Is the West Bank lurching into another period of sustained violence with the Temple Mount once again at the center of the conflict? If so, the international media is missing the story. A prescient piece appearing in Ha'aretz on October 8, 2009, suggests that the biased Goldstone report, which accuses Israel of committing war crimes, has shattered a stabilizing balance in the violent relationship between Israel and the Arabs. This balance rests upon Israeli deterrence, which the Goldstone report undermines.
Columnist Ari Shavit writes,
However, in recent weeks the balance has been disrupted. Hamas is rearing its head while the Palestinian moderates are becoming more radical. A trickle of Qassam rocket fire has resumed in the south, while the embers on the Temple Mount are glowing red-hot.
This is no coincidence. The Goldstone report and the Goldstone spirit are causing a situation in which the deterrence that was achieved for such a high price at the beginning of the year could expire prematurely. They are bringing the next round of Israeli-Palestinian war closer. ("Watch out for the Goldstoners," Ha'aretz, Oct. 8, 2009)
The international media has been transfixed by the allegations made against Israel in the UN sponsored report. Its release comes at a time of increasing unrest, stoked by Israeli Arab and Palestinian leaders in the West Bank that has attracted little notice outside of Israel. In fact, in recent months, coverage of the situation in the West Bank has been cautiously upbeat reflecting optimistic reports by the World Bank and others of an improved economic and security situation.
Just two month ago, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman offered an upbeat assessment of what he observed on the West Bank ("Green Shoots in Palestine" I and II, NY Times, Aug. 9). Friedman was encouraged by the licensing of 900 new businesses in the first half of 2009 and the removal of Israeli checkpoints. He also approvingly noted the deployment throughout the West Bank of four new battalions of the Palestinian National Security Force - a nascent Palestinian army. Friedman urged more money for the Palestinian forces and more risk-taking on the part of Israel.
The Israeli media, however, has been less bouyant, expressing increasing alarm at the strident rhetoric among Fatah leaders and clerics and the sporadic street violence in Jerusalem. In a scene evocative of the early days of the Second Intifada, on Sept. 27, allegations of Jews marching on the Temple Mount have stirred sporadic riots in the streets. As Shavit's piece warns, the media has been slow to catch on to the potential connection between the Goldstone report, released on Sept. 15 and the evolving situation on the ground.
In recent days, the Israeli press has been full of ominous reports. An article on Ynet on October 6 notes an upsurge in violent incidents by Palestinian militants against Jewish targets, tallying 95 in September as compared to 53 in August. A number of articles describe a chorus of Muslim clerics inciting the Palestinian population to "thwart" attempts by the Jews who they allege endeavor to "break into" the al-Aqsa Mosque compound. According to Reuters, even the "moderate government" of Mahmoud Abbas has taken to calling for a confrontation with Israel, signaling its support for rising street violence. An article in Ha'aretz reports that in the face of calls by Palestinian and Israeli Arab extremists to escalate confrontations with Israeli police the chief of police in Jerusalem, has "appealed for calm" and condemned those who are "generating a warlike atmosphere."
One reason the media outside of Israel has fallen behind events is their failure to adequately scrutinize the Sixth Fatah Party Congress convened in early August. The last party congress met 20 years ago. The relatively sparse coverage of the Congress in the New York Times and other mainstream sources downplayed the belligerent tone and hardening of positions evident in the statements of various Fatah officials. Speakers at the Congress conveyed a discomforting message endorsing "armed struggle" as a legitimate tactic. While insisting that Fatah "opposed harming and terrorizing citizens," speakers repeatedly upheld the right to "resistance by all means" with "the choice, timing, and place and method" determined by the "circumstances" and "constraints." (MEMRI, Inquiry and Analysis no. 538, Aug. 6, 2009)
One of the few concrete actions arising out of the Congress was the cementing of ties between Fatah and the Al-Aksa Martyrs Brigade, the terrorist group formed during the Second Intifada by Fatah militants. Several Fatah members intimately involved in organizing the Al-Aksa Martyrs Brigades and in fomenting the Second Intifada were elected to the Fatah Central Committee, the partys highest body. These included Marwan Barghouti, now serving a prison sentence in Israel for the murders of five Israeli civilians, and Tawfiq Tirawi, who oversaw coordination between the terrorist group and security forces. Another new member is Mohammed Dahlan who was quoted earlier this year as stating:
For the one thousandth time, I want to reaffirm that we are not asking Hamas to recognize Israel's right to exist. Rather, we are asking Hamas not to do so because Fatah never recognized Israel's right to exist. (Jerusalem Post, March 17, 2009)
The New York Times benign view of the newly elected members of the Central Committee was that :
The new leaders are considered more pragmatic than their predecessors and grew up locally, in contrast to the exile-dominated leadership they are replacing. (August 11, 2009)
Khaled Abu Toameh of the Jerusalem Post had a different take, writing, "The assumption that Muhammad Dahlan, Jibril Rajoub, Marwan Barghouti and Tawfik Tirawi are more moderate than old-timers like Ahmed Qurei, Nabil Sha'ath and Hani al- Hassan is completely mistaken." He also quoted a Fatah insider as describing another new member, Abu al-Aynain as a "ruthless thug who does not hesitate to liquidate anyone who stands in his way."
The more pragmatic tone mentioned by the Times was not in evidence in the Palestinian political arena just weeks after the conclusion of the Congress. According to the Jerusalem Post, "The Palestinian Authority's chief Islamic judge, Sheikh Tayseer Rajab Tamimi declared that there was no evidence to back up claims that Jews had ever lived in Jerusalem or that the Temple ever existed (Jerusalem Post, Aug. 27, 2009)."
Undermining the Program to Aid "Moderates"
It has been a mere five years since the Second Intifada wound down in the West Bank. With Palestinian terrorist groups temporarily emasculated and Yasir Arafat gone from the scene, Western governments, believing there could be an opportunity, renewed the push to resolve the conflict. Picking up where previous peace efforts had left off, the so-called Road Map for peace set out to establish the conditions for peace by rebuilding the shattered Palestinian economy, promoting effective governance and providing police training to enable Palestinian "moderates" of Fatah to defend themselves against the more radical Hamas.
In December, 2007, at a Paris conference, Western and Arab donor states dramatically expanded financial aid to the Palestinians, committing to $7.7 billion dollars over the succeeding three years. The Palestinians already were the leading per capita recipients of humanitarian aid in the world. To avoid again having problems with diversion of funds to the private accounts of officials or to terrorist groups, Western governments insisted upon increased transparency in the Palestinian Authority and ensured the selection of Salam Fayyad, a Western-oriented technocrat, as Prime Minister.
To protect the West Bank government from being undermined by Hamas, which had already taken control of Gaza, Western governments funded the recruitment and training of large numbers of idle young men into expanded security forces.
These steps represent an extension of the policies adopted after the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. Despite the failure of the Oslo process, advocates of the current policy believe that the mistakes of the Oslo years have been remedied. Equally important, they view the current leadership of the Fatah-dominated West Bank government as committed to a peaceful solution. A more pessimistic view holds that the current steps are window-dressing for the same failed policies that led to the Second Intifada. The hardline sentiments expressed at the recent Fatah General Congress revealed that despite the quiet of recent years in the West Bank, the underlying sentiment has not softened. The issuing of the toxic Goldstone report and the recent outbreak of violence in Jerusalem threaten to undermine the tenuous progress.
Will American Pressure to End the Political Stalemate Backfire?
The Obama administration like the Clinton administration in the 1990s vowed to make achieving progress in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a priority. The Clinton administration expended much energy trying to find an accomodation, culminating in the July 2000 summit between then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and then Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat. Arafat was offered as much as 96 percent of the West Bank and concessions on the status of Jerusalem. He rejected these offers and several months later, the visit by Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount provided the pretext to launch a terror war.
In recent weeks, the Obama administration has put pressure on Israel to freeze settlement building and on the Palestinians to agree to negotiate. The Obama administration reportedly also tried to stifle or at least delay any action on the Goldstone report. The Palestinians initially appeared cooperative, but are now resisting American pressure. In this context of American pressure and Palestinian resistance to it, the increasingly hardline stance taken by Fatah and the rising street violence are ominous signs.
Training Palestinian Security Forces
A provision of the Oslo accords was the professional training by Western governments of Palestinian Authority security forces, many of whom were former or current members of armed groups (as described by Brynjar Lia in A Police Force Without a State). Not surprisingly, this Western training was utilized by terrorist groups during the Second Intifada, as described in an expose published by the San Francisco Chronicle in 2005. Documents captured by the Israeli army in April 2002 revealed how Palestinian Authority security forces provided logistical and financial support to terrorist groups launching attacks against Israel. New Fatah Central Committee members, Barghouti and Tirawi, figured prominently in these documents.
Recruitment and training of security forces has also been a major initiative of the recent international efforts to bolster the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Last year, the Jordan Times disclosed a program to train 50,000 policemen for the West Bank which will add to the already large number of armed and under-employed Palestinians. The newly strengthened links between the Al Aksa Martyrs Brigades and Fatah could set the stage for similar cooperation between violent militants and government officials as occurred in the Second Intifada.
What About the Improving Palestinian Economy
Over the past year, a series of reports have described an improving economic climate in the West Bank. Most notably, the World Bank published an assessment of the West Banks economic performance in the first half of 2009. Underlying the improved economic situation is the marked increase in foreign charitable donations, which according to the Banks estimate now makes up 30 percent of the Palestinian gross domestic product. As was the case during the Second Intifada, the generous international aid regimen stabilizes the government, but has the deleterios effect of severing government dependence on the revenue stream provided by a stable and calm commercial environment. This could act as a disincentive for the government to employ its security forces to reign in violence should it explode again.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, an improving economic climate does not protect against the outbreak of a campaign of violence. Both the Second Intifada in 2000 and the First Intifada in 1987 were launched during a period of improving economic conditions.
Incitement to Violence
In the aftermath of the Gaza "Cast Lead" operation, a number of reports by organizations condemning Israel, culminating in the recently released Goldstone Report, contribute to a heightened atmosphere of incitement to violence by depicting Israel as guilty of war crimes and acting with impunity against Palestinian civilians. At the same time, by proscribing effective military responses to terrorist groups that hide behind civilians, they vindicate the strategy employed by these groups. While the Fatah government initially agreed to put off further actions on the report in the UN, allegedly due to US pressure, it has now backtracked and is promoting action in the UN on the report. As Shavit indicates in his piece, this assault on Israeli deterrence will only embolden the terrorists and make war more likely. The next days, weeks and months will be telling as to whether the current outbreak in street violence in Jerusalem represents a passing phenomenon or presages a new intifada.