Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has put Israel’s closest allies and some of his key partners on the spot. So has a generation of Palestinian youth that has nothing to lose and no longer sees fruitless engagement with and acquiescence of the Jewish state as a means of realizing their national and socio-economic aspirations.
It’s not that young Palestinians have necessarily given up on a compromise resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On the contrary, however, they believe that armed resistance with the Jenin refugee camp on the West Bank as its focal point will provoke a situation the international community will no longer be able to ignore.
Jenin is home to a black market for pistols, AK-47s, Kalashnikovs, and M16s, and thousands of youths caught in a Catch-22 in which they are ineligible for Israeli work permits because they are on a terrorism list.
So far, the Palestinian youth strategy appears to be working, even if US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s visit to the region was aimed at calming tensions rather than solving problems.
Similarly, that was the message that the heads of Egyptian and Jordanian intelligence reportedly gave President Mahmoud Abbas on the same morning that the Palestinian president met with Mr. Blinken.
The intelligence chiefs’ bosses, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Jordanian King Abdullah, are in good company as they brace for the fallout of escalating Israeli-Palestinian violence.
So is United Arab Emirates President Mohammed bin Zayed who in recent years spearheaded greater Arab engagement with Israel without a prospect for a resolution of the Palestinian problem, and the kings of Bahrain and Morocco, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa and Mohammed VI, who followed the UAE leader’s lead.
Returning from a rare visit to Sudan this week, Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said the two countries would establish formal diplomatic relations by the end of this year.
Unlike Mr. Al-Sisi and the Bahraini and Moroccan monarchs, Mr. Bin Zayed may be less concerned about domestic unrest in response to the Israeli-Palestinian violence but worries that regional security could be compromised by the potential fallout of Israel’s harsh response to Palestinian militancy compounded by a more aggressive Israeli posture towards Iran.
Struggling with an economic crisis, Egypt and Jordan, where Palestinians account for roughly half of the country’s 11 million people, are particularly vulnerable to the Palestinian plight becoming a catalyst for anti-government protest.
This week, Moroccans protested in several cities against their country’s forging two years ago of diplomatic relations with Israel.
The protests were in anticipation of Morocco’s hosting in March in the disputed Western Sahara a meeting of the foreign ministers of Israel, the United States, the UAE, and Bahrain to celebrate the anniversary of diplomatic relations between the Arab and Jewish states.
Last month, Jordanian security forces and protesters, angry about rising fuel prices and poor governance, clashed in the southern city of Maan.
“Such demonstrations have a life of their own, and in a moment, they can turn into a protest against the government, poverty, and waste, and we have a direct confrontation whose results can be lethal,” said an Egyptian journalist.
All of this plays into the hands of militant Palestinian youth.
So does Mr. Netanyahu, as he accommodates hardline Jewish nationalist and ultra-conservative religious figures in his Cabinet who are in charge of national security and Palestine-related affairs.
To be sure, Mr. Netanyahu, in response to last Friday’s killing of Jewish worshippers at a synagogue, refrained from striking back with a sledgehammer as Israel typically does. Mr. Blinken’s visit may have been one reason for Mr. Netanyahu’s reticence.
Israeli officials suggest that behind closed doors, Mr. Blinken and other recent US visitors, including National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and CIA Director Bill Burns, made clear that even if the US and Iran were on one page regarding Iran for the first time in years, their immediate concerns were related to Palestine and the threat to Israeli democracy posed by Mr. Netanyahu’s plans to undermine the independence of his country’s Supreme Court.
“It is a tragedy that we are forced to deal with less important and burning issues at this time. Our mind is on Iran, but our feet are stuck in Silwan,” said a senior Israeli security official, referring to the east Jerusalem neighborhood that is a hotspot of Palestinian-Israeli violence
“The Americans are exerting heavy pressure on the Palestinian issue and equally heavy pressure on the threat to Israeli democracy arising from the Netanyahu government’s legislative blitz. We’re talking to them about Iran and Saudi Arabia, while they want to talk about Jenin and Shireen Abu Akleh and democracy,” a former diplomatic official added.
The former official was referring to last week’s Israeli raid in Jenin, where 10 Palestinians were killed, and the killing last year of Al Jazeera journalist Abu Akleh.
Adopting a more aggressive stance against Iran, Israel is believed to have last month attacked a long-range missile production plant in the Iranian city of Esfahan as well as truck convoys along the Iraq-Syria border convoys carrying ammunition and weapons for Hezbollah, the pro-Iranian Lebanese militia.
Moreover, last week, the US and Israeli militaries staged their most significant and complex exercise to date in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Nevertheless, Mr. Blinken sent mixed messages during his visit, the Israeli assessments of their talks with Mr. Blinken and the two countries’ closer military ties notwithstanding,
For the first time on a visit by a secretary of state, Mr. Blinken met with Israeli civil society organisations focused on LGBTQ rights, integration of ultra-religious Jews and Palestinian Israelis in the Israeli workforce, and Jewish-Palestinian co-existence.
No human rights or other groups working towards an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank were invited.
Even so, the militants and the policies enunciated by the Netanyahu government can take credit for the US focus.
The militants’ resorting to arms, Israel’s harsh response, and Israeli policies that ever more flagrantly violate international law and the Geneva conventions make it increasingly difficult for the United States and Europe to look the other way and for Arab states that maintain diplomatic relations with the Jewish states to limit themselves to verbal condemnations.
Israel’s response so far includes trying to push through legislation that many Palestinians say would amount to collective punishment. It would result in the expedited demolition of the homes of family members of Palestinians who’ve carried out attacks and plans to make it easier for Israelis to get guns.
That has not stopped Azerbaijan from dispatching its first ambassador to Israel in three decades of diplomatic relations with the Jewish state amid escalating tensions with Iran, its southern neighbour, or Chad inaugurating the African country’s first embassy in the country during a visit to Israel by President Mahamat Deby.
Some analysts argue that the militants’ tactics may be a double-edged sword. Their tactics could backfire, and the militants could fall into a trap if the United States and others effectively remain on the sidelines.
“The deepest tragedy is that the Israeli extreme right seems to be counting on Palestinian rage and desperation to provide them with the opportunity to go as far as they can in their twin goals of annexation and expulsion,” cautioned columnist Hussein Ibish.
In a twist or irony, hardliners on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide may find that escalation serves both their interests, even if those interests are diametrically opposite.
Palestinian militants see increased Israeli brutality and violations of international law and the Geneva conventions as making it more difficult for the United States and others to stay on the sidelines or go through the motions of seeking to calm the situation.
So far, the US way to do so does not even amount to a band-aid, let alone a solution. The US is pressuring 86-year-old President Mahmoud’s Palestine Authority to revive security cooperation with Israel and take back control of Jenin and the West Bank city of Nablus.
The US proposition misses a key point: much like West Bank Palestinian militancy in the past, Palestinian youths’ despair is fuelled as much by Israeli policy as it is by the rejection of corrupt and ineffective Palestinian leadership.
“Twenty years ago, we made peace with Israel, but they don’t respect any of it. So, we’re done. We want destruction,” said Ahmad Qassem.
A 24-year-old resident of Jenin. Mr. Qassem has not found work since finishing ninth grade, his last year of school. He was last year released from an Israeli prison after a two-year administrative detention, during which he was never charged or granted a trial.
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Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.