A wave of violence has gripped Israel over the last two weeks, stirring questions of a Third Intifada. Moment spoke via e-mail with Ofer Zalzberg, senior analyst with the Middle East Program of the International Crisis Group, about how the violence began and what can be done to quell it.
The violence was triggered during the Jewish High Holidays by developments at the Holy Esplanade in Jerusalem – known to Jews as the Temple Mount and Muslims as Al-Haram Al-Sharif. For years there have been clashes at the site during these holidays because the increasingly large numbers of religious Jews who ascend to the esplanade (thousands annually today, up from hundreds two decades ago) raise fear among Palestinian Muslims that the site would no longer be an exclusive site of Muslim worship as it has been for centuries. They fear the esplanade would be effectively divided, with separate prayer times for Jews and Muslims. This is far from being the first time that the site is the epicenter of violence. Being of paramount religious and national importance to both Jews and Palestinians, developments at the site over the last century have repeatedly led to large-scale violence at the site and beyond it.
The immediate trigger this year was Israel shifting its access and policing policy at the Esplanade just before this year’s High Holidays began in mid-September. On September 14th, Israel resumed the highly detrimental practice of limiting access to Muslims below a certain age (40 during Rosh Hashanah and 50 during Sukkot). This while religious Jews — including Israeli agriculture minister Uri Ariel and a group of young Likud activists — visited the site and declared in front of cameras that the ban on non-Muslim worship on the Esplanade should end. This reinforced among Palestinians the sense that the government is intent on dividing up the Esplanade’s visiting hours between Jews and Muslims.
The role of Israeli political leaders is particularly significant. It suggests to Palestinians that Jewish ascenders who seek to allow Jewish prayer at the site are not a fringe group but supported by the Israeli government. This impression has become much stronger over the last few years — particularly during the previous Knesset, in which the political activism from Likud and Jewish Home members regarding the Temple Mount was unprecedented. Senior politicians — ministers, deputy ministers and heads of Knesset committees — made repeated, explicit statements to the effect that the status quo should be changed in order to allow Jewish prayer at the Esplanade. The chairperson of the Knesset Interior Committee convened the committee an unprecedented 15 times to discuss the situation, notably prodding the Israel Police to punitively limit access to all Muslims when young Palestinians throw stones at the Israel Police. She also promoted draft legislation to divide prayer times between Jews and Muslims.
There was more. Then-Deputy Speaker of the Knesset Moshe Feiglin convened the Knesset’s first plenary session about Israeli sovereignty over the Temple Mount. And several ministers and deputy ministers repeatedly ascended, declaring in front of cameras that Israel should assert its full sovereignty over the site. The Ministry of Religious Services prepared prayer regulations for the Temple Mount, which proposed dividing prayer times between Jews and Muslims. And officials at the Israel Ministry of Tourism promoted allocating two of the nine Muslim-only entrances to non-Muslim entry. In response, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated that Israel is committed to the status quo, but virtually never publicly expressed opposition to these moves or explained Israel’s interest in preserving the status quo.
In short, escalation regarding the Holy Esplanade — primarily a result of political activism in Israel — has been building since 2012.
It is important to note that all these developments fell on attentive ears. Since the 1930s, Palestinians like the Grand Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini have alleged — without any evidence as far as I know — that Israel intends to destroy the Al-Aqsa Mosque and build a temple in its stead. Sheikh Raed Salah, a prominent Israeli Islamist leader, has similarly been stoking the fire between Israel and Muslims worldwide by arguing since the mid-1990s without any clear evidence that Al-Aqsa is in danger because Israel is digging under the mosque and intends to ultimately destroy it and replace it with a Temple. The slogan “Al-Aqsa in danger” was endorsed by many Muslim and Arab leaders, but more as a talking point against Israel than as a call for urgent mobilization in the face of an imminent threat.
But the “Al-Aqsa in danger” campaign also raised concerns that Israel would do at the Esplanade what it did in Hebron in 1994, when it divided the Ibrahimi Mosque/Cave of the Patriarchs — until then exclusively a mosque — into part mosque and part synagogue. With Israeli political activism regarding such temporal division growing, changes to Israeli policing at the Esplanade transformed in the minds of many Palestinians a distant potential threat into a dramatic and imminent one.
Israelis largely see limitations on Muslim access through the lens of security. But Palestinians see collective punishment and a step toward division of the site.
Can you explain the significance of the status quo agreement regarding Temple Mount/Al-Aqsa?
The status quo is more of an arrangement than an agreement. There is no written document establishing how Israel and Jordan are to administer the site, primarily because Jordan sees Israel as an occupier at the site and fears an explicit agreement would grant it some legitimacy at the site.
For Muslims, the main written reference is Ottoman custom and decrees that established the Esplanade as a mosque that all can visit but where only Muslims can pray. This is an understanding of the site in which Israel’s entire involvement is basically illegitimate.
For Israeli Jews the tendency is to focus on the de facto arrangement reached between Israel and the Waqf , an Islamic body affiliated with Jordan charged with administering the site shortly after the 1967 Six-Day War ended. Israel agreed to have Judaism’s holiest site maintained by Muslims, and to ban non-Muslim prayer there, but took control over one of the ten gates of the Esplanade in order to independently ensure the free access of Jews to the site.
Jordan has acquiesced to administering the site with Israel in this way and calls for sticking to it in the interim – basically, until full resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is achieved. Palestinians are largely unhappy with Jordan and Israel administering the site “above their heads” — an exemplar of Palestinian exclusion — but the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) came to see it as the least-bad scenario and in international forums calls for its preservation.
With an eye to these very different understandings of the status quo, it is clear that for Israel, Jordan and the PLO, the status quo in the sense of a commitment to at least the basic contours of the arrangement — the ban on non-Muslim prayer, the site’s administration by a Muslim power — is the most they can agree upon. It is a suboptimal equilibrium but a relatively violence-free equilibrium.
In short, the status quo’s significance is that respecting the existing reality is the only semi-principled argument the leaders can present to their constituents to justify their complicity in an arrangement that is viscerally perceived as illegitimate.
Israeli officials are calling these “inspiration attacks” rather than “guidance terror attacks.” What’s the difference? Why are “inspiration attacks” more challenging to foil?
Guided terror attacks are the ones perpetrated by organizations that have structure and hierarchy, which allow their leaders to order the members whether and how to carry out an attack and to provide them with the necessary financial and logistical support. Inspiration attacks are those in which the perpetrator is motivated by what he or she sees on virtual social networks like Facebook, on TV or elsewhere, without any orders from above or organizational support.
Inspiration attacks are more difficult to foil because they are spontaneous, with virtually no intelligence-gathering possible simply because no communication with partners or purchase of arms precedes them. Such perpetrators may themselves not know on the day before that they’ll carry out an attack tomorrow
Some are warning that this is the beginning of the Third Intifada. Is it?
It is too soon to tell. Perhaps. It depends on what we mean when we employ the term “intifada.” Taken to literally mean a popular uprising, the current patterns of lone attackers and scattered protests of several hundred people fall far short of full popular mobilization. A year ago, during the Gaza War, we saw at the center of each East Jerusalem neighborhood protests throughout the night, which were reminiscent of those of the First Intifada. We don’t see this now, though that may change. And whether popular mobilization emerges or not, if the majority of Palestinians would come to call the current violence the Third Intifada, then for all practical purposes that would settle the debate.
For now, a major factor inhibiting more comprehensive popular mobilization is that the governments in both Gaza and the West Bank do not themselves mobilize people to participate in attacks against Israelis. They allow protestors to get in direct contact with Israeli soldiers and they rhetorically support some attacks, but they do not themselves recruit and participate in the way that, for example, the Palestinian Authority did during the Second Intifada.
This weekend saw the first attempted suicide bombing of the violence. Is the violence escalating?
Yes, we are seeing an escalation. I would not be surprised if we saw more suicide bombings soon. Some Palestinian factions are trying to ride the popular wave by equipping the young attackers who are willing to sacrifice themselves so that their impact would be greater and so that the organization could claim to have inflicted more damage to Israel.
The success of this tactic depends largely on the security coordination between Israel and the PA. So far, they have successfully foiled such attempts, but this may not last forever.
Beyond this, we have already seen some missiles fired by Salafi jihadi groups at Israel. Israel reacted by destroying Hamas-related targets and, according to Palestinian sources, killing a mother and her baby who happened to be nearby. So far Hamas has avoided itself firing at Israel. It seems to clearly not be currently interested in yet another Gaza War. But Hamas has faced increased public pressure for Gaza to confront Israel and has therefore allowed the militant group Islamic Jihad to organize protests near the fence — demonstrations in which several Palestinians have been killed and at the very least have created the impression that Gaza is shouldering some of the burden of the current escalation. But it is impossible to rule out that the killing of many civilians in Gaza, even inadvertent, would lead to yet another Gaza War.
Netanyahu said that “civilians are at the forefront of the war on terrorism”; there have been reports of sold-out pepper spray stocks and increased interest in Krav Maga classes. Is this a typical civilian reaction in Israel?
Not as far as I recall. The late Rabbi Meir Kahane organized so-called self defense groups, but this was a fringe phenomenon. This popular reaction reflects a high sense of vulnerability, in light of the difficulty of preventing inspiration attacks. This sense is fed, among other things, by calls of Israeli mayors encouraging their residents to carry arms in order to defend themselves, suggesting that Israel’s security forces could be insufficient.
Netanyahu has blamed the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, and the Islamic Movement in Israel for incitement; on Sunday, he singled out MK Haneen Zoabi. Is there a particular group or person responsible for inciting violence?
Netanyahu labels as “incitement” both calls for direct violence and purposeful mischaracterization of what the Israeli government is doing, which increases anger and support for violence against it even if it falls short of calling for direct violence.
Fatah and Hamas leaders have in recent weeks practiced both kinds of incitement. Netanyahu argues that so has MK Zoabi. PA President Mahmoud Abbas himself, according to senior officials from Israel’s own Shin Bet, has not been calling for violence against Israelis. He has, however, used unprecedentedly strong terms regarding Israel’s moves at the Holy Esplanade and has allowed official Palestinian Authority media to employ a combative line not seen since the Second Intifada.
That said, the discussion about incitement has to be done carefully so as not to lose sight of questions about the degree to which Palestinian violence is a reaction to Israeli policies. There are also questions regarding the degree to which some leaders within Israel — be they politicians, religious leaders or others — take part in inciting violence against the Palestinian population.
What can be done to ease tensions and stem the violence?
Four fronts should be addressed: the Holy Esplanade, East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Israel’s Arab citizens.
While the escalation is no longer exclusively about the Holy Esplanade, it still is a central motivating factor and must be robustly addressed. It should be made clear that Israel is not working to destroy the mosque and that it does not intend to temporally divide the Esplanade. It would be helpful if Jordan, Israel and Palestinians coordinated regular monitoring of the site, performed perhaps by internationally recognized Jordanian, Israeli and Palestinian archaeologists. If the Jordanian royal court and the PA presidency publicly supported their findings, it would become much more difficult for the “Al-Aqsa in danger” campaign to succeed. And the government should distance itself from the fringe group of Temple activists by cutting governmental financial support to non-profits they lead, like the Temple Institute, and curtailing their access to Israel’s education system: between 50,000 and 60,000 Jewish religious pupils annually attend as part of their school curricula educational activities of the Temple Institute in which it is taught, in contradiction to the view of the vast majority of rabbis in Israel, that according to Jewish religious law the Temple can and should be built already now at the current site of the Dome of the Rock.
In East Jerusalem, where violence is motivated by a deep sense of relative deprivation due to the dramatic differences between the Arab and Jewish parts of the city, it would be politically helpful if, in addition to putting in place new generously funded policies to address the social and economic gaps, Israel and the PA found a way for local Jerusalemite Palestinian leadership to emerge. This leadership would voice the interests of the Palestinian population of the city in front of international donors, the Jordanian Waqf and perhaps indirectly also the Jerusalem municipality. This is tricky for the PA, which would like to have a more direct foothold in East Jerusalem – a notion Israel’s current coalition cannot stomach – and for Israel, which since the Second Intifada has consistently foiled any attempt at an East Jerusalemite leadership, fearing it would threaten Israel’s rule. But the parties who want a Palestinian body that would be able to calm young East Jerusalemites need to realize they have to give it some power, albeit limited and conditional on constructive use.
In the West Bank, Netanyahu’s declaration last week to freeze settlement construction should be bolstered by a public commitment not to build in places that could violate the contiguity of the future Palestinian state. But that is highly unlikely to happen in this government. What may be possible is for the government to distance itself from the practice of virtual impunity for settler violence — as far as I know, there isn’t a single case in which Israeli courts have sent perpetrators of such violence to prison for such attacks. Palestinian attackers and protestors are currently very motivated by calls for revenge against these attacks, particularly the brutal torching of 16-year-old Muhammad Abu Khdeir last summer and the Dawabsheh family in July. Indicting the culprits would be helpful. So would the outlawing of nonprofit organizations associated with such violence. The Israeli government seems to be advancing toward outlawing of a nonprofit called Lehava, whose activists have for years called to violently attack Palestinians.
Finally, within Israel, it seems that the main motivating and mobilizing factor is the sense of many of Israel’s Arab citizens that the Israel Police is often arbitrarily violent toward them and does not treat them as equal citizens. If the government can demonstrate that policemen who behave this way will be sanctioned and that different policies will be instated, that could help to calm the situation.
All four fronts face a common obstacle: Leaders on all sides would have to leave their political comfort zone. Netanyahu is already losing public support to more hawkish leaders. Abbas would have to cooperate with a set of actions that would at best deliver much less than what he would like: actual, rapid, serious movement toward ending the occupation. Hamas leaders would need to de-escalate in the West Bank and Gaza in spite of the gains they have made in Palestinian public support since the violence began. It is very doubtful that all these leaders will muster such courage, even if calm is arguably in their best interest: it would restore Netanyahu’s image among Israelis as the leader who can provide them with security, it would reduce the growing calls to remove Abbas from power after his failed strategy of diplomacy, and it would help Hamas avoid another war between Israel and Gaza.
It is more likely that the leaders would pursue more limited moves that won’t totally eliminate the violence. Whatever new reality emerges from this escalation will likely be one in which the daily level of violence is higher than it was before.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.