Many lengthy in-depth discussions about the Middle East today revolve around the future of Iraq and Syria with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict barely getting, if lucky, a passing mention at best. So far 2015 has demonstrated this reality quite well with the global powers intervening as well as the regional ones intervening in Syria and the growing refugee crisis in Europe.
Recent clashes on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem however have led to speculation that a Third Intifada–a Palestinian rising up against the Israeli occupation–may be afoot. If the last month is anything to go by things in the Palestinian territories are certainly deteriorating.
Tensions among the two communities in the occupied territories have been tense for decades now and have often seen to outbursts of violence. The past month has been notable for its exceptional violence since rarely a day has gone by without a stabbing by a Palestinian of an Israeli. Seven Israelis have been killed in such attacks and forty Palestinians were shot, some of whom during such stabbing attacks. One controversial incident in the city of Hebron saw an Israeli shoot a young Palestinian dead with some claiming the young Palestinian was unarmed and others saying he was an attacker. While these violent attacks are similar they nevertheless seem sporadic and show no signs of abating. This cycle of violence began over rumours that the Israelis were to increase visitation rights of Jews to that site and has most recently seen to Palestinian rioters setting fire to a religious Jewish tomb in Nablus.
Remember the last Intifada (2000-05) was sparked after the late Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, in September 2000, visited the Temple Mount (the holiest site in the Judaism) – the very same complex where the Al Aqsa Mosque (the third holiest site in Islam) and the iconic Dome of the Rock sits – reportedly in order to assert Israeli sovereignty over it. This sparked a cycle of violence which persisted for the subsequent half-a-decade.
Today’s ongoing hostility was sparked by tensions around that religiously important compound. Whether or not these present clashes and violence devolve into another full-fledged Intifada has still to be seen. Whatever the outcome the striking fact is that the present ongoing violence in that territory is the worst in years.
Many of the young Palestinians violently attacking Israelis today are being described as the post-Oslo generation. This is a very informative description since understanding the last two Intifadas is of instrumental importance when it comes to understanding what is going on in the present. The Oslo Accords were, of course, the much vaunted peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians in 1993 which led to the creation of the Palestinian Authority (PA) to govern over the Palestinian territories. The Gaza Strip fell to Hamas in 2006 and the PA maintains control over parts of the West Bank outside of Israeli-controlled roads and settlement blocs.
The establishment of the PA was a direct result of the preceding First Intifada which was sparked in 1987 and was a genuine grassroots revolt against Israeli administration/occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. Jordan relinquished all its claims to the West Bank the following year bar maintaining an Islamic trust in support of Muslim holy sites, particularly Al-Aqsa, in Jerusalem (just last month the Israeli government sharply criticized Jordanian King Abdullah for breaking “the status quo by letting rioters armed with stones sleep in the Al-Aqsa Mosque” while Abdullah condemned the Israeli response to recent violence) and stopped paying the salaries of civil servants and essentially administering and propping-up the local economy there. This was a move which further fueled the crisis at the time. In addition Israel’s image was severely, arguably irreparably, damaged in the world press when images of Israeli soldiers beating unarmed Palestinian youth were televised. Having the Israeli Army subdue an entire population was clearly an unsustainable solution. Annexing the territories outright would have made Jews a minority in the Jewish state. Occupying the territories outright and subduing the population would fail in the long-term for obvious reasons. Consequently the PA was created. It was only supposed to be an interim authority before a two-state solution was introduced. That has yet to happen and disenchantment among West Bank Palestinians with the PA is becoming increasingly evident as it fails to change the undesirable status-quo or deliver anything remotely resembling a nation state for the Palestinians. A whole generation of young and disenfranchised youths were born in between–a very dangerous and explosive situation in and of itself.
Abbas is clearly quite weak politically, and has been for some time now. He can’t foment an outright uprising because that would likely see his regime deposed. At the same time he cannot be seen among ordinary Palestinians as a lackey of the Israelis. Having failed to secure even a residual rump West Bank state in the most recent peace negotiations brokered by the Obama administration in 2013, he is finding it increasingly difficult to maintain a status quo that has long been rejected by his subjects (especially the restless and disillusioned post-Oslo youth who have no faith in the peace processes they grew up during). Given this precarious set-up one shouldn’t be surprised to see him giving lip service to these angry youths who are violently clashing with Israelis and condemning Israeli responses. Hamas on the other hand have given these latest outbursts of clashes their heartfelt support. Clashes have taken place between Israelis and Palestinians along the Gaza-Israel frontier and yet another war between Israel and Hamas may well be brewing. The lengthy summer 2014 war in Gaza was sparked after Israeli soldiers carried out many raids and arrests across the West Bank in search of three missing teenagers a Hamas offshoot in Hebron had kidnapped and killed. Those raids, many against known Hamas members and supporters Israel had previously released as part of a prisoner swap, sparked that war and these present clashes could spark another war and see Hamas try to overshadow Abbas as the true representatives of the Palestinian cause and make that cause much more violent.
Whatever the case may be it is clear that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is once again entering another dark and depressing phase. Which is, sadly, neither new nor unprecedented.
Photo by Gigi Ibraham, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license