- Violence, whilst frequent, is still largely spontaneous, decentralised, and involving relatively small numbers, distinguishing it from the First and Second Intifadas and making its trajectory hard to predict.
- Both the Israeli and Palestinian Authority leadership have taken steps to restore calm, but Abbas’s authority is seriously diminished, and with Islamist groups stoking the flames, the risk of further escalation is ever present, including from Gaza.
- Prime Minister Netanyahu is trying to contain the situation amid growing public concern and political pressure from the right of his coalition to take a tougher response.
What are the latest trends?
The attempted denotation of a car bomb by a Palestinian woman outside Jerusalem on Sunday 11 October and increasing tensions on the Gaza border are the newest elements in the situation. Meanwhile, attacks by individuals using knives and stone as well as Molotov cocktail attacks are continuing and spread in recent days to include more Arab-Israeli perpetrators inside Israel.
Whilst much of the Palestinian incitement is coming from organisations, especially by Islamist groups, and amplified by social media, actual attacks appears still to be spontaneous, decentralised, and involving relatively small numbers. These are among the factors which distinguish this escalation from the First and Second Intifadas. It also makes it very difficult for either Israeli or Palestinian authorities to prevent attacks or to predict whether violence will escalate or die down.
Both the Israeli and Palestinian Authority leadership have taken steps to restore calm. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu banned all Knesset members – Jewish and Arab – from the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif in a decision taken late last week. The last week also saw PA President Mahmoud Abbas somewhat cool his rhetoric, speak out against the escalation of violence and instruct his security forces to prevent clashes. International pressure on both sides is increasing, with US Secretary of State John Kerry speaking with both leaders. A Quartet delegation is due to arrive in Israel on 15 October, though at official rather than ministerial level.
Israeli security officials assess that Abbas now seeks to calm rather than inflame the situation, having earlier engaged in incendiary rhetoric. However, Abbas’s authority is seriously diminished, and the risk of further escalation ever present. A shift to greater use of fire arms or explosives by Palestinian attackers or a mass casualty event on either side could change the picture suddenly.
The claim that Israel intends to change the status quo on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif – which is promoted by those wanting to stoke violence and helped trigger this escalation – continues to fuel anger especially among young people, despite Netanyahu’s repeated denials.
Arab Israeli Knesset members suspended a plan to visit the Temple Mount on Sunday, but, to varying degrees, continue to play to populist Arab sentiment. Radical Arab-Israel Knesset Member Haneen Zoabi went so far as to publish an article in a Hamas website calling for mass participation in a full blown Intifada. However, it appears most Israeli-Arabs are not interested in joining the violence. Participation in demonstrations in Israel is relatively low. Remarkably, Joint Arab List leader Ayman Odeh was publicly accosted by the mayor of the Arab-Israeli town of Nazareth on Sunday, who accused him of fueling tensions by joining demonstrations.
Meanwhile the IDF’s assessments remain that Hamas does not want to confront Israel directly in a new Gaza conflict, but welcomes violence which undermines security for both Israel and the PA in the West Bank, and is calling for more attacks. However, other groups in the Gaza Strip are interested in confronting Israel from Gaza. The Iranian aligned Palestinian Islamic Jihad organised violent demonstrations on the Gaza-Israel border during the weekend which led to Palestinians being shot and killed by Israeli forces, with Hamas choosing not to stop them. Meanwhile Jihadist factions continue to fire a trickle of rockets. Gazan authorities reported that an Israeli retaliatory strike killed a mother and daughter over the weekend. Further such fatalities would escalate tensions, raising the chances that Hamas’s military wing could start firing, as it did last summer.
What is the Israeli government’s approach to the problem and what could change it?
Prime Minister Netanyahu is seeking the quickest route to restore calm, trying to balance between showing a firm hand which establishes deterrence and avoiding actions which might provoke more violence or invite international pressure. The latest practical step has been drafting up more than a thousand border police reserves, part of a policy to flood Jerusalem and other potential flash points with security forces to deter and prevent attacks and reassure the public. This follows measures to deter violence, including tough minimum sentences for stone throwers, and destruction of terrorist’s homes.
The longer the violence continues, the more public confidence in Netanyahu’s leadership is under threat. The right flank of his coalition openly challenges him by calling for more aggressive responses to restore order, especially in the Old City of Jerusalem and for the outlawing the radical northern branch of the Islamic Movement which has been actively fermenting unrest – a move the Cabinet is now considering. The right wing Jewish Home party is also taking the opportunity to demand new settlement construction, with settlement planning having been effectively frozen for some time.
At a major press conference on Thursday evening, Netanyahu was flanked by key ministers from his own Likud party – Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon and Internal Security Minister Gilad Erdan – as well as the chiefs of the IDF and police, projecting the image that they were the ones running the show, as opposed to their more hawkish coalition partners. At the press conference Netanyahu defended his decision not to allow new settlement announcements as “common sense” in order to maintain international support in the circumstances. The US has told both sides to avoid “inflammatory rhetoric and actions”.
During the same press conference, Netanyahu reissued a call for a broad government of national unity, reflecting a constant veiled threat to the Jewish Home party that he could seek to build an alternative coalition with the centre-left Zionist Union opposition party. However, according to reports, Netanyahu is not currently willing to meet Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog’s demands for joining the government.
In sum, though Israeli and PA leaders seek to contain the situation, it has its own momentum. The best hope is that the Palestinian violence, lacking mass participation, will lose momentum over time and decline to more manageable levels. However, with so many potential flash points and agitators involved, and with tensions so high, the risk of further escalation is ever present.