WASHINGTON — Thursday saw another day of tension in Israel and the Palestinian territories following the abduction and murder of three Jewish teen-agers last month.
The gradual rising sentiment is bringing with it fears that a Third Intifada could become a possibility. We’re not quite at that stage yet, but there are a number of factors that make this situation particularly worrying.
This year, talks between Israel and Palestinian authorities broke down – again. The failure of the talks before their end of April deadline saw recriminations from both sides, with the Palestinian Authorities’ President Mahmoud Abbas accused of choosing a unity government with Hamas over peace, while the Israeli government was criticized for a near-immediate return to settlement construction.
Both sides feel angry about how the situation played out, and now with the peace talks ruined, there’s nothing left to lose with further violence. In some ways, it’s not dissimilar to 2000, just before the Second Intifada, when anger over the perceived failure of the Oslo Accords, and the very real failure of the Camp David Summit earlier that year contributed to the tension before the Intifada.
It’s a grass roots anger
The abductions and murders of the three teen-age Israelis have prompted a groundswell of anger among many Israelis, with anti-Arab protests breaking out in various places. At the same time, many Palestinians feel that, even if the deaths of the Israeli teen-agers is a crime and should be punished, Palestinian teen-agers have died recently and their deaths have not prompted the same response.
Both of the previous Intifadas were preceded by a grassroots anger (though some believe that the Palestinian leadership had more of a hand in the uprisings than they let on publicly). This sort of anger can be hard for even level-headed politicians to contain.
The situation may have already entered a stage of retribution and revenge
The discovery of the body of an Arab teen-ager has already led to violent protests in East Jerusalem this week. Palestinians say that the boy was murdered by Israeli extremists as retaliation for the murders of the three teen-agers. Both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Abbas have acknowledged the murder was a grave crime, though the Israeli prime minister has been cautious to not describe it as a revenge killing.
Again, the danger with tit-for-tat violence is that it may be hard for either the Israeli or Palestinian authorities to contain. The families of the deceased have been vocal in their calls for calm, something that may well help.
The official response shows how little trust there is left
Israel immediately placed the blame for the three teen-agers squarely at the door of Hamas, despite Hamas’ denials, and within days the Israeli military was responding in a big way: there were further airstrikes Thursday in the Gaza Strip in response to Palestinian rocket fire, and signs of Israeli troop build-up on the border.
It’s of course possible that Israel has intelligence that it hasn’t shared that firmly connects Hamas to the murders, but it could also be a knee-jerk reaction due to the persistent Israeli fear about the Islamist group, which has been involved in attacks on Israeli civilians before.
Either way, it puts Abbas and his secular Fatah party in an awkward position, and shows the lack of trust between Israel and the Palestinian authorities, particularly at a time when they had hoped to draw Hamas closer. Abbas himself had denounced the teen-agers’ abductions and put forward considerable resources in the search for them, but now many of his supporters may feel they are suffering a collective punishment. He ends up looking powerless.