accumulation of disturbing events.
The hunger strike by the Palestinian prisoners, and even the death of security prisoner Arafat Jaradat last Saturday, may not have provided the spark for a truly serious explosion. But at some point, in the year ahead, depending on the deployment of the troops on the ground and the nature of the specific trigger that is pulled, it definitely could happen.
Some 20,000 people attended Jaradat’s funeral in his village, Sa’ir, near Hebron, on Monday. A few thousand more people took part in similar demonstrations, held then and on the day before, mainly in the southern section of the West Bank, but on a lesser scale in the northern area as well. At the same time, though, only a few thousand took part in the confrontations that erupted after the funeral − far fewer than in similar situations from the previous intifadas.
The statement released by the Shin Bet security service, to the effect that Jaradat had died of heart failure, also noted that he had been a member of the Popular Front. However, Fatah claimed afterward that there was a “high probability” that Jaradat was a member of that movement, and gave him a military funeral under the aegis of the security organizations. This also enabled the latter to supervise closely the behavior of the crowd at the funeral. The political organizations allowed steam to be let off in the form of clashes with Israeli troops, but saw to it that the events did not lurch out of control. And the past two days saw a dramatic decrease in the number of incidents across the West Bank: The Palestinian security organizations are working vigorously in many areas to quell the violence.
The view of the Israeli defense establishment is that the PA is playing a double game. On the one hand, it is hurling serious accusations at Israel, such as the claim that Jaradat was murdered during torture in prison. But at the same time, the PA does not want a major confrontation to develop, certainly not three weeks before U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit. The Americans this week sent a message to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to curtail the violence.
There is genuine anger in the West Bank over the continued construction in the settlements, the total absence of progress in the peace process in recent years, and the PA’s dire economic situation, which results in repeated delays in the payment of salaries of Palestinian civil servants. It is also clear in the territories that the Palestinian issue is not at the top of President Obama’s agenda, but rather only in third place, after Iran and Syria.
All of this is heightened by the Palestinians’ increasing expectation, so far unfulfilled, of the signing of a reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas. In the intermittent talks between the sides, in Cairo, Hamas has been striving for an accord that will unify the governments and the security organizations in the West Bank and Gaza − either before or concurrent with the holding of a general election in the territories.
The PA wants the order reversed: an election first, unification afterward. The prevailing impression is that Abbas wants neither reconciliation nor an election. In the meantime, the PA accuses Hamas of operating with a double standard: In Gaza, the Islamic group is maintaining a situation of almost total quiet with Israel and focusing on entrenching its control and status in the Arab world. However, in the West Bank, Hamas is trying to spark a confrontation with Israel, partly in order to complicate matters for the PA. Recently, a major effort to rehabilitate Hamas’ terror networks in the West Bank has been evident, and a few local cells have been uncovered, both by the Shin Bet and by the PA’s security units.
In addition to these recent developments in the territories, an old source of tension flared up this week − in the form of the odd story of the firing of a rocket from the Rafah area in the direction of Ashkelon, on Tuesday. It was the first such rocket attack since the conclusion of Operation Pillar of Defense at the end of November. Responsibility was claimed by a Gaza-based branch of Fatah, but its announcement did not seem to be reliable. The rocket was an eight-inch M75 of local manufacture, which is in the arsenal of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. It is not yet clear whether the incident was a test flight that went wrong, or a message to Israel on the background of the West Bank escalation. We also have to take into account that the three-month period which the sides allocated to work out a comprehensive cease-fire settlement after Pillar of Defense has now ended. Perhaps this is Hamas’ way of reminding Israel that it has more far-reaching demands, such as expanding the fishing zone off the coast of the Strip and the opening of the border crossings.
Even after the probable fading of current tensions in the West Bank, the prisoners’ struggle will remain an open wound for the Palestinians. This is more than a question of uniting the Palestinian ranks. A senior IDF officer told Haaretz that his impression is that “this is an attempt to call into question our whole ‘chain of prevention’ against terrorist attacks, to undermine the legitimacy of every arrest made by Israel, as such, in the territories.”
Israel will continue to insist on using its security authority to arrest terror activists, but the army has recommended to the political echelon the easing of various restrictions on the Palestinians. The IDF wants to see fewer administrative detentions (arrests without trial), a definitive decision on how to deal with prisoners released in the Shalit deal who were rearrested because they violated the terms of their release − and, above all, the release, if partial, of dozens of veteran Palestinian prisoners from Fatah who have been incarcerated in Israel since before the period of the Oslo accords.
This week, Central Command completed a two-day course for commanders of forces stationed in the West Bank and of units that will be rushed there in the event of a large-scale escalation. A deployment plan is ready, though relatively few reinforcements have actually been sent in to date.
Palestinian violence is largely taking the form of stones being thrown at Israeli cars. The settlers’ leaders admit that they too do not want every incident reported and inflated, for fear that the value of homes in the settlements will drop and potential new settlers will be deterred. There has been a large rise in the number of new residents in the past five years, thanks to the atmosphere of normality made possible by the security calm.
Even after today’s prayers, spikes in the level of tension can be expected in the months ahead. First is the Obama visit, followed by Land Day (end of March), Prisoners Day (mid-April), Nakba Day (mid-May) and Naksa Day, which commemorates the beginning of the 1967 War (early June). The Palestinians will have more than enough opportunities to remind Israel and the world of their frustration.
In any case, after the events of this week, it is useful to recall one of the lessons that became apparent as early as the first intifada: The height of the bar at which one confrontation ends is usually the starting point for the next round.
Syria: ‘Hell on earth’
Although local media attention this week was focused on the West Bank, that should not distract attention from the increasingly acute situation in Syria. The only way to describe what the civil war has wrought there is, “hell on earth.” The estimates of between 70,000 and 75,000 people killed in two years of fighting are probably too low. Large swaths of the cities in the center of the country have become heaps of rubble, and it is quite possible that the opposition organizations are right when they say that thousands, if not tens of thousands, of additional bodies are buried under the ruins.
A senior military figure in Israel describes the situation in Syria as “post-Assad, still in his presence.” In other words, President Bashar Assad is still clinging to his seat but can no longer be considered the ruler of Syria.
Meanwhile, the country is disintegrating into a number of subdistricts. The president’s loyalists are trying to protect what remains of his strategic assets: parts of Damascus and the Alawi region along the country’s northern coast, where the regime enjoys the broad military umbrella provided by the Russian fleet anchored in the port of Tartus.
Assad recently concentrated his army’s chemical weapons stocks in areas under his control, and separated the materials that need to be combined to make the weapons usable. For this reason, the West believes that the stocks are secure for the time being.
The same cannot be said, however, for other military capabilities of the regime. The air force is losing helicopters and planes on an almost daily basis, and many of its pilots are no longer active. The air-defense batteries are attacked systematically, with the opposition apparently aiming to reduce the antiaircraft threat and thus improve the chances that the Western states will agree to impose no-fly zones (without the risk that their planes will be downed by the regime’s forces) in the country’s north. The army is also continuing to fire dozens of Scud missiles at neighborhoods and at bases under the rebels’ control. Overall, it is very unlikely that the Syrian army − in the form known to Israeli intelligence two years ago − still exists.
Iran and Hezbollah are also becoming increasingly immersed in this blood-drenched chaos. Hundreds of Hezbollah men are involved in the fighting in Syria, whether in securing strategic weapons or in actual battles against the rebels. The latter have begun to set ambushes on the Lebanese side of the border and to attack Hezbollah convoys. Unverified reports from Lebanon on Wednesday claimed that Hezbollah’s second-in-command, Deputy Secretary General Sheikh Naim Qassem, was wounded in one such ambush.
The commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Lebanon was killed in another incident about two weeks ago. Iran and Hezbollah accuse Israel of assassinating the general, and of bombing a convoy that was trying to smuggle SA17 antiaircraft missiles from Syria to Lebanon, for Hezbollah. This is an unsettled account, which the Iranians and Hezbollah will want to even up in the near future.
It is hard to believe that the leaders of Hezbollah − who are castigated daily in Lebanon for intervening in the war in Syria − are truly eager to open a new fighting front with Israel on its northern border. But attacks by the organization in other venues, like the suicide attack in Bulgaria last July, cannot be ruled out. This week there were reports that an Iranian plan to attack Israelis and Americans in Nigeria had been scuttled. That was not the first episode of its kind and there is no reason to think it will be the last.