Is there a new intifada in the works? This is what Israelis are asking one another following a difficult week full of unrest, tension, and violence. For five days, Palestinians in East Jerusalem and the West Bank rioted in a series of outbursts that peaked on their declared “Day of Rage” on Tuesday. Border Guard officers were attacked by dozens of masked rioters hurling stones and setting fire to tires. The rioters were dispersed with stun guns. Both rioters and police suffered injuries and there were multiple arrests.
The timing of the unrest isn’t surprising. Israel has given the extremists plenty of ammunition to stir up the population, and the recent sharp exchanges between Washington and Jerusalem have likely given them encouragement. First, there was the declaration of West Bank-located Rachel’s Tomb and Tomb of the Patriarchs as historic sites by the government of Israel, a declaration which gave the government resources to renovate them. Then came the ill-timed announcement of construction of additional housing in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo during the visit of U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden, during which he condemned the plan, sparking a war of words between Jerusalem and Washington. Strike three: the dedication of a new synagogue in the Old City of Jerusalem — this coming on the heels of the naming of West Bank holy places as Israeli national heritage sites.
The consensus was that this was likely to fizzle out, presuming that Israel could put it down with a firm but careful hand.
Burning tires and rock-throwing youths offer attractive front-page images for media outlets. But observers of the events in Jerusalem noted the relatively small number of participants in the current protests and a heavy preponderance of activists of Islamist organizations. Much will depend in the coming days on whether the Israeli security forces can contain the unrest without providing Hamas with new martyrs around whom it can mobilize.
Then, on Thursday, the stakes rose even higher. Hamas has never really stopped lobbing Kassam rockets into southern Israel, but the sporadic fire has been into unpopulated areas, with little damage to life or property. As a result, the attacks have been dutifully reported, but not as anything unusual or worrisome — one even took place while Biden was in Israel and no one seemed to break a sweat.
But Thursday’s rocket fire claimed a casualty — a Thai agricultural worker unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was working in a greenhouse in a community near Ashkelon. The alarm sounded, and there were shelters nearby, but he and some of his fellow workers did not heed the warning and stayed exposed. The rocket exploded inside the greenhouse.
Now, Israel faces a familiar dilemma. A strong retaliation against Hamas in the form of air attacks on Gaza would be playing directly into Hamas’ hands. Such an attack would presumably bring casualties and cast Israel in the role of “murdering innocents” at a time when its relationship with Washington is seen as particularly fragile. Israel’s response, for now, took the form of a limited attack on Friday, but with a warning of more to come:
Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom said Israel would offer a strong response to what was the first deadly rocket fire from Hamas-ruled Gaza at Israel in more than a year.
It is not certain that a larger-scale attack against Gaza in response to the Kassams would incur the Obama administration’s wrath to the extent that recent actions in the West Bank and Jerusalem would. Washington views Israel’s relationship with Hamas in Gaza and the relationship with the Palestinian Authority in East Jerusalem and Gaza very differently.
When it comes to President Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority, the White House is leaning heavily for a kid-glove approach.
This is in keeping with their carrot-and-stick philosophy, designed to presumably usher the Palestinians away from the Hamas-style “losing strategies” of violence and terrorism, jihad, and a battle for the liberation of the entire homeland into a better life through negotiations and a two-state solution. Hence the Obama administration’s disappointment and condemnation with the steps taken regarding Jerusalem and the West Bank, which are seen to hurt the standing of the Palestinian Authority.
There is little evidence, however, that the Palestinians and the rest of the world make a similar distinction, and in the current atmosphere, Israel cannot assume that the U.S. would necessarily stand staunchly by its ally should it take aggressive action against Hamas in Gaza. Thus, Israel will presumably hold back from definitive action unless the Kassam attacks significantly intensify. Ha’aretz military commentators Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff conclude:
Israel’s response will likely remain limited, given the present circumstances in the region. The Netanyahu government already has a number of other headaches to deal with. It’s not only the crisis with the United States over Jerusalem — it is also Israel’s wish to avoid a wider confrontation with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Jerusalem while keeping an eye on tensions in the north.
IDF leaders, who after the Gaza offensive created a reasonable security situation for residents of the western Negev, have no interest in another war in the south, and certainly not in another Goldstone report.
In the same analysis, they said that Hamas isn’t really interested in a war either, noting that the Kassam that killed the Thai worker was fired by an al-Qaeda-linked splinter group:
Hamas is still working to rehabilitate its military wing and tighten its hold on the Strip. The movement is not directly responsible for a single rocket attack since the war’s end, but in most cases has thwarted attempts from smaller, competing factions to attack Israel.
The silent actor in this drama is Iran, which is doing all it can to fan the flames of unrest in the Palestinian population via Hamas in Gaza and their Islamist proxies in the West Bank. Whatever is bad for U.S.-Israel relations is good for Iran, since it takes the focus off of promoting sanctions. As Hamas’ biggest benefactor, if Iran wants a proxy war, whether it takes place via Hamas in Gaza or Hezbollah in Lebanon, a war is what it will get.
Some might conclude that after a week like this, in the U.S.-Israel-Palestinian power struggle, there were no winners. On the contrary, there is a clear winner. His name is Mahmoud Ahmedinejad.