By Ira Sharkansky
Letter from Israel 

What should be done?


There are no sure answers to either of those questions.

Both Israelis and Palestinians are arguing—with each other and among themselves—if the current uptick in violence signifies an intifada or something less.

Politicians, activists, and security professionals are arguing among themselves and with each other about the most appropriate ways to deal with the violence, and how to act in ways not likely to increase the violence.

There is wide agreement that we are in a wave of violence, not all that different from previous waves that have been recorded since the latter part of the 19th century.

What is occurring and what should be done is the stuff of political conflict. Ideologues and party activists of many kinds have their slogans and crisp answers. Whether one takes inspiration from the Arabic, Hebrew, or other language media coming from numerous countries, there is more heat than light, more noise than any success in dealing with complexities of what is happening and what it is possible to do.

Sensitivities are at high pitch. Jews railed against a British headline that began with the killing of a Palestinian by police, and only put in second place that the Palestinian had just killed Jews. Individuals can reach heights of fury over the use of the word “terror” or referring to Israeli Arabs as “Palestinians.” Israeli security personnel find reason to avoid the use of “intifada.” 

For some, there is nothing more certain than that “settlements” are the core of the problem. However, some of those would allow Jews to live in Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, but not in Arab neighborhoods, in certain West Bank settlements but not in others. 

Critics see nothing worse than Jews attacking Arabs. Price Tag must be replaced with Enlightened Tag. Others see Jewish revenge as useful. If it doesn’t let Arabs know the price of their violence, it forces the Israeli government to act more aggressively against Arab as well as Jewish violence.

What is happening? A lot that is not clear as to who is causing what, and if there is a larger picture that simple descriptions miss.. There are areas of calm as well as severe unrest in the West Bank, Arab towns in Israel, and neighborhoods of Jerusalem. Some of the incitement is Arab against Arab. Individuals claiming leadership of parties and families are competing in their calls for rebellion or calm. Israeli security professionals are comparing, each with their statistics, as to how this upsurge in violence resembles or differs from  previous ones, before 1948, between 1948 and 1967, since 1967, or since Oslo in 1993. So far there has been no case of suicide bombing. There continues to be cooperation between Palestinian and Israeli security personnel. Mahmoud Abbas speaks aggressively. He accuses Jews of responsible for it all and calls on the UN to send troops to protect Palestinians. He has also urged his party colleagues to quiet the tempers. That Abbas’ own standing among Palestinians is about as low as it can get may be part of the problem.

Critics accuse policymakers of not being creative, but without themselves indicating what will deal with things.

Just about every manner of aggression and accommodation has been tried. There have been freezes in settlement building, even in neighborhoods of Jerusalem. There have been prisoner releases. There have been high-level talks aimed at finding common ground. While politicians seek to excite voters with their slogans, security professionals are more able to talk with their counterparts in detail, with less emotion.

What seems to be emerging is an uptick in Israeli force, along with restraints, hoping that this wave of violence will gradually decline, and that it will be some time until the next one.

Police spokespeople have noted a decline in their measure of incidents in recent days. With media reports of stone throwing and stabbings still in the headlines, we can wonder if the cops aren’t doing some wishful analysis.

No one should claim to know what starts an uptick, and what brings a wave to decline. The enmity has been with us for more than a century. Among the things to be argued is when did it begin. Experience suggests that no deal—with or without great power participation and pressure—can bring these parties to anything like what has prevailed between Germany and France since World War II.

Cynics conclude that there must be widespread destruction before the Muslims are prepared to deal. The carnage and rubble seen several times in Gaza has not been enough. One doubts that Israelis are inclined to be more forceful than that.

Perhaps the fault is the competition of two monotheistic religions and two nationalisms over the same territory, with the Muslims encouraged by co-religionists elsewhere who have nothing to lose from dead Palestinians, and who see support for the Palestinians’ struggle as helping themselves to keep quiet in their own countries.

Radical Jews make their own contribution, perhaps a tiny one in keeping with their numbers, but nonetheless significant. Demands to settle everywhere in the Land of Israel and to replace al Aqsa with a Jewish Temple get in the way of policymakers whose prime concern is not to make things worse.

Imagine what Jewish environmentalists and vegetarians would say if such a Temple were built, and priests began to stink up the air and water with animal sacrifices.

Arab Members of the Knesset have joined the incitement on the Temple Mount, have sought to explain away Arab violence against Jews, and condemn the killing of Arab murderers by Israeli police.

MK Ahmed Tibi has posted claims that a Palestinian was killed unjustly by Israel Police. His comments provoked a counter posting with the Palestinian speaking from the grave, saying he was killed while seeking police aid.

Testimony is that stabbing of an ultra-Orthodox teenager came only after the teenager taunted the Arab—somewhere on the border between Arab and ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods—with “Arabs don’t belong here.” Jewish witnesses report that the Arab told the young man to stop it, and when the Jew continued to taunt the Arab took out his knife and began stabbing. Then the police arrived and killed the Arab.

The best summary of Israel’s official actions fits the notion of coping. Police and other security personnel, and the most sane of politicians are seeking to manage the upsurge, rather than aspiring to crush it in any ultimate sense. A little bit of this, and a little bit of that. Increased patrols, a greater willingness to open fire, and to move into the heart of hostile towns and neighborhoods, arresting juveniles, imposing fines on parents, stopping the family social security payments of families that do not pay those fines, destroying the houses of those who attack Jews. All those are significant acts, without reaching the level of a world war, a mass expulsion of Arabs, or even bombardment at the level of what Israel has done in Gaza.

The purposes include pressuring the excitable among the Palestinians, and signalling that there is much more that Israelis can do if Palestinians continue on the road of violence.

Settlers are demanding more construction, as punishment of the Palestinians for their violence. The Prime Minister and Defense Minister have met with settler leaders, and explained the benefits of holding off on any new projects, in order to maintain some semblance of international support for a campaign against violence. The Prime Minister has ordered government ministers and Knesset Members of coalition parties to stay off the Temple Mount.

Palestinians know what is happening elsewhere in the Middle East. A few of them catch the fever and sneak out of Israel and into Syria to join the fight. Israel has incarcerated those who survive and return home. We can assume that most Arabs of Israel, Gaza, or the West Bank do not want to escalate the violence, with the results they are able to predict.

Despite the noise of politicians, there is not a way to end this. There may be ways to keep it from getting worse, and letting the violence die down. 

We’ve been here before, we’ll be here again. It ain’t pleasant. It could be a lot worse. We should try not to make it worse.


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