Intifada or Not, Tension Rises in the Middle East
Throughout October, Palestinians and Israelis have seen the most violence since the end of the Second Intifada in 2005. Is a full-blown uprising coming?
With Israel and Palestine, there are no guarantees aside from the continuation of conflict. In the past two weeks, the slow simmer of tension has come to a full boil, as many are anxious to see when, and if, it’ll combust. This anticipated combustion is sparking debate on whether or not we are witnessing the beginning of the “Third Intifada,” or Palestinian uprising.
The truth is that while the recent uptick in violence is particularly disturbing for Middle East monitors, it is, by many accounts, the fruit born of consistent, unwavering grievances and tension between the two entities that have long struggled to be “two states living side by side” in peace and prosperity.
In early October, a 19-year-old Palestinian was shot and killed by Israeli authorities after allegedly stabbing a Jewish teenager. The incident has since led to daily clashes between Palestinians and Israelis, including the recent killing of an innocent Eritrean man who was in Israel looking for work.
The past two weeks have seen numerous shootings and stabbings between Israelis and Palestinians over a host of issues, but primarily over the Palestinians’ continued fight against the Israeli occupation. The string of violence, which is being called the “stabbing intifada” by some observers, has led to increased Israeli crackdowns and the construction of new security barriers.
“The violence could taper off as the Israeli crackdown increases, though Israel is also carrying out policies such as home demolitions that could further inflame the situation,” Matthew Duss, the president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, told this author. The violence and the consequent reactions are a troubling sign of rising tension following decades of growing animosity. The current infatuation with attaching a vernacular to it seems irrelevant. “Whether or not we call it an intifada, the violence will return again and again as long as the occupation continues,” Duss added.
Calling for an urgent end to the violence, US President Barack Obama spoke about the subject on October 16 during a press conference at the White House with the visiting Korean president. “I don’t think we can wait for all the issues that exist between Israelis and Palestinians to be settled in order for us to try to tamp down the violence right now. I think my views are well-known that, over time, the only way that Israel is going to be truly secure and the only way that the Palestinians are going to be able to meet the aspirations of their people is if there are two states living side by side in peace and security.”
The latest violence has been the most significant since the end of the Second Intifada in 2005, which is likely fueling the narrative that we are in the throes of the next Palestinian uprising.
The arguable irrelevance of the nomenclature should not overshadow the significance of the reasons for these clashes, which include recent concern over the status of the religious site in Jerusalem that is revered in both Judaism and Islam. Under the current agreement, Jewish people are allowed to visit the site—known to Jews as the Temple Mount and by Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif—but not pray there. It is believed by some Palestinians that Israel is trying to change the status quo of the site by allowing prayer there. Israel denies this claim.
During a press conference in Madrid on October 19, US Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States is not looking to change the status quo of the religious site, but rather is seeking clarity on the agreement. “Israel understands the importance of the status quo and … our objective is to make sure that everyone understands what that means,” Kerry said.
As the violence erupted earlier this month, Danny Seidmann, the executive director of the Israeli organization Terrestrial Jerusalem, made these remarks in Washington DC about the significance of the tension: “I would say things are unprecedented in the following way. Number one, the Temple Mount. It’s not merely a question of the existing arrangements. What we’re seeing starts at the Temple Mount but also spreads out in concentric circles.”
He went on to add: “It is the establishment of a physical embodiment of a biblical narrative, which is already fanning the flames of a religious conflict. What we’re seeing here are the seeds of transformation of a national political conflict, which is fueled by religion on occasion but is a political conflict that can be solved, into a religious conflict that cannot be solved.”
In an effort to try “solve” this seemingly unsolvable conflict, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is traveling to the region on October 20 to “help defuse the current tensions.” He will meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, among other senior officials.
The secretary-general’s visit comes as the US is pursuing diplomatic solutions to the tension between Israelis and Palestinians, where Secretary Kerry is slated to meet with Netanyahu in Germany and Abbas (likely in Jordan) on separate occasions. Though many view Abbas as the dysfunctional leader of the Palestinian people, the US has continued to call on Abbas to take control of the rising violence. “We believe [Abbas] is still a viable voice to … the Palestinian people and as such, as their leader, should make every effort possible to reduce tensions,” State Department Spokesman Mark Toner said on October 19.
However, the widespread use of social media as an organizational mechanism to band together and rally against the Israelis may be further marginalizing the authority that an already-isolated Abbas has over the Palestinians. “Young Palestinians may or may not be listening to their leadership, [and] may be getting cues from social media,” Toner said. But he added that the responsibility still lies on Abbas’ shoulders. “I think ultimately, just as in our own country, we look to our political leadership to send a clear message to the public—everyone from the young people to the old people in our society.”
The violence that we are witnessing now is reminiscent of the violence of decades past. Unfortunately, giving the unrest a title does not change its ultimate reality: If real progress is not made, this will not be the last time we are scrambling to dub an intifada. With social media serving as the most efficient community organizer—trumping bureaucratic and oft-corrupt governments—the Palestinian and Israeli leaderships and their international allies must fight for change, no matter how incremental.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.