Speaking at a rally to mark the 20th anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, former US president, Bill Clinton, told the crowd that Rabin “gave his life so that you could live in peace. What does it all amount to? Now that is up to you.”
It was, sadly, all too timely a message. Despite the relative decline in reciprocal violence in Israel and the West Bank in the past few weeks, the ground is still burning – and neither Israeli nor Palestinian leaders are doing much to quench the flames.
Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has announced a review of the residency rights of tens of thousands of Palestinians living in East Jerusalem, while Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, has called for the creation of an international force to protect the rights of his people. These are just the latest moves in a series of populist and ill-conceived steps the two leaders have taken since the most recent outbreak of violence.
These recent hostilities have confirmed once again that this is not only the most intractable conflict of our time, but also the most confusing.
There is almost no aspect of this conflict that hasn’t been fiercely contested. Whether it’s the origins of the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948 and the birth of the Palestinian refugee problem, the failure of the 2000 Camp David Summit and the outbreak of the Second Intifada weeks later, or the 2014 Gaza war between Israel and Hamas, Israelis and Palestinians (and their respective supporters) have shown an incredible capacity to unburden themselves of introspection and resist the temptation to find common ground.
This time, the self-destructive tendencies of both sides have been laid bare with the help of social media, a domain where fact and fiction are hard to separate – particularly when it comes to Israeli-Palestinian relations.
The immediate bombardment of information, misinformation and disinformation by the Israeli and Palestinian PR machines on social media after each stabbing, shooting and disturbance has made it impossible for the casual observer to make sense of why the violence is boiling over once again.
Both Israelis and Palestinians maintain that the key issue underpinning this episode is the threat to the long-held status quo over praying rights in the holiest and most controversial religious site in Jerusalem, known as Temple Mount to Jews and al-Haram al-Sharif to Muslims. The site was administered solely by the Jordanian Waqf until 2000, but after the Second Intifada began, Israel took control of entry to the complex.
Palestinian leaders claim that ever since, Israel has allowed an increasing number of Jewish prayers on the site while limiting Muslim access to it. For its part, the Israeli government accused Palestinian extremists of disturbing the status quo by smuggling weapons to the site and inciting violence against Jewish prayers.
Reciprocal incitement and hatred between the Israeli and Palestinian camps has been a permanent fixture on social media for a few years now. Over the past few weeks there have been numerous new Facebook pages and twitter feeds by Israelis and Palestinians inciting violence against each other, but this time even their respective leaders have done their best to up the ante by spreading misinformation and lies.
On October 12, two Arab teenagers aged 13 and 15 were shot by Israeli police after they stabbed a 13-year-old Jewish boy. In response, the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, gave a live broadcast on Palestinian TV in which he described the shooting as an “execution”, even though the two Palestinian youths were not killed, and were taken to an Israeli hospital for treatment.
Ironically, while the office of the Israeli prime minister was quick to call Abbas’s comments “incitement and lies”, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu showed his own aversion to the truth only a week later.
Addressing the 37th Zionist Congress in Jerusalem on October 20, Netanyahu went back as far as the 1920s to dig up Palestinian “lies” about the Jewish threat to Jerusalem’s Holy Sites. His fictitious account of what really happened when the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, met Adolf Hitler in Berlin in November 1941 (according to Netanyahu, until that meeting Hitler didn’t want to exterminate the Jews, only to expel them, but Husseini urged him to burn the Jews) has since been ridiculed on social media and been condemned as a fairy tale by historians.
Stop the incitement
The timing of this latest spike is also hard to explain. After all, talk of a third intifada has been simmering away since the last violent episode in November 2014. So rather than a single incident or issue which underpins the current state of affairs, it’s worth reflecting on why the environment as a whole is changing.
In one sense, these events are filling a diplomatic vacuum created by the failure of the nine month-long mediation effort of US Secretary of State John Kerry in 2013-2014. Sadly, both sides have filled it with incitement and dangerous rhetoric.
The attention of the international community has also been pivoting towards more pressing agendas in the past two years – the negotiations with Iran, the rise of Islamic State, the civil war in Syria, and the ensuing refugee crisis in Europe. By comparison, the Israeli-Palestinian issue is a basket case which has already consumed two decades of intense diplomatic, political and economic investment but remains stubbornly deadlocked. And unlike these more recent items on the international agenda, it does not pose an immediate threat to international security.
The other issues have again demonstrated that a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a panacea to the world’s problems. It would not have prevented the rise of IS or the Syrian civil war, or headed off Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
The sad truth, however, is that for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to once again receive serious diplomatic attention from the international community, a third intifada does need to break out. Right now, it’s just about latent, but all it needs to manifest is one spark.
In 2000, that spark was Ariel Sharon’s visit to Temple Mount. If the international community wishes to avoid a deadly repeat of the awful events that ensued, all efforts should now be directed at curbing incitement on both sides.