Tel Aviv Diary: Israelis Fear Violence Is Spinning Out of Control

It's been 10 days since a terror attack by Israeli-Arabs on police, launched from the Temple Mount, has plunged Israelis and Palestinians into a new round of violence.

That violence included the brutal murder of three Israelis sitting at home, eating dinner with their family, and the death of 3 violent Palestinian demonstrators, killed by police.

On Sunday night, for the second day in a row, a rocket was fired from the Gaza Strip at Israel. However, both rockets  fell harmlessly onto an open field.

In Jordan, an Israeli security guard killed two Jordanians, in a security incidents that created a standoff with the Jordanian government. This morning a young man from the West Bank stabbed an Israeli in the Israeli town of Petah Tikvah, claiming he did it for Al Aqsa.

There is a tangible fear that the situation may be spinning out of control.

GettyImages-821260652 A Palestinian boy runs for cover from tear gas during clashes between demonstrators and Israeli security forces at the Qalandiya checkpoint, between Ramallah and Jerusalem, in the occupied West Bank, on July 23, 2017, as crowds protest against new Israeli security measures implemented at Al-Aqsa mosque complex, known to Jews as the Temple Mount, in Jerusalem. The new security measures include metal detectors, security cameras, and barring men under 50 from entering the Old City for Friday Muslim prayers, following an attack that killed two Israeli policemen the previous week. ABBAS MOMANI/AFP/Getty

Events of the last week have clarified four things:

1) Terror works;

2) the Temple Mount is one of the most dangerous places in Israel;

3) Israelis and Palestinians live in their own realities and unable to understand each other;

and 4) the old saying continues to be correct, i.e., Israel does not have a foreign policy, only a policy determined by domestic politics.

The last week of violence and death began with an act of terror by three Israeli-Arabs from the town of Umm el-Fahm, who believed the nonsense that Sheik Riad Salah, the leader of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel who comes from their town, has been spreading — namely, that somehow the Al Aqsa mosque is in danger.

The terrorists used the very mosque they were concerned about as the stage to kill two Israeli policeman, who were outside the Temple Mount guarding it.

Israelis reacted instinctively, though probably without enough forethought. However, just the same, Israel did what a normal government might do in such a case — it closed the site and, before reopening it, the government tried to put in place new security controls in the hopes of thwarting future attacks.

It would seem there was no one in the room to tell those making decisions that they were not ruling over a normal place — this was where putting a temporary separation between men and woman was enough to start the riots of 1929, which led to the killing of 133 Jews.

It was the place where a visit by MK Ariel Sharon provided an excuse to start the second intifadah, in which 1,137 Jews were killed and which effectively ended the peace process. It was the cry "Al Aqsa is in danger" that began the rash of individual knifing attacks two years ago.  

Especially given the event that transpired, installing metal detectors might seem like a benign logical action to take. However, for the Waqf and the extremist elements within it, Israel's placement of metal detectors was a perfect excuse to create a new round of violence.  

Unfortunately, as is often the case, the Israeli decision-making process in the crisis left a little to be desired. First, the decision to introduce metal detectors was not based on any in-depth discussion of the consequences but was determined after a series of telephone conferences before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu headed off to Paris and Budapest. By the time Netanyahu returned home, it was clear the crisis was escalating.

On Thursday night the security cabinet met and by all accounts both the IDF and the Shin Bet (Israel’s internal security service) recommended that the metal detectors be removed — since the violence they would spawn would be worse than the consequences of removing them.

The hawkish elements of Netanyahu’s right-wing cabinet opposed the move.

Under normal circumstances, Netanyahu would probably have overruled them and gone with the guidance of the Army and Shin Bet. However, this time he did not want to be outflanked by his right-wing, so he went along. Tragically, the events of Friday night proved the Army to be correct.

Which brings me to the saddest part of this whole affair. What has become clear in the last few days and hours is how little Israelis and Palestinians understand each other — and how little room there seems for the middle ground.

Let's start with the decision about the metal detectors. First, there was no realization that the government was considering a unilateral action; an action that would be considered a violation of the Status Quo.

Second, there was no understanding that Muslim worshippers would be upset at having to run the gauntlet of Israeli police in order to pray. Too few Israelis understand that to the average Palestinian, Israeli police are an occupying power (and that we have been occupying them for 50 years.) To the Palestinians, the Temple Mount was the one place they had some sense of sovereignty.

Another group that seems clueless are the Arab Members of the Israeli Knesset. The reason these politicians took several days to condemn the initial terror attack by Arab Israelis is confounding. And then, instead of calling for calm and trying quietly to work out solutions,  they — including the secular ones — were those yelling the loudest that Israel had closed the mosques for Muslim worship.

For a few minutes of fame, or to gain a few more radical supporters, the Arab MKs are missing the big picture. By taking the most radical position possible on these matters, they are hurting the larger Israeli-Arab population, who are rapidly integrating into Israeli life, becoming irreplaceable doctors, nurses and pharmacists.

If Israelis are ever going to elect a government willing to make the necessary concessions they have to believe the conflict can end. The Arab MKs represent constituencies who have been living side-by-side with Israelis for 70 years and are too often seen as provocateurs rather than emissaries of co-existence.

The Palestinians clearly do not get it either. Israeli radio interviewed Ziad Abuzayyad, formerly the Palestinians’ Minister for Jerusalem. Although he condemned all violence, every time the interviewers tried to get him to condemn the horrific attack on the Israeli family eating Sabbath dinner, he would respond, “You have to look at the bigger picture and you cannot look at things only from the Israeli point of view.”

All Abuzayyad had to do was condemn the cold blooded knifing of unarmed citizens (a woman and two men, one of whom was 70 year old) in their own home. But he could not bring himself to do that.

If Palestinians want peace and want Israelis to withdraw from occupied territories, Israelis have to believe that they will not countenance terror against them.

Which brings me to the last aspect of our inability to understand one another. When a well known Israeli blogger brought up the deaths of the Palestinian rioters in the same post she discussed the murder of the Israeli family from Halamish, she was attacked, ruthlessly.

One person on Facebook, as part of a long harangue against her, stated, “I don't feel you downplayed the slaughter of a Jewish family, I feel you desecrated it.”

We have reached a point that showing even the smallest empathy for the other side is considered almost treasonous.

It's not clear where we go from here. As opposed to previous confrontations between Israel and Palestinians, when the US administration has become involved in resolving the crisis, there is no expectation this time that the US administration is capable of filling that role.

Yes, that's because Jared Kushner, who has zero diplomatic experience, has been tasked with addressing the problem.

This is not exactly a calming thought. Israel is trying to work out a compromise regarding Al-Aqsa through Jordan, Egypt, and possibly the Gulf States. The incident near the Israeli Embassy in Amman, Jordan, has complicated those efforts. Although it may provide a solution in the form of an agreement that might solve both problems.

Eventually something will be worked out. But the damage has been done. It is clear, now more than ever, how deep the gulf between Israel and the Palestinians really is.

We have learned, once again, how central the religious element of this dispute is — and religious conflicts have historically been harder to solve than nationalistic ones.

Marc Schulman is a multimedia historian.