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SPECIAL IN-DEPTH ANALYSIS

There seems to be an escalatory effort underway within Israel, in the administered territories in Judea and Samaria, along Israel’s northern and Gaza borders, and even globally, which could lead to great tension, even war, in the coming months. This is not a mutually reinforcing cycle of violence between two sides, but a concerted offensive serving the strategic aims of a number of Israel’s enemies.  

More than 300 Palestinians were injured near the Temple Mount on May 10 after Israeli police firing tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets clashed with stone-throwing Palestinians.  Hundreds of Palestinians and a smaller number of Israelis were injured in other similar attacks over the weekend.  The recent violence coincides with the celebration on May 10 of Jerusalem Day, an Israeli national holiday that celebrates the 1967 Israeli capture of East Jerusalem and the sacred sites within the Old City walls. The violence also continues a recent escalation of violence in Jerusalem, some of which concerns the neighborhood of Shaykh Jarrah.

There is no one cause for this escalation. Rather it results from a collection of forces and strategic interests converging. Like the epic art of Middle Eastern story-telling, the singular “umbrella” theme of escalation is actually the product of many separate sub-tales woven into other tales which align into a shell or framework story. In this case, that unifying shell tying these separate tales together represents a very real moment of danger.

The signs of escalation were building for weeks. In early April, there was a sudden escalation of attacks on Israeli Jews, many of which were serious and violent enough to result in hospitalization. As the Palestinian Media Watch, and FLAME – an organization dedicated to accuracy in media – note, the Palestinian official media organs started broadcasts of highly inflammatory and bloody rhetoric starting on April 2.[1]  Two particularly disturbing attacks, one a beating by three Arab youths of a Rabbi in Jaffa, in the southern part of Tel Aviv, and another when an Arab spilled boiling liquid on a Jew entering the Old City of Jerusalem, were followed by violent Arab demonstrations when police attempted to arrest the perpetrators.

Palestinians Organizing Violence Against Israeli Jews Through Social Media

Palestinians conducting these attacks in early April filmed their exploits and posted them to TikTok to compete over the amount of “likes” and “approvals” they could draw. This wave of Palestinian attacks on unsuspecting Jews became so prevalent that this escalation was dubbed the “TikTok Intifadah.”

After two weeks of these violent attacks, a small group of extremist Jews marched in the streets of Jerusalem calling for harming Arabs. Small demonstrations in Jaffa near the area of the April 20 attack on the Rabbi also took place. There were no similar acts or Jewish demonstrations prior to this. There were also one or two localized acts of anonymous Jewish graffiti-spraying with hateful slogans, and the destruction of a few trees.

These incidents were isolated and limited.  Israeli authorities investigated and will prosecute them. Moreover, subsequent investigations, even by leftist human rights organizations like BeTzelem, have been forced to admit they had been misled and thus must retract some of their accusations of Jewish violence, particularly arson, which turned out to be acts of Palestinian arson. The actual Jewish demonstrations and disturbances were quickly suppressed by Israeli police and largely disappeared.

In contrast, Arab demonstrations have accelerated, expanded, broadened geographically and become increasingly violent.  The leadership of the Palestinian Authority continues to use its media outlets not to calm the flames, but to pour high-octane fuel on them. This incitement includes songs and chanting of slogans calling for martyrdom and blood in children’s programs across all age groups, even toddlers.

Another series of attacks centered on the Damascus Gate leading into the Old City.  This campaign of violence, especially a series of beatings of Jews and riots in Jerusalem, Jaffa and at the Damascus Gate on April 12, led Israel to set up barriers on April 13 to control flow, keep potentially violent Jewish and Arab extremists separated, and maintain pedestrian traffic control to segment and respond quickly to rioting attempts by either side.  When a large number of Arab agitators quickly surged toward the area that evening, the barriers proved inadequate, and several days of escalating nightly Arab riots against Israeli police ensued, which eventually provoked a smaller Jewish demonstration and unrest on April 20.

Hamas Joins the Violence, Rockets Fired from Gaza

It was not long before the border with Gaza heated up as well, and rockets began being launched into Israel. One night in late April registered nearly three dozen rocket attacks onto Israeli towns and cities near Gaza.  The northern border heated up as well, with an increased pace of activity by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to establish its ability to attack Israel, followed by a series of Israeli strikes in Syria to diminish that capability. After one Israeli strike, a stray Syrian SA-5 missile flew nearly 200 km across Israel and landed near Israel’s nuclear reactor in Dimona.

In the first week of May, the escalation continued. The Palestinian Authority then formally cancelled its planned elections and blamed Israel, after which the long silent head of the Hamas military structure, Muhammad Deif, suddenly resurfaced to call for violent attacks on Israelis, to include also “hit and run” attempts to run over Israelis.  On May 2, live fire weaponry was re-introduced when a Palestinian terrorist, Muntazir Shalabi and a driver, machine-gunned three Israelis waiting at a bus stop at Kfar Tapuah Junction in Samaria in the territories. One Israeli teenager, Yehuda Guetta, died and another is in serious condition. A third escaped with moderate injuries. He was the first Israeli to die to live fire in a terror attack in years.

Hamas delivered on its threats very quickly on another front.  On May 5, Hamas from Gaza resumed incendiary balloon attacks, which this time included not only incendiary devices attached to set fires in Israeli fields, but also small bombs which could have caused considerable personal injury or death if they landed close to people in Israel.

On Friday May 7, Israeli forces stopped a heavily armed squad originating in Tulkarem which was attempting to enter central Israel.  Israeli forces identified the terrorists who were driven in a minibus with stolen Israeli tags to facilitate entry into central Israel. When stopped, the three terrorists exited the minibus and initiated firing near the Salem military base checkpoint, but failed to injure a single Israeli while two of the three terrorists were killed.

Finally, by nightfall on May 7, riots had erupted on the Temple Mount, with hundreds injured, including many police.  Rioters retreated into the mosques on the Temple Mount, and police were forced to take positions up near them.  This will put Israel in the difficult position of being accused of “aggressions” against the Temple Mount and threatening the “status quo.” Indeed, there is every indication that this will soon cause a crisis in Israeli-Jordanian relations. In fact, the concept of status quo is odd to begin with since over the last two decades it has been fluid rather than static.  But the flow has always been in one direction.  As any visitor to the Temple Mount over the last four decades can attest, the idea of a rigid “status quo” on the Temple Mount has proven to be an illusory concept masking constantly expanding challenges to Israeli sovereignty, let alone Jewish and Christian access to the Temple Mount, at the hands of the increasingly restrictive Muslim Waqf.

Palestinian Authority Leader Abu Mazen Orchestrated this Violence to Avoid Holding Elections

Israel faces a concerted escalatory campaign which promises to deliver a hot summer.  But why?

The context of this escalation is a willful policy of seeking to provoke a climate of tension which was first started by Muhammad Abbas (Abu Mazen), the head of the PLO and Palestinian Authority, but expanded to other players who had equal strategic reasons to seek upheaval.

Early this year, against the advice of most of his closest aides, Abu Mazen called for the first Palestinian elections in well over a decade for the end of May. Whatever Abu Mazen’s calculations were, it appears to have been a horrible miscalculation.  By the end of March, it was painfully clear to him, his aides, his allies, his enemies, and to most international observers that not only will he not win the upcoming elections, but that he will be trounced with both Hamas’ and Marwan Barghouti’s faction of the PLO defeating him.

To avoid such a devastating humiliation, it was clear by very early April that Abu Mazen would have to cancel those elections which he eventually did the first week of May. And yet, cancelling the elections was not so simple, since both Abu Mazen’s aides and Hamas leaders made it clear that the latter would take to the streets in a violent upheaval against the PA and Abu Mazen if he cancelled the elections.  Abu Mazen had no way out of this dilemma other than to proceed to cancel the elections and at the same time blame Israel to provoke a series of escalations that would externalize the anticipated violence and deflect it onto Israel.

Outside Parties Contributing to the Violence

A broader context also has intruded about which there is building evidence.  Several actors, both Palestinian factions as well as external actors such as Iran and Turkey, see a need and opportunity to incite escalation against Israel on many fronts, of which popular unrest was the first phase.  In terms of need, the escalatory interests of the Palestinian Authority, Erdogan’s government in Turkey and the revolutionary regime in Iran emanate from a sense of threat to their regimes from a fear of public rejection and internal unrest.  All face grave crises internally that rattle their regimes in dangerous ways. On the other side, in terms of opportunity, the escalatory aspirations of all these actors emanate from the growing confidence that any increase in violence surrounding Israel will cause tension under the new Biden administration between Jerusalem and Washington, thus providing a strategic incentive to engage in just such an escalation.  Other than the previous administration, and to some extent the George W. Bush  administration, such a reflexive reaction to reign Israel in, and the resulting frustration of Israeli power and initiative, was a safe bet. As such, this sort of escalation, and in the form of a test, has been a consistent theme greeting every new administration in which there was hope that they may be less pro-Israeli.

The Role of Israeli Arabs

Finally, there is an internal Israeli dimension too.  There is great shock and discomfort in traditional Israeli-Arab parties and elites in Israel. In the recent elections, an Arab party, the United Arab List (Ra’am) under Mansour Abbas, gained almost as many seats in the Israeli parliament (Knesset) as the traditional leadership represented by the Joint Arab List party led by Ayman Oudeh.  Mansour Abbas’ party gained this traction because the Israeli Arab population is facing a series of grave crises in such areas as crime, education, and the economy.  There is popular erosion of support for the traditional leadership since it fails to deliver on these issues that are important to average Arab Israelis. And patience is stretched for continued sacrifice for the elites’ obsessive, theoretical support for unattainable nationalist aspirations.

In a stark departure from the practice of reigning Arab-Israeli elites, Mansour Abbas’ party promised to work within the framework of any Israeli government as a normal parliamentary party to secure the interests of its constituents.  Rather than respond competitively, however, the “establishment” joint Arab List continued peddling an entirely disruptive, anti-Zionist pan-Arab nationalist agenda which sacrificed its ability to enter the parliamentary power structure to leverage and barter for constituent interests.  Instead, it continued to opt for international applause for its rhetorical and entirely disenfranchising nationalist behavior. As such, this internal Israeli Arab traditional leadership anchored to the Joint Arab List also instigated some of the recent violence in order to embarrass and undermine the rising support for the Ra’am (the United Arab List) party.  The Joint Arab List under Oudeh even provoked direct violent attacks on Mansour Abbas and some in his party in Um al-Fahm last month. One of the aims of this tension then is to shame Ra’am’s leadership enough to force it into expressing support for the unrest, which would sabotage the party’s ability to deliver on its promise and enter an Israeli government.

As such, the interests of a panoply of actors now dovetail into a dangerously escalatory and mutually-resonating climate enflamed by the United Arab List, the PA, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Turkey and Iran.  Each player has contributed a sub-tale to this story, but the shell, or “umbrella” story is the larger and unifying tale of escalation.

Thus, the unprovoked Arab rioting, the climate of tension created by the impressive performance of the United Arab List in the Israeli elections, followed by the violence instigated at the behest of Abu Mazen and then Hamas and Islamic Jihad, are not the whole story.  Given the interests that seem to be in play, it is likely that they are a prelude to attempts to lay the groundwork for a more dangerous escalation in the coming days and weeks, serving not only the interests of diversion noted regarding Abu Mazen, but foreign actors who seek to drive a wedge between Israel and the United States.

Anti-Israel U.S. Think Tank Takes a Cheap Shot at Israel

A final, disturbing and novel dimension of this current escalatory cycle is that it is attended by a considerable footprint from U.S. territory.  First is the advance propaganda campaign, clearly coordinated, to provide a proper background to set a narrative in the United States favorable to this escalation and multiply the tensions it will cause in U.S.-Israeli relations.  With blazing speed after the PA and Hamas had signaled there will be an escalatory cycle, pro-Palestinian voices in the United States mobilized to secure this narrative.  The Middle East Institute’s Khaled Elgindy, publishing in Foreign Policy, is for example a revealing example of the effort, when he wrote:

“The unrest began on April 13—around the start of Ramadan—when Israeli authorities blocked off the steps to the Old City’s iconic Damascus Gate in Palestinian East Jerusalem. The seemingly arbitrary move sparked several days of clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli security forces.”[2]

Of course, there was nothing arbitrary about Israel’s moves at the Damascus gate on April 13 since for weeks before the restriction, accelerating numbers of unprovoked attacks, as incited by Palestinian leaders, occurred on Jews in both Jerusalem and in Jaffa.   A focal point of many of these attacks not only in recent weeks, but over the last year, also included several incidents against police at the Damascus Gate.  In fact, the restrictive barriers set up at the Damascus Gate on April 13 are the inevitable consequence of an escalatory ramp the Palestinian leadership itself had ascended.

So why did the author set the date as April 13, to use his term an arbitrary mile marker midstream in a series of escalating activities?  Because it is the start of Ramadan.  The implication is insidious: the Israelis chose to out of the blue attack Muslims in Jerusalem on that day of all days since it marked the beginning of the most holy month.  In other words, Israel is subtly accused of launching a grave religious attack on Islam itself – a highly incendiary implication.

As such, this article must be characterized not as an attempt to illuminate, but much more as an attempt to serve as a calculated propaganda offensive coordinated with the determined effort of escalation started by Abu Mazen now joined by Hamas and Islamic Jihad as well as Iran and Turkey.  The use of the word “arbitrary” to characterize Israeli actions is a clever propaganda device to not only to obscure, but to erase the context of Israel’s actions rather than effort to bring about understanding.

Why the Neighborhood of Shaykh Jarrah Has Become a Flashpoint in the Recent Violence

The Shaykh Jarrah issue is strategic for two reasons.  First, the area connects the Jewish areas of Jerusalem to the Hebrew University, Mount Scopus and several large Jewish neighborhoods to the north.   Second, and perhaps much more ominously, if the Jewish claims were annulled, then this would encourage a massive effort to challenge all Jewish claims to any property in Jerusalem, such as the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, and perhaps throughout Israel.

The issue of the Shaykh Jarrah neighborhood is complex. It is the site of the holy graves of a 12th century Muslim Shaykh who was the doctor of Salahdin, a Muslim military leader who captured Jerusalem in 1187, from which the area derives its modern name, and the 5th century BC grave of Simon the Just – the last of the original clerics which returned with the Jewish people from Babylon and started the interpretation structures that make up todays Jewish liturgy called the Mishna. The sub-neighborhood, Shimon HaTzadik is named after him.  Although there is deep historical importance, to this area, there is even more legal and strategic importance.

The neighborhood’s three sections housed in 1948 about 125 Arab families, which had moved in in the 1930s and 1940s – some of those families only used the houses as retreats such as the Husseini and Nashashibi families — and about 80 Jewish families who lived since the Ottoman era year-round in the neighborhood. In 1948, the area was successfully secured by the Harel brigade of the Haganah in early 1948 as part of the Jewish-Arab-skirmishing in advance of the declaration of the State.  British soldiers, not Arabs, attacked and removed the area from Israeli control, forcing the Jewish families to leave, and turned it over to Arab forces.

Shortly afterwards, on April 13, 1948, a British-“protected” Jewish resupply convoy to the Israeli enclave on Mount Scopus was attacked by Arab soldiers. The British remained neutral, despite their obligation to protect the convoy, and observed the resulting massacre of 78 Jewish doctors, nurses and civilians. This effectively left Mount Scopus and the Hebrew University cut off from the remainder of Israel. A few years later, when the area was under Jordanian control, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and the Jordanian government transferred several Arab families into the vacant Jewish houses.

When Israel reoccupied the area in 1967, which is in the strategic triangle between the green line, the French Hill, and GIvat Hamiftar connecting Israel to Mount Scopus, the Jewish families which had been expelled two decades earlier asserted their land deeds. A decision by Israel’s Supreme Court in 1972 ruled the Jewish claims were valid, and thus ownership was theirs, but also ruled that for practical reasons, any Arab family which occupies a house will be protected from eviction if they agree to pay rent to the Jewish owners.  Recently, Arabs have come forward with counterclaims, all of which are proving to be forgeries.  This is not surprising since land claims from the Ottoman Era are in Ottoman archives in Istanbul, and the Turkish government under Erdogan several years ago launched an effort to cull all the land deeds in Israel from the Ottoman era.  The Turkish government is strongly suspected of systematically destroying original Jewish deeds and creating new forgeries.

At any rate, in 1972, a number of families did accept the Israeli Supreme Court formula and paid rent, but a much larger number of families simply ignored the rule of law and refused to pay.  The current issue of eviction is about some of those families which have refused to pay rent since 1972 in houses whose Jewish title was incontrovertibly established.

Equally disturbing are the highly incendiary and destabilizing claims of Democratic politicians, such as Senator Elizabeth Warren, that the Jewish land ownership deeds constitute an “abhorrent” and “illegal” act of occupation and settlement. Such statements display such insensitivity to or ignorance of the history of the neighborhood that it effectively should annul the validity of their participation in discussions of this issue.  Or worse, this suggests an anti-Semitic outlook that holds that Jewish titles and land deeds simply do not count.  One can only hope the motivation here is ignorance.  Nonetheless, these statements have encouraged the violence and greatly inflamed the situation as it encourages Arab rioters to believe their mayhem is gaining traction.  The statements by the U.S. government, while less flagrantly ignorant or prejudicial, have been weak and disturbingly neutral as well, which also enflames the situation.

The Supreme Court on May 9 decided to postpone this issue, clearly to buy time to avoid playing into the highly escalatory climate encouraged by Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, but this issue will reappear soon, if even not immediately, since postponing it may not buy calm and the Arab rioters enjoy international support.

The Terrorist Village of Turmus Ayyeh

Another disturbing U.S. aspect of the current escalation is the role that a village in the northern territories in Samaria played where the terrorist that killed Israeli citizen Yehuda Guetta early this week lived. Not only is this terrorist, Muntazir Shalabi, a U.S. citizen, but 80% of the village, Turmus Ayyeh, is inhabited by U.S. citizens, many of whom are generally absentee, coming only during the summer months.  This village has also become a Mecca of sorts for Western pro-Palestinian activists and radicals. An effort to follow the money behind this is warranted.

Conclusion

The coming months, thus, will be tense for Israel, and quite possibly very violent.  The failure of the United States to preemptively and strongly signal that it will not allow a wedge to be driven between Washington and Jerusalem and the strong expectation that the opposite will occur further encourages the eruption of violence which aligns with the underlying interests of the various Palestinian factions and surrounding ambitious Turkish and Persian neighbors.

Dr. David Wurmser is a Center for Security Policy senior analyst and Director of the Center’s Project on Global Anti-Semitism and the US-Israel Relationship

[1]   James Sinkinson, “Media Spins TikTok Intifadah into Slander against Israel,” Israel Hayom, May 7, 2021.

[2] Khaled Elgindy, “Washington has enabled Israeli extremism” (Foreign Policy, May 6, 2021).

David Wurmser

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