The Middle East Is on Fire - and Trump Administration Fans the Flames With Pence's Israel Visit

Mike Pence's visit to the Western Wall this week adds religious significance to Trump's Jerusalem announcement ■ Palestinians already declared additional days of rage in Jerusalem in the West Bank ■ Hamas is working to curb Gaza rocket fire

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Palestinians burn posters showing U.S. Vice President Mike Pence during a protest against his visit near the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, December 17, 2017.
Palestinians burn posters showing U.S. Vice President Mike Pence during a protest against his visit near the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, December 17, 2017. Credit: Mahmoud Illean / AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The little fire between Palestinians and Israelis that the Trump administration relit with the president’s December 6 recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is expected to last at least another week. It is the result of the new timetable for the visit of U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, who is due to arrive in Jerusalem this Wednesday.

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Pence delayed his visit a few days because of the expected tense vote in Congress regarding the Republican tax bill. Fatah announced in response a series of days of rage in Jerusalem and in the territories, which will begin on Wednesday and continue until Friday prayers. This announcement means that Palestinian protests, some of them violent, will continue throughout the week. Only if this Friday passes quietly will we be able to speak finally of the end of the Trump disturbances.

Meanwhile, the administration added fuel to the fire accompanying Pence’s expected visit to the Western Wall. Pence is not the first senior American official to visit it. Trump himself took a photo opportunity next to the Western Wall when he came to Israel last May. However, Pence’s visit was preceded by a phone briefing by a White House representative to Israeli journalists where it was stressed that the vice president would visit the Western Wall as part of his official visit, and that the administration cannot conceive of a peace deal in which the Western Wall would not remain a part of Israel. This position is also that of the decisive majority of Israelis, but it is doubtful whether such a declaration at the present moment necessarily helps to calm nerves.

With significant effort, it seems that the Trump administration is belatedly managing to add a religious touch to the president’s declaration. One of the explanations for Palestinian opposition to the declaration being limited in scope was that the president’s announcement didn’t involve establishing facts on the ground, and that it contained no religious symbolism, a common recipe for almost assuredly spilling blood. Now they are adding more fuel to keep the fire going.

IDF: Hamas reining in jihadis

The Israel Defense Forces report in Gaza a more determined attempt by security forces of the Hamas government to rein in cells of the Salafi organizations that have been firing rockets. Meanwhile, what Israelis viewed as reckless firing by Salafis led to the deaths of two Palestinian protesters next to the border fence in Gaza on Friday. One of them, a handicapped person whose legs were lost in an Israeli Air Force bombing nine years ago, has now become a symbol of the new protest.

And at a time when the Palestinian public in Jerusalem and the West Bank responds with great restraint to the storm, heads have not cooled in Jordan. Thousands participated in protests over the weekend. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared on Sunday that he intended to open an embassy in Jerusalem, “the capital of Palestine,” although it isn’t clear how he would be capable of carrying this out. And, somewhat strangely, the domino effect of Trump’s declaration was felt even in the central African state of Gabon, where a local man stabbed two Danish photographers, claiming he did so out of concern for Jerusalem.

Fatah higher-up: Armed struggle back on table

Mahmoud al-Aloul, a senior Fatah official, hinted over the weekend that his organization is considering a return to armed struggle against Israel. Aloul asserted that the Oslo peace process had hit the end of the road, and that there was again legitimacy now for all types of struggle against Israel.

The Coordinator for Government Activities in the Territories, Gen. Yoav Mordechai, blasted Aloul’s statement and demand clarifications. He wanted to know if Fatah intends to encourage gunfire against Israelis. An interesting discussion emerged on the coordinator’s Facebook page, when a spokesman for Fatah’s Tanzim faction asserted that violent struggle is legitimate, but that at this time it is ineffective because of Israel’s military strength.

A replacement for Mordechai was named on Sunday: Brig. Gen. (Res.) Kamil Abu-Rukon, who will take over next Independence Day. He is the head of the Defense Ministry’s Crossing Points Authority. He has also headed other senior roles in the Civil Administration. Abu-Rukon will become the second Druze promoted to the rank of major general, following Yusef Mishleb. Abu-Rukon served under Mishleb a decade ago in COGAT.

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman described Mordechai on Sunday as “a strategic asset for the State of Israel.” He said he was sure Mordechai would continue using his talents in the country’s interest. He was not exaggerating. Mordechai put out countless fires between the Israelis and Palestinians, mostly behind the scenes, during his years in office. What remains to be seen is if he will have the opportunity to help do the same in the Trump declaration affair, whose repercussions have yet to dissipate.

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