Internet or Intifada?

by Shlomo Ben-Ami Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister, is Vice President of the Toledo International Center for Peace. He is the author of Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy. 06.11.2015

TEL AVIV – According to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, the ongoing wave of knife attacks on Jews by young Palestinian “lone wolves” can be blamed entirely on incitement by Palestinian Authority and Islamist websites. Netanyahu evidently expects Israelis, and the world, to believe that if these sites were posting cat videos, the Palestinians would cease their agitation and submit quietly to occupation.

Palestinians are indeed being provoked, but by Israeli actions – beginning with the perpetual encroachment on their rights that occupation entails. Beyond facing daily humiliation at checkpoints, Palestinians have seen Israeli settlers destroy their crops and olive groves, and even torch a West Bank home, burning three family members and killing a toddler. Add the Israeli military’s frequent late-night house raids in search of “terror suspects” and the relentless expansion of Israeli settlements, and it becomes pretty clear that Palestinians don’t need to scour the Internet for reasons to be angry.

It is ironic that Netanyahu, of all people, is accusing anyone of incitement. Was it not incitement when, just days before Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995 for his efforts to achieve peace with the Palestinians, Netanyahu addressed a rally where posters depicted Rabin in a Nazi SS uniform? Was it not incitement when he attempted to mobilize Jewish voters earlier this year by warning of “Arabs voting in droves, bussed in by the left.”

Just this month, one of Netanyahu’s shamelessly incendiary statements – the claim that Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, gave Adolf Hitler the idea of annihilating Europe’s Jews during World War II – sparked a media firestorm. When it comes to anti-Jewish zeal, Husseini’s record hardly needs false footnotes – unless, apparently, one has an interest in presenting the Palestinians as co-perpetrators of the Holocaust.

In this case, it seems that Netanyahu may have gone too far; after more than a week of condemnation, including from Israeli historians, he was forced to retract the statement. But he is unlikely to be chastened.

For Netanyahu, incitement is a powerful political tool. He fuels Israeli fears and disillusionment, in order to preserve a status quo that, at least in the case of Palestine, benefits Israel. As Netanyahu put it last month in a closed meeting of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Israel must continue “controlling all the territory,” adding that the country “will forever live by the sword.”

Of course, this approach is not always successful; for example, Netanyahu was unable to block the international nuclear deal with Iran, despite his best efforts. But, rather than rethink his approach, he has simply redirected it, in order to restore the Palestinians to their position as the principal existential threat to Israel.

Today’s emerging intifada demonstrates the profound danger implied by this approach. Fueling Israelis’ fear and resentment of Palestinians does not only undermine the chances of a political solution; it also exacerbates Palestinians’ frustration and anger with Israelis.

And that anger is already intense, especially among young Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. Consider what life is like in East Jerusalem, the epicenter of the decentralized rebellion, where some 77% of Palestinians live below the poverty line. Not only are municipal services poor or non-existent; Palestinians also face persistent pressure from Jewish religious groups bent on asserting Israeli control.

Young Palestinians – the third generation to live under occupation – have run out of patience. Despite being a largely secular generation, they are using the narrative of jihad (the knife is a conspicuous Islamic State symbol) to defy their parents’ docility, challenge an incompetent Palestinian leadership, and, most of all, to resist the Israeli occupiers. That is why they have made Islam’s holy shrines on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount (Haram al-Sharif to Muslims) into icons of their rebellion.

If iron-fisted authoritarian governments in countries like Egypt and Tunisia could not stop their populations from overthrowing them in the Arab Spring, how can one expect the crippled Palestinian Authority to stop this rebellion? Indeed, at this point, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is more worried about avoiding the fate of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak or Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali than he is about stopping the violence. To preempt young Palestinians’ wrath, he has refused to condemn their terror campaign and indirectly fueled anger over Israel’s supposed violation of the status quo on the Temple Mount.

This approach will have far-reaching consequences, for a similarly dangerous vehemence regarding the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism, has lately been gaining traction among Israelis. Though Jewish law explicitly forbids Jews from ascending the Temple Mount, lest they profane this most sanctified of Jewish shrines before the coming of the Messiah, a growing number of Israelis – from religious fanatics to members of Israel’s ruling coalition – now support defying that prohibition. They claim that Jews must frequent the holy site, and even build a temple, to strengthen Israel’s sovereignty there.

The focus on the Temple Mount has given the current confrontation an apocalyptic quality. It is time for both sides – and especially the Israelis – to recognize just how dangerous the situation is. By blurring the borders between Israel and the Palestinian territories, Israel has created the conditions for permanent civil war. The two-state solution might not be particularly attractive to either party anymore; but a binational solution, at least as it is unfolding these days, would be a living nightmare.

Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister, is Vice President of the Toledo International Center for Peace. He is the author of Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015.

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