Commentary Magazine


Topic: security fence

What’s Behind the Run Over Intifada?

In the wake of the latest acts of terror against pedestrians in Jerusalem, Palestinian public opinion is again reacting with the same sensitivity that it displayed back in June when a popular campaign mocked the plight of three Jewish teenagers who were kidnapped and murdered by Hamas terrorists. Support for the “run over intifada” is endemic on Palestinian social media in much the same way as it cheered the prospect that the lives of the three boys might be bartered for the freedom of captured terrorists. But instead of pondering whether support for the spate of attacks is, as the New York Times speculates today, a new intifada “for the 21st Century,” foreign observers would do well to understand that this violence is merely a symptom of the same refusal to accept Israel’s legitimacy that has fueled the conflict for many decades.

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In the wake of the latest acts of terror against pedestrians in Jerusalem, Palestinian public opinion is again reacting with the same sensitivity that it displayed back in June when a popular campaign mocked the plight of three Jewish teenagers who were kidnapped and murdered by Hamas terrorists. Support for the “run over intifada” is endemic on Palestinian social media in much the same way as it cheered the prospect that the lives of the three boys might be bartered for the freedom of captured terrorists. But instead of pondering whether support for the spate of attacks is, as the New York Times speculates today, a new intifada “for the 21st Century,” foreign observers would do well to understand that this violence is merely a symptom of the same refusal to accept Israel’s legitimacy that has fueled the conflict for many decades.

Though she recycles Palestinian myths about the reasons for the outbreak of the first two intifadas (including the infamous lie that it was Ariel Sharon’s walk on the Temple Mount rather than a calculated response by Yasir Arafat to Israeli peace moves), Times Jerusalem Bureau chief Jodi Rudoren didn’t find many who thought this outbreak was likely to result in a repeat of the carnage of the second intifada that took thousands of lives on both sides. Indeed, she did her readers a service by reminding them that the security fence built to stop suicide bombers makes a return to the horror of that episode problematic for the architects of terror.

But if she really wanted to explain the origins of the current round of violence revolving around Palestinian anger about the efforts of a minority of Israelis to reverse the ban on Jewish prayer on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount—the holiest site in Judaism as well as the home of the Al-Aksa Mosque—she would do well to go back further in history than 1987 or 2000. Conspiracy theories about Jews planning to blow up the mosques on the Temple Mount go back to the efforts of Haj Amin el-Husseini, the mufti of Jerusalem and Nazi ally who led the Palestinians throughout the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, to foment anti-Jewish pogroms long before there was a State of Israel, let alone an “occupation.”

Though Rudoren quotes Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas as saying that he doesn’t want another intifada, she fails to mention his efforts to follow in the mufti’s footsteps by urging his people to resist Jews by any means and calling a terrorist who attempted to murder a Jewish activist rabbi a martyr who went straight to heaven. Yet it’s true that Abbas doesn’t want an intifada since a collapse of security cooperation between Israel and the PA might result in a Hamas coup that could cost him life or at least his control of the West Bank. Despite his incitement of violence, it is still the Israelis who guarantee his personal security. What Rudoren also fails to note is that it is Hamas that wants an intifada for the same reason it rained down thousands of missiles on Israeli cities this past summer even though it created more destruction for Palestinians in Gaza. Their goal is keep Palestinians focused on “resistance”—a synonym for endless war that won’t be solved by Israeli territorial concessions or even greater sensitivity for Muslim desire to deny Jews rights in Jerusalem.

The point about the current violence is that nothing the Israelis are doing—whether it is Jews moving into parts of Jerusalem where Arabs want no part of them or even walking around the Temple Mount—that would prevent the restarting of peace negotiations or even a two-state solution should the Palestinians ever change their minds and decide to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn.

The tone of despair of Palestinian society that we are told is at the heart of the disturbances is, as the meaning of the word intifada indicates, a desire for a “shaking off.” But, as they have demonstrated consistently since the time of the mufti, what they want to shake off is not the supposedly oppressive rule of Israel (which, as even Rudoren notes, allows a Palestinian prosperity that makes many of them reluctant to contemplate another destructive and pointless war), but the presence of the Jews altogether and intolerance for their presence. Once again a new generation of Palestinians are taking up gasoline bombs and even using cars as weapons in order to kill or injure Jews to further that same futile aim and in the name of this ancient hatred. Though outlets like the Times promote the notion that the violence is caused by Jewish actions, the new intifada if it happens will be very much like every other episode in the Palestinians’ hundred years war against Zionism. Those that wish them well should urge them to try to shake off this rejectionist mindset lest they waste another century in pointless conflict.

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Even Popes Can’t Transcend Conflicts

Pope Francis may have intended his visit to the Middle East to promote the causes of ecumenism and peace. But he has learned that it is not possible to step into the political maelstrom of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians without getting sucked into it. The picture of him praying at the security barrier in Bethlehem at a point where it was defaced by Palestinian graffiti that spoke of it as an “apartheid wall” will—as the Guardian gleefully characterized it—probably be the best remembered moment of the trip and the photo of him praying in front of it may become an iconic image of grievances against Israel. This unscheduled stop is believed to have been the work of his Palestinian hosts rather than a deliberate Vatican insult directed at Israel. But though he attempted to make up for it the next day with a stop at a memorial to the Israeli victims of Arab terror—a reminder that the barrier was built to prevent more such deaths at the hands of Palestinian suicide bombers—the damage was already done especially since the pontiff’s silent prayers at the first unscheduled stop were not balanced by any statement that made it clear that he understood why the fence had to be built.

Though he is trying to be even-handed and must be credited with the best of intentions, given the highly symbolic nature of every one of his gestures, it is difficult to regard the controversies into which he has allowed himself to be drawn without thinking that he might have done everyone a favor and just stayed home.

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Pope Francis may have intended his visit to the Middle East to promote the causes of ecumenism and peace. But he has learned that it is not possible to step into the political maelstrom of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians without getting sucked into it. The picture of him praying at the security barrier in Bethlehem at a point where it was defaced by Palestinian graffiti that spoke of it as an “apartheid wall” will—as the Guardian gleefully characterized it—probably be the best remembered moment of the trip and the photo of him praying in front of it may become an iconic image of grievances against Israel. This unscheduled stop is believed to have been the work of his Palestinian hosts rather than a deliberate Vatican insult directed at Israel. But though he attempted to make up for it the next day with a stop at a memorial to the Israeli victims of Arab terror—a reminder that the barrier was built to prevent more such deaths at the hands of Palestinian suicide bombers—the damage was already done especially since the pontiff’s silent prayers at the first unscheduled stop were not balanced by any statement that made it clear that he understood why the fence had to be built.

Though he is trying to be even-handed and must be credited with the best of intentions, given the highly symbolic nature of every one of his gestures, it is difficult to regard the controversies into which he has allowed himself to be drawn without thinking that he might have done everyone a favor and just stayed home.

Even before he arrived in the region, some on both sides of the divide criticized the pope for his itinerary. Jews voiced concern about the Vatican’s efforts to emphasize their formal recognition of a “State of Palestine” without first requiring it to make peace with Israel. Palestinians were angry about the pope’s stop on Mount Herzl, Israel’s Arlington, where Francis laid a wreath on the tomb of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, a sign that they still refuse to accept the legitimacy of the Jewish state he envisaged.

But by stepping into the controversy over the security barrier, the pope left the realms of both religion and state protocol to lend his enormous international credibility and popularity to the Palestinian narrative about the fence. That he was led to a particular spot on it that was filled with English as well as Arabic graffiti was the perfect photo op for those who attempt to argue that its placement is a symbol of Israeli oppression of the Palestinians. Israel’s foes have attempted to claim that the fence is a new version of a Nazi ghetto wall in which Palestinian victims are hemmed in and deprived of their rights. The truth is that it was built reluctantly by an Israeli government that did not wish to divide the land in this manner but had to do something to make it harder for Palestinian suicide bombers and other terrorists to cross into Israel to slaughter innocents. Rather than a tangible manifestation of Israeli colonialism, it is a monument to the bloodthirsty decision of Palestinian leaders to wage a terrorist war against the Jewish state when they could have instead had independence and peace.

While some are wrongly assuming that every action of the pope is evidence that old enmities between Jews and Catholics are being resurrected, the pope’s good intentions are not really in doubt. Francis appears to be a strong supporter of the work of his predecessors John XXIII and John Paul II in putting an end to Catholic support for anti-Semitism and inaugurating a new era of respect between the two faiths and in recognizing the legitimacy of Israel.

But even if we concede his desire to do good, the Vatican needed to understand that injecting the pope into the details of the Middle East conflict is far more likely to heighten tensions than to relax them. Nor is the meeting in Rome to which the pope has invited Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres a particularly helpful gesture. By inviting Peres, who holds a largely symbolic office rather than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is Abbas’s actual counterpart in terms of power, the pontiff can be accused of seeking to bypass the Israeli government and undermining Israel’s actual leader, who is not liked in Europe because of his tough-minded willingness to stand up for his country.

The point here is that neither the pope nor any other foreign leader can solve the puzzle of Middle East peace. If the conflict is to be resolved it must be by done by the Israelis and the Palestinians. Unfortunately, the Palestinians are still stuck in their “Nakba” narrative in which they have come to link their identity as a people with their struggle to deny Jewish rights over any part of the land and in which they have come to glorify violence against Israel and its people. The Vatican is also in no position to play Middle East politics when it seems quick to engage in disputes with Israel while at the same time demonstrating its reluctance to criticize the Arab and Muslim world for its mistreatment of Christian minorities.

The pope should be welcomed wherever he goes and even those who are rightly upset about some aspects of his trip should avoid any hint of enmity toward this good man. But this whirlwind visit shows that even the most well-intentioned visitors can blunder if they believe they can transcend the conflict even while plunging into it.

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