For a moment I thought something huge was happening. A seismic shift in the politics of an entire region in desperate need of a change of circumstance. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a reductive misnomer by which we’re polite enough to refer to the defining Middle Eastern issue of the last 50 years, has been stuck in an ever worsening rut since the mid nineties. There have been peaks and troughs of hope since the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993, supposedly ushering in a new and lasting peace that would lead to a two state solution. But the aftermath has led us no closer to a just and practical solution than we were 20 years ago and the Palestinians, living under continual occupation, with no ability to exercise sovereignty and self-determination through those decades, understandably lost confidence in the unproductive peace process some time ago. Their representatives, the Palestinian Authority (PA), the body created by those Oslo Accords, have rarely reflected that disillusionment in anything more than words. Many argue that this failure to recognise the reality of the situation represents a shameful sell out, possibly based in the self-interest, hunger for power and greed of the elite few at the top of that PA structure, and it’s hard to find fault with that argument
On Wednesday 30th September Mahmoud Abbas, or Abu Mazen, to give the kunya he is known almost exclusively by in Palestine, spoke to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) as the President of the Palestinian Authority that controls the West Bank and is considered the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people by an international community that largely refuses to engage with Hamas, despite their electoral victory in Gaza in 2006. He had promised “a bombshell” in the weeks leading up to the UNGA speech which had led to much speculation over the content of his announcement. Negotiations are essentially permanently frozen while Israel continue their programme of settlement expansion that now means more than 500,000 Israelis live on land in the West Bank and East Jerusalem that international law defines as illegally occupied. Palestinian efforts to appeal unilaterally for recognition had, thanks to US pressure in the Security Council, achieved little more than reclassification to a “non member observer state” and no real change on the ground. Despite the best efforts of many external parties (including John Kerry who, at one point, seemed to make an agreement his own personal quest) the two state solution, indeed any solution, seemed further away than ever.
The Oslo Accords were supposed to change all this. They were supposed to be the agreement that led to the creation of two separate states living in peaceful co-existence. And although the specific details of that arrangement were never agreed, the principle was. In the optimism of the time it seemed that a new era of peace in the region might be emerging, one that some argue had begun with Anwar Sadat’s visit to Israel in 1977. All of that seems a long way away now.
So when Abbas took to the famous green marble podium and announced that due to the continual failure of successive Israeli governments to make any real effort to achieve peace he now considered that all previous agreements between the two parties were void, I thought something huge was happening. I thought, perhaps, this indicated the final rejection of the status quo that represented the reality of a peace process going precisely nowhere, that perhaps the leader of the Palestinian Authority was officially rejecting the path to two states that had failed to create two states. Questions were immediate and answers took some time to be clarified. The immediate question was this: Was Abbas dissolving the Palestinian Authority? Was he serving to highlight the world’s longest occupation by simply demanding that the occupying force take responsibility for the territory and the people they continue to deny self-governance to? Or perhaps this meant a dissolution of the security co-operation agreement that had for years invited criticism that alleged the PA had become nothing more than Israel’s sub-contractor in the territories. For a moment I thought something huge was happening.
In the end, though, it turned out that as has happened far too often, this announcement was nothing more than empty rhetoric. Abbas wasn’t willing to risk his place at the top table, he wasn’t willing to change anything on the ground. He was, it could be said, looking for little more than a headline which, given that the international media largely ignored his speech, he didn’t manage to achieve.
Fast forward two weeks and that small slither of land on the Eastern edge of the Mediterranean that two peoples call their home is again engulfed in a horrendous time of violence. Stabbings, shootings, random attacks and the most inhumane messages of hate surround a cycle of violence that has become all too familiar and is arguably the inevitable result of precisely the kind of stalemate and prolonged oppression that the Palestinian Authority is seen to tacitly condone through its inaction. In the past two weeks dozens of civilians on either side of the conflict have been killed and many, many more injured. Palestinians, almost always working alone rather than as part of a broader organisation, have attacked Israeli Jews indiscriminately. These attacks have largely, but not exclusively taken the form of stabbings. Settler attacks and clashes between Palestinian protesters and the Israeli military have increased, too. The frequency of these events doesn’t seem to be abating and the updates have now become a daily feature of most news reports.
As the world waits to see whether this escalation will form another, depressingly routine “blip” or whether it will escalate into something wider and more sustained, like the two previous Palestinian intifadas (as Ismail Haniyeh, leader of Hamas predicted it would) there is already evidence of an explanation being offered for such rising tensions that seeks to minimise the role of the ongoing occupation. Arabs, we are confidently told, are attacking Israeli Jews because of rumours surrounding Israeli plans for the Al Aqsa compound, the corner of the Old City in Jerusalem dominated by the spectacular Dome of the Rock that holds special religious significance for both Muslims and Jews. There are no such plans, say the Israeli government. This explanation succeeds in painting the entire Arab community as illogical, violent conspiracy theorists while ignoring 3 key points: Firstly that there are influential sections of Israeli society that openly campaign for the destruction of the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa and the rebuilding of the Jewish temple that stood on the site until the 1st century when Titus’s siege of the city ended with its destruction. Secondly, this explanation creates the impression that the violence is exclusively occurring in one direction. In fact, these attacks exist within a wider picture of violence in which dozens of Palestinians have been killed, too. There have been an increasing number of attacks by settlers on Palestinian villages in the West Bank and in the military clampdown that has been implemented in recent weeks there have been accusations of soldiers shooting unarmed Palestinians on multiple occasions. Finally, and most importantly, the tension that leads to such a wave of uncoordinated violence is almost never able to be attributed to a single causational factor. It is undoubtedly a feeling of anger caused by a number of events and ongoing problems – economic, social and political. It is safe to say that within that mixture of influences, the ongoing occupation of Palestinian land and the continued expansion of illegal settlements is at least as important a contributing factor as a rumour about the future of Al Aqsa. Addressing this latest series of incidents in the full context of those facts shows the “crazy, knife-wielding Palestinian conspiracy nuts” line for what it is – reductive, racist and deflecting from some of the most important issues at the heart of these events.
All of this puts Abbas in a difficult position. By coming to the UNGA with tough words and no action he’s left himself in the impossible situation of being vulnerable to attack from both sides. Palestinians who have largely lost faith in the PA to further their cause of liberation see it as another step in a continuing betrayal of their interests. Some within Israel have accused him of inciting the current events with his rhetoric. He’s either a sell out or a terrorist and the accusations grow louder from both directions. This is reflected in the public statements he’s making: calling for calm while condemning Israeli security reactions with terms like “execution”. In trying to walk the line between defender of the Palestinian cause and agent of peace he’s unlikely to succeed at either task.
In all probability we are not witnessing the birth of the third intifada. Not because of a belief in a viable, peaceful alternative or because of any acceptance of the status quo but simply because there doesn’t appear to be the will amongst vast swathes of the Palestinian population to sustain another violent campaign with an almost inevitably negative outcome. It is not impossible, though, that this current wave of attacks could grow into something larger, a defiant wave of frustration from a people whose faith in the political process has long been exhausted and who struggle to see any other option for freedom. It may be a darker intifada in that unlike the previous two, any realistic hope of it leading to the end of occupation, the liberation of the Palestinian people and the creation of a state is almost out of the question and there is awareness of this futility, even amongst the most optimistic Palestinians. We may see this horrible violence being used not as a tactic or negotiating tool, but simply as the one remaining expression of hopelessness. And if that’s the case, then something huge, and terrifying, might be about to happen.