With Netanyahu and Abbas in charge, it is clear that a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot be generated from within.
It’s been over three weeks since the current round of Israeli-Palestinian violence began. Fifty two Palestinians and eight Israelis have been killed, so far, and the “body-count” will undoubtedly keep rising.
This is not (yet) a mass uprising along the lines of the relatively non-violent First Intifada that began in 1987, or the much more violent Second Intifada in the year 2000.
As one of few Israelis who have been traveling between East and West Jerusalem during these volatile times, one thing I can say is that anyone who had the illusion that Jerusalem was a “united city”—as Israeli government spokespeople have declared since the unilateral “unification” of the city by the Knesset in 1967—simply doesn’t know what they are talking about. Today, Jerusalem is home to 320,000 Palestinians and 500,000 Jews. It’s almost a 40-60% relationship, and we are steadily moving toward 50-50 and an eventual Palestinian majority. And they are two different, unequal worlds. Actually more than two if you look at the ultra-Orthodox Jews, who make up about 38% of the Jewish population as opposed to the “others”—secular, traditional and national religious Jews.
In the 1996 elections, the right-wing attacked the Labor Party candidate with the slogan, “Peres will divide Jerusalem.” Now, in 2015, what has actually happened is that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has divided Jerusalem (not that it was ever really united).
Fear on both sides
Fear is dividing Jerusalem. Israelis are afraid to go to East Jerusalem, while Palestinians are afraid to go to West Jerusalem. The fact is that although there have been sporadic and sometimes lethal incidents in other parts of Israel and in the West Bank, 80% of the Palestinian knife-stabbing attacks have taken place in Jerusalem. Many have been focused around the Old City and the Light Rail system, which runs along the divide between east and west. Israeli fear is an understandable response.
People often ask me, “Aren’t you afraid to go to East Jerusalem?” My response is that since I don’t wear a military uniform, don’t have a religious yarmulke on my head and don’t look like a settler or an ultra-Orthodox Jew, it’s less likely that I will be a target. I have also been regularly going to the Palestine-Israel Journal office for the past 13 years, so I’m a familiar, rare and unthreatening Israeli presence in the area.
However, since what has been happening over the past few weeks is an unorganized, spontaneous and individual series of stabbings, carried out mainly by teenagers aged 13 to 19, I admit to feeling uneasy and tense when I see a group of Palestinian youths on their way to and from school. I hate the feeling, but it’s real.
The counterpoint to that feeling is what a Palestinian taxi driver told me last week. As I was about to leave my office, I heard a series of sirens from emergency vehicles. I quickly looked at the breaking stories online and saw that there had been a stabbing attack by a young Palestinian against Israelis at the Damascus Gate entrance to the Old City, and that the assailant had been shot by Israeli security forces.
Since that is barely a ten-minute walk from the office, I realized my original plan to walk to the Light Rail train station (10 minutes away) to take it two stops to the heart of West Jerusalem at the corner of Jaffa Road and King George Street wouldn’t work. Since I was getting pressure from home to take a taxi, I ordered one.
When the driver arrived, he said it would be impossible to get to the inter-city taxi station to Tel Aviv in West Jerusalem (just a 20-minute walk away) above Zion Square on Hanivi’im Street, since the police had blocked off all the surrounding roads. The only alternative was to go to the Israeli Central Bus Station at the entrance to West Jerusalem (there is also a Palestinian Central Bus Station with buses that travel around East Jerusalem and the West Bank), but he was afraid to go there.
Why was the Palestinian taxi driver afraid? Because he heard that right-wing Israeli youth were roaming the streets looking for Palestinians to attack. He told me that if he saw two or three young Israelis asking for a ride, he wouldn’t pick them up because he was afraid of what they might do to him. He also told me that most of his fellow taxi drivers at the station stayed home, but he had begun driving an hour ago. He needed the money. In the end, he agreed to take me to the bus station, though he knew there would be no fare back. It cost me 80 NIS ($20) instead of 3.50 NIS ($1) on the Light Rail.
Controversy over the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif
Why is all this happening? One of the explanations being given is that Palestinians and the Muslim world believe the Israeli government plans to change the status quo on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif (The Noble Sanctuary).
To his credit, Netanyahu is trying to act as the responsible adult on this topic, insisting that Israeli policy is to maintain the status quo arrangement decided after the 1967 War, which guarantees access to the area to people of all faiths at particular times, and that Jews will not pray in the compound—an arrangement backed by the chief rabbis of Israel, who say prayer should not be allowed until after the arrival of the Messiah.
Fear is dividing Jerusalem. Israelis are afraid to go to East Jerusalem, while Palestinians are afraid to go to West Jerusalem.
Netanyahu has also ordered all Knesset members not to go into the area. Yet some right-wing ministers in his own government, including Uri Ariel and Miri Regev, advocate the right of Jews to pray in the area, and there are extreme Jewish organizations that call for the construction of a Third Temple in place of al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock.
This perceived threat to the status quo on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif has undoubtedly contributed to the current unrest.
However, the primary cause of the latest wave of violence is Palestinian despair. The younger generation sees no hope for the future. After over 20 years of negotiations, there is no end to the occupation, no independent Palestinian state on the horizon, and in East Jerusalem the young suffer from a sense of deprivation, deep inequality and lack of pride when they look at their Jewish counterparts in West Jerusalem. Some of them have decided to become “heroes in the struggle.”
Some people are calling this the “Smartphone or the Facebook Intifada.” One of the main differences between the first two uprisings in 1987 and 2000 and the current wave of violence in 2015 is that back then, the primary images people saw were the product of TV cameras and photojournalists. Now, everyone is carrying with them a portable TV camera in the form of a smartphone. And the imagery is circulated immediately via social media. But it’s usually a partial image. Young Palestinians are seeing vulnerable and wounded boys their age being shot and killed by Israeli security forces who are egged on by settlers, and they want revenge. Young Israelis see the stabbing attacks or even the driver who ran over people, and they feel fear and some want revenge.
In the broader scheme of things, Netanyahu is not acting as the responsible adult. He is not a man of hope who attempts to provide a horizon for Israelis and Palestinians. He is a man who has built and continues to maintain his whole political career by fanning the flames of fear, by holding the fort and providing no long-term vision for either people.
Israelis and Palestinians Seeking Answers Together
In the midst of the current round of violence, the Palestine-Israel Journal, together with the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, convened an internal consultation with three prominent Israelis and Palestinians, as well as American and European diplomats, to discuss reenergizing the Middle East peace process.
The general consensus among the Israeli and Palestinian participants was that a bilateral Israeli-Palestinian process is no longer viable. It was noted that “For a peace process to be generated from inside Israel/Palestine, each side needs: 1) a leader with legitimacy; and 2) a leader determined to pursue peace.” We do not have that combination today.
On the Israeli side, Netanyahu, despite the lip-service of a readiness for unconditional negotiations, is not ready to enter a serious negotiating process. The prime minister continues to enflame the situation, especially with his latest absurd unhistorical statement that “Hitler didn’t want to exterminate the Jews … he wanted to expel them,” and that it was then-Palestinian leader Haj Amin al-Husseini who convinced him that extermination was the answer. And Netanyahu is joined by Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, who call on all Israelis to bear arms and defend themselves—a clear recipe for indiscriminate vigilantism.
On the Palestinian side, President Mahmoud Abbas, despite being committed to a two-state solution and only nonviolent resistance, cannot bring himself to condemn the current round of Palestinian violence. Based on incorrect information, he claimed that Israeli police had “executed” a 13-year-old Palestinian (who had committed a stabbing attack against a Jewish teenager), despite the fact he was alive and being treated in an Israeli hospital. And together with a potential future Palestinian leader, Jibril Rajoub, Abbas praised the Palestinian martyrs who lose blood over Jerusalem, which sounds like support for continued Palestinian attacks against Israelis.
Active Initiatives from the International Community Needed
With Netanyahu and Abbas in charge, it is clear that a solution cannot be generated from within. That is why the consensus among the Israelis and Palestinians at the consultation was to call for the active involvement of the international community to seek solutions.
There are many ideas, among them a new United Nations Security Council Resolution to set the internationally accepted parameters for an agreement; the creation of a permanent international conference to monitor an ongoing process; the establishment of an international support group or the P5+1 formula that was used to arrive at an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program; the reactivation of The Quartet (the US, European Union, Russia and the United Nations); and the use of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, in which the entire Arab world, backed by the Muslim world, offered Israel peace and normal relations in exchange for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, alongside the State of Israel.
In Israel, what we need is to be inspired by Canada. We need our own Justin Trudeau to replace our hard-talking, hawkish neocon Stephen Harper-type prime minister. A leader who can offer a horizon of “sunny skies” and hope for both Israelis and Palestinians, in place of the current storm clouds over Jerusalem.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.