Mismanaging the Conflict in Jerusalem
Mismanaging the Conflict in Jerusalem
The Problem Isn’t Just Netanyahu, It’s Israeli Society
The Problem Isn’t Just Netanyahu, It’s Israeli Society
Op-Ed / Middle East & North Africa 4 minutes

Mismanaging the Conflict in Jerusalem

The streets of Jewish West Jerusalem are eerie and still. Silence hangs over the city, punctured occasionally by a siren’s wail. Buses are half empty, as is the light rail that runs alongside the walls of the Old City.

Heavily armed security forces, joined by army reinforcements, patrol checkpoints, bus stops and deserted sidewalks. Young men in plain clothes carry assault rifles. The evening news broadcasts images of stabbings and shootings. Among the few shops doing good business are those selling weapons and pepper spray.

In the city’s occupied East, residents are frightened, too. Massive cement cubes block exits from their neighborhoods. Lengthy lines at new checkpoints keep many from their jobs. Men under 40 who were barred from Al Aqsa Mosque on Friday prayed instead behind police barricades in the surrounding decrepit streets.

Last week, an Israeli minister called for the destruction of all Palestinian homes built in East Jerusalem without permits, a threat that targets nearly 40 percent of the city’s Palestinians because of restrictive zoning. Jerusalem’s gun-wielding mayor has called on Israeli civilians to carry arms. Jewish mobs chanting “Death to Arabs” have paraded through the streets.

Palestinian parents keep children indoors, afraid they will be arrested or shot. Nightly police raids visit their neighborhoods. Returning from work in West Jerusalem’s kitchens, hotels and construction sites, some Palestinians seek to protect themselves by wearing yarmulkes. On their cellphones, teenagers watch videos of stabbing attacks and of Palestinians shot at close range.

Several days ago, an East Jerusalem business owner told me that he and his employees were frightened to travel to the West. Like many others I’ve spoken with, he lamented the growing hatred and the killings, but rejected the idea that they had been without purpose. They had made clear to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he said, that a red line stands before Al Aqsa; no matter how weak the Palestinian leadership might be, he argued, the people would not allow Israel to restrict Muslims’ access to the occupied holy site, particularly while growing numbers of Israeli activists, some calling for the mosque’s destruction, are permitted to visit under armed protection.

Perhaps most significant, he concluded, the violence signaled that whatever the intentions of their leadership, Palestinians in Jerusalem and the West Bank will not indefinitely extend to Israel a period of calm while no corresponding reduction of the occupation takes place.

The unrest has been sufficiently alarming to induce Secretary of State John Kerry to announce a visit to the region. But it has not brought Israeli leaders to rethink their insistence on never relinquishing East Jerusalem, which includes the Al Aqsa compound, a site also revered by Jews as the Temple Mount.

Yet the Jewish public’s mood is shifting, as it did during the second intifada. It was during the worst month of those four horrific years, in March 2002, that pollsters found peak Israeli support for the territorial concessions proposed by President Bill Clinton in December 2000, including a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem with sovereignty over the Al Aqsa compound. Last week, about two-thirds of Jewish Israelis surveyed in a poll said they wished to separate from the Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, excluding the Old City.

Contrary to claims that Israel’s occupation is growing only further entrenched, the decades since Israel conquered East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza have been characterized by a slow process of Israeli separation, often reluctant and driven by violence. To date, the unrest has not approached the scale that led successive prime ministers to partial withdrawals: Yitzhak Rabin’s bestowing limited autonomy on Palestinians in parts of Gaza and the West Bank at the end of the first intifada; Benjamin Netanyahu’s pulling out of most of Hebron after the deadly 1996 riots over Israeli excavations beneath the Al Aqsa compound; and Ariel Sharon’s announcing a withdrawal from Gaza during the second intifada.

It was at that time that Mr. Sharon erected the wall and fence separating Israel from the West Bank. Palestinians, like most of the international community, view the wall as an illegal seizure of 8.5 percent of the West Bank, but by the same token, it is now nearly impossible to imagine that any of the 91.5 percent of territory on the Palestinian side of the barrier would go to Israel in a future partition.

It is a deeply regrettable fact that, during the past quarter-century, violence has been the most consistent factor in Israeli territorial withdrawal. That may partly explain why growing numbers of Palestinians support an uprising and demand the resignation of President Mahmoud Abbas, who abhors attacks on Israelis and has presided over nearly a decade of almost total quiet in the West Bank without any gains to show for it.

Last month, a survey of Palestinians found support for an armed intifada at 57 percent (and at 71 percent among 18- to 22-year-old men). Support was highest in Hebron and Jerusalem. Two-thirds of those surveyed wanted Mr. Abbas to resign.

Mr. Kerry is scheduled to have meetings with Mr. Abbas and with Mr. Netanyahu in an effort to achieve their shared goal of restoring calm and returning to the status quo. Violence is politically threatening to both leaders, especially to Mr. Abbas, and both will continue to work to suppress any escalation.

Yet if they succeed only in ending the unrest, they will have merely restored the stasis that gave rise to it. This is what Israelis call “managing the conflict.” There is certainly no guarantee that if the two leaders fail to stop the flow of Palestinian and Israeli blood, things will eventually get better.

But what does seem guaranteed is that most Palestinians will continue to believe that if the occupation is cost-free, there will be little incentive to end it. Mr. Abbas and Mr. Netanyahu have taught them that.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.