A Perfect Storm – The Palestinian Arena on the Edge
By Col. (res.) Udi Evental | March 6-19, 2019
|Photo: Hosny Salah via Pixabay|
In recent years, both branches of the Palestinian arena – Gaza and the West Bank – are subject to a standing strategic alert of Israel’s defense establishment, warning of an outbreak of violence and heighted security risks.
The alert reflects basic parameters of instability. Gaza is controlled by Hamas, a terror organization that opposes Israel’s right to exist and is determined to increase its military power to threaten Israel’s civilian population. Aside Hamas, there are a number of armed terror groups with contradicting interests, while the population faces dire humanitarian conditions. In the West Bank, there is a steady motivation of terror groups to carry out attacks (in 2018 Israel foiled 480 attempted terror attacks and uncovered 219 terror cells) and daily friction between Israeli settlers and Palestinians that creates an intricate security situation. The absence of a political horizon for advancing the peace process and the destabilization of the Palestinian Authority add to the tenuousness of the overall situation.
Insofar, widespread violence has not broken out thanks to several preemptive measures, including expanding the humanitarian assistance to Gaza, indirect de-escalation measures vis-a-vis Hamas; deployment of additional Israeli military forces and their operational and intelligence advantage; and security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority’s security forces.
Nonetheless, several worrying trends are now appearing to be worsening and coming together simultaneously in an unprecedented manner in four spheres – Gaza, the West Bank, Jerusalem, and the Israeli prisons detaining Palestinian terrorists. The interconnectedness of the four spheres might produce a “perfect storm” that would lead to escalatory violence.
In the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority has taken a severe economic hit that will harm its ability to govern and correlatedly might hamper the security coordination with Israel. This is an outcome of Israel’s decision to withhold a portion of the taxes and tariffs it collects for the Palestinian Authority that is equivalent to the amount of Palestinian Authority’s monthly payments to incarcerated terrorists and their families.
Clearly, this Israeli measure will not yield a change in the policy of the Palestinian Authority. The ethos of Palestinian prisoners is deeply embedded in the Palestinian narrative and no life-wishing Palestinian leader will ever dare harming it, let alone the unpopular Abbas.
Mahmoud Abbas has declared that he will not agree to accept any transfer of revenues collected by Israel if payments to Palestinian prisoners will be deducted. These funds make up a third of the Palestinian Authority’s revenues. Apparently, and despite the discontinuance of these transfers from Israel, the Palestinian Authority continues to disburse the stipends for Palestinian prisoners and their families, at the expense of paying salaries to the Authority’s employees. The economic crisis is further deepened by the slashing of American financial assistance to the Palestinian Authority as a result of a new law recently coming into effect and an overall reduction in international aid provided to the Authority.
In Gaza, Hamas has deliberately escalated violence in an attempt to force Israel to improve the civilian situation. Hamas has relaunched violent demonstrations along the border and has resorted to the use of balloons – now carrying explosive devices.
On March 30 – the annual “Land Day” – Hamas will also mark the one-year anniversary of the violent border demonstrations (“the Return Marches”) and the balloon and kite terror that left a “scorched land” on the Israeli side of the Gaza border and opened a front with Israel, between popular protest and terror. Israeli efforts to find a technological solution to the balloon threat that would exempt Israel from a kinetic response to these attacks have not yet materialized.
In the upcoming border protest, Hamas will have to maintain a tight control of the level of violence to prevent an unintended broad confrontation. This would be a complicated undertaking considering the additional challenge posed by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad organization that has recently increased its power and is increasingly inclined to take independent and more violent action against Israel. Hamas seeks to control the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the smaller terror groups in Gaza through a joint war-room, but in times of tension, these other groups might operate separately and increase the likelihood of uncontrolled escalation.
Egypt and Qatar are trying to stabilize the situation in Gaza, but their efforts might fail if the Palestinian Authority decides to withhold the monthly payments to Gaza (around 100 millions of US dollars) because of its economic hardship. Should this happen, the stabilizing effect of the Qatari monthly financial aid to Gaza will be neutralized increasing the risks of violent escalation.
In Jerusalem, the tension at the Temple Mount is rising due to the violation of the status-quo as a result of the entrance of Palestinian worshipers to the Bab al-Rahma (“Gate of Mercy”) complex. This might trigger violence on the Temple Mount – a religious detonator – that could inflame the entire Palestinian arena.
Tensions are also mounting in the Israeli prisons holding Palestinian terrorists because of the threat to payments to prisoners’ families and Israeli decisions to tighten the measures against smuggling of prohibited items into prisons and the forbidden use of cellular phones by inmates.
Several "new" factors are increasing the tension and sensitivity in the Palestinian arena, at the current juncture:
- Elections in Israel – making it harder for the Israeli government to control escalating events.
- The absence of the U.S. as an actor that can reduce the potential of escalation – as Secretary Kerry did during the Temple Mount and Jerusalem events in 2015. The vacuum left by the U.S. (while its measures have only exacerbated the tension) was filled by Arab countries, led by Egypt and Qatar (and not the Europeans that are busy with their problems at home). However, there are limits to the Arab countries’ role as brokers due to their sensitivity to the domestic pressure of the “Arab Street” and internal tensions within the inter-Arab system, particularly the crisis with Qatar.
- Symbolic dates that create tensions – in addition to the upcoming “Day of Land”, Palestinians will mark the “Naqba” (“disaster” – May 15, Israel’s Day of Independence) and the “Naksa” (June 5 – Israel’s victory in the 1967 War during which it re-united Jerusalem and seized the West Bank and Gaza).
The growing explosiveness of the Palestinian arena requires Israel to demonstrate restraint in its responses as much as possible, and to pursue arrangements, even temporary ones, to make it through the following sensitive months.
In this context, Israel must aim to – reach an interim solution to the issue of Bab al-Rahma on the Temple Mount with Jordan’s brokering; immediate improvement of the civilian situation in Gaza as part of the arrangements brokered by Egypt; stabilize the Palestinian Authority – primarily its financial situation, if possible through Arab and European assistance.
Israel has initiated a political effort to prevent escalation in the Palestinian arena, but its measures demonstrate once again that its policy is basically responsive, focused on the short-term, and deals only with limited issues – important as they might be – maintaining calm, preventing terror and violence, and routine security. These circumstances might reinforce the impression that Israel responds only to threats and only understands force.
The problematic processes in the Palestinian arena require that Israel’s leaders – on the “day after” the elections – will conduct long-term strategic planning and develop in-depth systemic solutions to the Palestinian challenges. Without such solutions, the security balance in this arena will be disturbed repeatedly; more worrisome, scenarios that represent multi-dimensional strategic threats to Israel could materialize, such as the collapse of the Palestinian Authority or its gradual unravelling, a governing and humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and the disappearance of the “two state” paradigm in favor of other paradigms, particularly, the “one state” outcome.
Authored by Col. (res.) Udi Evental
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