The series of meetings held by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry with the leaderships of Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan in recent days reflect the first significant attempt to reach a diplomatic agreement to halt the recent wave of violence in Israel and the territories. Kerry turned to Jordan’s King Abdullah II, the person who may be able to put an end to the deteriorating situation – a view shared by the Israelis, too.
In the first stage, according to Kerry’s declaration on Saturday, Israel has agreed to install cameras to document what is happening on the Temple Mount, and an Israeli commitment to prevent non-Muslims from praying on the Mount (which is part of the status quo agreement, anyway). But also on the agenda are other ideas, including expanding the powers and reinforcing the manpower of the Waqf (Muslim religious trust) on the Mount, and even a proposal that Israel limit the number of Jewish visitors there.
In Washington and Jerusalem, they still hope that Abdullah will issue a public declaration to the effect that there has been no change in the status quo, and that with the help of additional Israeli steps to promote restraint, it will be possible to calm the situation.
That’s what happened a year ago – the last time tension surrounding the Temple Mount led to a violent outbreak, albeit one of shorter duration. The PA leadership, which fears the effect of the deteriorating situation on its ability to continue to govern in the Palestinian cities in the West Bank, is apparently interested in such a solution.
But when the most prominent aspect of the violence is the part being played by young people without any organizational affiliation (like the 16-year-old terrorist who was shot to death as he tried to stab security guards at the Jalama crossing, north of Jenin, Saturday morning), it is hard to know whether even an agreed-upon declaration by all sides would necessarily help stop the incidents.
There were several more attacks and attempted attacks at the end of the week, including the wounding of an Israeli couple and their three children when a firebomb was thrown at their car, near Ramallah. In the past week, most of the incidents have been focused on the West Bank, and there was less involvement from residents from East Jerusalem in the attacks, which was very much the case in the first two weeks. The intensity of demonstrations in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and near the security fence on the border of the Gaza Strip remained low, compared to the first two weeks.
Among Israeli Arabs, the demonstrations and clashes with the police also died down. The main explanation seems to be the real fear – one being expressed by mayors and MKs – of serious economic damage, something that is already being felt as a result of the incidents. The percentage of Jewish visitors to Arab communities and neighborhoods has declined significantly. Many Israeli Arabs are also hesitant about coming to work in Jewish communities, for the very same reason – fear for their personal safety.
Arab MKs, meanwhile, responded to the request by PA President Mahmoud Abbas and changed their minds about visiting the Temple Mount, in order not to fan the flames at the site.
The PA leadership is clearly concerned. In some of the declarations by senior Palestinian leaders, we have seen a switch from preaching “popular resistance by peaceful means” (in effect, including stone-throwing and perhaps more than that) to “wise resistance,” whose parameters are unclear. The main goal seems to be to not talk about an intifada – a long-term effect whose tremendous damage to Palestinians in the previous intifadas is still etched in the memory, at least for the generation of parents whose children are now embarking on stabbing attacks.
The editorials in the PA newspapers are also warning against a switch to firearms and are attacking Hamas, which in some of its declarations has been calling for an armed uprising in the West Bank. Both Israel and the PA are concerned by the contribution to the escalation of an additional factor: Tanzim activists – the Fatah men in the field. The militia’s confrontational policy against Abbas and the PA government, mainly in the West Bank refugee camps, could also lead to shooting attacks against Israel Defense Forces troops and Israeli civilians.
On the Israeli side, we are witnessing a transition to a kind of emergency routine: reinforced IDF and police preparedness as they attempt to diagnose the pattern of the attacks and improve the defensive response to them. The swiftness of the security forces’ response in most of the documented incidents, such as Saturday’s at the Jalama crossing, attests to a high level of preparedness.
At the same time, the IDF and Shin Bet security service have increased the scope of their arrest campaigns in the West Bank, and are arresting dozens of people suspected of involvement in the incidents every night.
The prolonged period of violence – particularly when, for the most part, it involves the security forces in the West Bank – is seemingly causing the Israeli public to internalize the new situation. But all that’s true until the next major attack, like the one that took place at the bus station in Be’er Sheva a week ago.
All this time, another enemy has been lurking in the background: the Islamic State group. In addition to previous threats published by the organization in light of the violence in the territories, on Friday there was a new video clip in which a masked man, speaking fluent Hebrew, threatened Israelis with harsh revenge attacks.
We can probably assume that the mask is concealing an Israeli Arab – one of the 40 or so who have already crossed the border into Syria in the past two years in order to join ISIS in the civil war there. Even if these are empty threats for now, and even if the vast majority of Arabs in Israel pay no heed to this incitement, the Shin Bet and police are taking into account its influence on the next lone terrorist, who might follow in the wake of Mohannad al-Okbi, the Bedouin man who killed an IDF soldier in Be’er Sheva last Sunday.
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