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Netanyahu ‘better not disturb the status quo’

Analysis: Israel’s crackdown on Palestinian unrest threatens to topple Abbas

Al-Jazeera – 6 October 2015

The rapid escalation in violence in Jerusalem and the West Bank in recent days suggests that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may be entering a new phase, analysts say.

While some observers were quick to label this a third Palestinian uprising or “Intifada”, the term risks obscuring as much as it reveals.

The latest clashes, according to analysts, are occurring in a new physical and political reality. Palestinian society has been atomised by separation walls, checkpoints, and an expanding network of settlements and military bases.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian national movement is deeply divided, the Arab world is in disarray, the West is focused on its own economic and social troubles, and Israel is adamantly opposed to negotiations.

Unlike the earlier intifadas, points out Menachem Klein, of Bar Ilan University, near Tel Aviv, the clashes are not chiefly about resistance. They have been provoked by the growing stranglehold the settlers enjoy, both on the ground and on government policy.

“There are now so many settlers that there is zero distance between Palestinian communities and the settlements,” notes Klein. “That ensures constant friction.”

Over the past few years, the settlers have dramatically increased their so-called “price-tag” attacks. They regularly stone neighbouring Palestinian villages or sometimes use army-issued weapons; they set light to Palestinian places of worship; they steal land, burn crops and take over water sources.

The Palestinians’ growing sense of vulnerability was underscored by the arson attack in late July on the village of Duma that left three members of the Dawabsheh family dead, including an 18-month-old baby.

In Jerusalem, settlers have been aggressively staking their claim at the most sensitive site in the conflict: the al-Aqsa Mosque compound in the Old City.

Faced with threats from the settlers and a leadership vacuum, Palestinians have begun organising themselves locally, “at the village or neighbourhood level”, points out Samir Awad, a political scientist at Birzeit University, near Ramallah.

Palestinian popular committees, which were created to defend against settler violence, have made clashes – and tit-for-tat revenge attacks – inevitable.

Locked into prison cells

Also confusing the picture is the lack of clarity about what Palestinians hope to achieve, aside from revenge or letting off steam.

Awad argues that Palestinians are no longer sure what they need to shake off first. “Is it the larger occupation, the individual miseries they endure from the settlers and army, or the Palestinian leaders, who have achieved so little for them?”

Jerusalem-based analyst Jeff Halper points to the Palestinians’ mounting hopelessness, describing current events as a kind of “lashing out”. “Palestinians see no political process. They are being locked into their prison cells. They feel they have nothing to lose.”

Until now, the Palestinian Authority (PA), which is committed to enforcing security in the islands of West Bank territory it ostensibly controls, has mostly succeeded in preventing the protests from spreading to the Palestinian cities.

But the PA’s ability to contain these frustrations are in doubt, observes Halper, given that they already suffer from a massive credibility problem among Palestinians.

The very unruliness of the current events means Israel is struggling to respond effectively.

For some time, Israel has been characterising most Palestinian attacks on Israelis, especially those in Jerusalem where the PA and Hamas are effectively barred, as “lone wolf” incidents.

These spontaneous outbursts of violence by Palestinian individuals have exposed the Israeli security services to a new kind of challenge.

Boiling point in Jerusalem

In Jerusalem, Israel has been trying to present an image of normality to the outside world and visiting tourists, while waging a low-level war against Palestinians. It has assisted the settlers in “Judaising” the city and strengthening their presence around al-Aqsa.

But the simmering violence has been close to its boiling point for the past year, since Jewish extremists burned alive 16-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, says Klein, has only one option: more force. “His thinking is strictly short term. He is interested primarily in crisis management. He believes he can rebuild quiet for Israel through shock treatment.”

In an attempt to restore order, the Israeli government has been ramping up the pressure on Palestinians by imposing draconian measures, especially in Jerusalem.

It has, for the first time, temporarily shut Jerusalem’s Old City to Palestinians who are not residents.

Muslim guardians at al-Aqsa, commonly known as al-Mourabitoun, have been outlawed, and Palestinian worship severely restricted. Israel has authorised live-fire against stone-throwers and minimum four-year jail terms.There will also be fast-track demolition of the homes of relatives of Palestinians who carry out attacks.

Even so, the settlers are not satisfied.

On Monday night, thousands surrounded Netanyahu’s residence in a show of force, demanding he build a new settlement for every Palestinian attack. They have been egged on by settler leaders in his government.

Pondering invasion

There has been speculation that, as the pressure mounts, Netanyahu may order a large-scale reinvasion of the West Bank, similar to Operation Defensive Shield of 2002, which sought to crush the second Intifada.

Such a scenario is unlikely, observed Awad, because it would only risk bringing down Abbas and the PA.

“Israel has control. The Palestinian armed factions are no longer organised in the West Bank. Abbas is coordinating with Israel on security matters and is repressing his people and Hamas. It is better for Netanyahu not to disturb the status quo.”

Yaron Ezrahi, an Israeli political scientist at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, concurs. He believes Netanyahu wants to wait things out, on the model employed towards the Golan Heights, seized by Israel from Syria in 1967.

“For years, Israel was under pressure to return the Golan to Syria, but since the collapse of Syria, no one talks that way,” he said. “Netanyahu hopes something similar can happen with the West Bank.”

But even without an invasion of the West Bank, Abbas’ situation is precarious. Klein believes the Palestinian president will try to cling on to power. “He fears that if he steps down or the PA collapses, Hamas will fill the void and be impossible to remove.”

Nonetheless, most analysts agree that Abbas – or even the PA – could become a casualty of current events.

In these circumstances, Israel would be forced to install a new Palestinian leader more to their liking, or create a different political arrangement.

That might involve the creation of mini-fiefdoms in the West Bank based on each city, says Klein. Mayors could then be recruited to keep order.

That, he adds, would thrust the ball back in the PLO’s court to recreate itself as a resistance movement.

“Whatever the outcome, it won’t solve Israel’s problems [in the] long term. The impulse among the Palestinians for national liberation will still be there.”

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