In recent weeks, an upsurge in violence in Jerusalem has brought the embattled city back into the headlines. According to Danny Seidemann, founder of Terrestrial Jerusalem and one of the leading experts on the city, this violence, boiling at a level unseen in Jerusalem since 1967, actually began over a year ago, and it is not just another spoke in the “cycle of violence.”
“Usually there’s a tendency to overstate the instability of Jerusalem,” Seidemann said at a meeting of journalists and analysts in Washington this week. “But Jerusalem is normally a far more stable city than its reputation. What we are seeing now are significant developments that go well beyond tomorrow’s headlines.”
Seidemann described a dangerous confluence of factors, with the political stalemate creating an atmosphere of despair in which the conflict, which has always been political, will finally become the religious conflict that many have believed, until now incorrectly, that it is. The current conflict centered on the Temple Mount is only the tip of the iceberg. According to Seidemann, “The entire fabric of this conflict has changed.”
“The fighting over the Temple Mount indicates the establishment of a biblical narrative which is already fanning the flames of a religious conflict,” Seidemann said. “It is planting the seeds of the transformation of a political conflict, which can be solved, into a religious conflict which cannot be solved. We are seeing the ascendancy of those faith communities that weaponize faith. We are seeing the marginalization of traditional religious bodies who understand that Jerusalem is best served by the faiths working together.
“Nothing guarantees the outbreak of violence as much as the real or perceived threat to sacred spaces,” Seidemann continued. “But the Temple Mount is the detonator, not the explosive device. Violence is sustained by the perceived loss of the two-state solution.”
As Seidemann pointed out, the two-state solution has lost a great deal of its credibility. This is true for both sides, but it is especially impactful for the Palestinians. While observers, politicians, academics and activists debate whether or not the two-state solution is still feasible, that loss of hope for ending the occupation is the key factor in creating despair among the Palestinians. Recent statements by Israeli leaders, indicating that they have no intention of ever leaving the West Bank, and by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that the Palestinians no longer consider themselves bound by previous agreements may have brought doubts about the two-state solution into sharper relief, but it is the reality on the ground that convinces Palestinians of the solution’s failure.
The result is despair, and that is not at all confined to Jerusalem. Israel might have escalated the tensions in September by granting access to the Temple Mount to hundreds of the most extremist Jewish radicals, but all that did was raise the temperature on an already burning flame.
That flame, however, could burn high for some time. The increasing influence of religious forces among Palestinians has been well-documented in the Western media. Less obvious, but just as important, has been the dramatic increase in the influence radical religious forces have in Israel. Formerly, the Israeli government sought to contain such forces, and particularly to keep messianic radicals away from the Temple Mount. As Netanyahu demonstrated last month, this has changed.
The reporting in the United States has largely focused on incidents of assault or murder of Israeli civilians. In covering the leaderships of the two sides, much of the debate has been over whether or not Abbas has been “inciting” the violence, as Netanyahu accuses him of (and which the IDF refuted today). The theoretical discussion has been about whether this is the beginning of a “Third Intifada.”
All of these are missing the mark. While many, in and out of Israel, may have relegated last summer’s devastation of Gaza to historical memory, in the West Bank, Palestinians saw it as yet another confirmation of the low value the world, not only Israel, places on their lives. That despair, the despair of occupation, rather than any of Abbas’ words, is what incites violence. This is the atmosphere that leads to more protests and more violence, as Palestinians are forced to confront a reality where they have nothing to lose. It is not an “Intifada,” and it is not any sort of organized uprising. It is simply the inevitable result of an occupation that seems to have no end.
While Abbas’ faltering position as the head of the Palestinian Authority and the aggressive attitude of the Netanyahu government are major factors in creating this hopeless atmosphere, Seidemann pointed out that the problem is not limited to those bodies.
Referring to the announcement the same day of Israel having demolished homes of two terrorists who carried out deadly attacks last year, Seidemann said, “Demolishing of these houses make Palestinians wonder when the Abu Khdeir terrorists and Duma terrorists will be dealt with.”
This refers to two cases of Jewish terrorism that sparked global outrage. But the way Israel has dealt with them demonstrates why Palestinians feel so devalued. Muhammed Abu Khdeir was murdered in July of 2014. The culprits have been arrested and are still on trial at this time in Israel’s criminal court system. In contrast, Palestinians accused of terrorism are tried by Israeli military courts. And where the families of Palestinians convicted in those courts see their homes demolished in a type of collective punishment, it is the Abu Khdeir family, not those of the confessed murderers, that have been spat upon outside the court. Even the US State Department has accused the Israeli government of harassing the Abu Khdeir family.
The Duma murderers are even more immediate and galling to Palestinians. The arson in the Palestinian village of Duma in the West Bank killed an 18-month old baby and both his parents. Yet, despite the fact that Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon has publicly stated that Israel knows who the murderers are, they have not been arrested. “This creates a feeling that Palestinian lives don’t matter, and that is not only directed at Israel, but also to the Palestinian Authority and much of Arab world,” Seidemann said.
Seidemann is one of the growing body of serious analysts who contend that the model of bilateral talks brokered by the United States that grew out of the Oslo Accords can never produce an end to Israel’s occupation. His message was that outside intervention was going to be necessary, even as he understood how difficult it would be to make that happen.
“There has been no action on Israel since collapse of Kerry initiative (in 2014),” Seidemann said. “Many in the Obama administration are making compelling arguments for simply walking away. Taking any action on this issue would require expending political capital and still may not be successful. These are strong arguments.
“But the implications of walking away are startling. It is very likely that the two-state solution, if it is not lost already, will be clearly lost before January 2017. If that happens, it will have died under this president.”
Seidemann pointed out that, in some ways, the two state solution is being lived now in Jerusalem, with Israeli Jews rarely entering Palestinian areas and Palestinians avoiding the Jewish parts unless they have work or other business there. Settlers in East Jerusalem, however, are living a one state reality, with soldiers accompanying convoys in and out of their enclaves, constant tension and very different standards of living between the two isolated communities. Seidemann described it as “Belfast at its worst.”
Seidemann said that the level of cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority on security remains good. But that won’t last in the current climate. Regardless of Abbas’ commitment to non-violence, Netanyahu continues to accuse him of incitement – “Netanyahu plays on Israeli fears and anxieties like a virtuoso plays on a Stradivarius,” said Seidemann — and the security cooperation is becoming more and more of a political liability for Abbas. Eventually, those things will combine to break that cooperation. This was one of the implications of Abbas’ speech at the United Nations last week. In any case, Seidemann said, that cooperation is insufficient to deal with destabilizing forces at play.