How the World Should Respond to the Jerusalem “Uprising”

by Emile Nakhleh

The ongoing violence in Jerusalem, as evidenced in the daily stabbings of Israelis and the killings of Palestinian youth, is heart-wrenching—and, of course, it’s unsustainable. The international community, including the key Arab states, cannot remain willfully oblivious to the unfolding tragedy and the unending cycle of revenge killings. It’s time for the perennial handwringing to stop and for the UN Security Council and General Assembly to have the courage to tackle the proverbial two-ton elephant in the room.

Let’s be clear: the Palestinians’ clarion call of “It’an” (Stab) will not gain them a state or end the Israeli occupation. Similarly, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s draconian collective measures against Palestinian neighborhoods, and against the Palestinians inside the “Green Line,” will not afford Israel better security or lessen the feeling of fear among its citizens. On the contrary, Palestinians are becoming more desperate, and Israelis less secure in their own neighborhoods, no matter how many roadblocks go up.

The “It’an” slogan so far has failed to capture the imagination of Arab masses as did the Arab Spring’s “Irhal” (Depart) slogan, which forced the Arab dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen in 2011 to abdicate. The “People Power” of nearly five years ago effected a historic change in the governance of some Arab countries. The Palestinian “Uprising of the Knives,” whether an intifada or not, has resulted in more Palestinian deaths and more Israeli repression.

Fatal Indifference

The international community’s focus in the past three years on achieving a nuclear agreement with Iran—and more recently on Syria’s civil war, the Islamic State (ISIS or IS), and the Russian military intervention on behalf of Bashar al-Assad—has diverted the world’s attention from the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. What was simmering months ago has bubbled to the surface in recent weeks in daily bloody confrontations in occupied Palestinian towns and cities and across the Palestinian community inside Israel.

International complacency, Arab malaise, sectarian conflicts, and internecine Palestinian squabbling have pushed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the back burner. The lack of attention, however, has not reduced Palestinian frustrations and hopelessness or halted the continuing building of illegal Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and the rest of the Occupied Territories. President Obama has often said this situation is untenable, but he took no serious action to force a change in the volatile status quo.

The Arab states have failed the Palestinians as well. The Egyptian strongman Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has quietly blocked the tunnels that have been Gaza’s lifeline and flooded many of them. The Palestinians have accused him, perhaps correctly, of complicity in Israel’s design to suffocate Gaza and subdue its leadership. The Palestinian Authority, headed up by Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, shares a similar culpability regarding Gaza and its leadership and economy. As Sisi cements his authoritarian rule, including through the ongoing sham parliamentary elections, he has told the Palestinians, in the words of an Australian friend of mine, to “bugger off.”

The Gulf Arab states no longer even pay lip service to the Palestinian crisis. They have been consumed by their opposition to the Iran nuclear deal and have worked closely with the Netanyahu government to thwart it. They spent millions of dollars in their futile efforts to lobby the US Congress and the Obama administration against the nuclear agreement. When the GCC leaders met with President Obama at Camp David last May, the Palestine conflict was not on the agenda. The Sunni Crown Princes of the Gulf ruling families came to Washington, asked and received sophisticated American weapons, and went home.

The Saudi regime, which considers itself the guardian of Islam and the self-proclaimed “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” of Mecca and Medina, has been deafeningly silent about the recent Israeli provocations at the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, called Temple Mount by Jews and al-Haram al-Sharif by Muslims. According to the first verse of chapter 17 in the Koran, Muslims believe that the Prophet Muhammad took a night journey from the “Sacred Temple” (Mecca) to the “Farthest Temple” (Jerusalem), which makes Jerusalem the third holiest place for Muslims after Mecca and Medina.

American leaders have been lulled into believing that the Palestine issue is a thing of the past and that preponderant Israeli military power in the Occupied Territories has rendered Palestinians quiescent and complacent. So much so that when President Obama gave his annual talk to the UN General Assembly this fall, “Palestine” was nowhere to be found in his speech.

The Two-State Non-Solution

How long can the Arab states and the rest of the international community remain dismissive of the unfolding bloody confrontations? Although the so-called two-state solution remains the default mantra of world leaders, the forced dismemberment of the West Bank clearly indicates that such a solution is a fantasy. Most Israelis and Palestinians have lost their appetite for this approach.

Raising the Palestinian flag in front of the United Nations or suing Israel for “crimes against humanity” before the International Court of Justice might be comforting to Abbas’ sensibilities and nationalist proclivities, but these gestures do not create a state on the ground. Nor do they give him more sovereignty, legitimacy, or power to face down the Israeli occupation or to halt settlement expansion. Israeli discriminatory measures against Palestinians also apply to the 1.6 million Palestinians living in Israel as citizens of the Jewish state. I have written elsewhere on this blog about the Arab situation in Israel and about the demise of the two-state formula.

If, as many observers believe, the current bloody confrontations will likely escalate, and if more Palestinians and other Arabs and Muslims enter the fray against Israel, the region could descend into another, bloodier war. Such a conflict, if it occurs, could drag Europe, the United States, and possibly Russia into the fight. A war between Arabs and Jews would inflame extremist religious feelings and raw emotions on both sides and could easily lead to the burning and destruction of holy places in Jerusalem and elsewhere. If religious fanatics attack and destroy al-Aqsa Mosque, the center of the current violence, the entire Muslim world would rise up against Israel and against the United States, which will put the thousands of American citizens currently in the region—military and civilian—in jeopardy. Such a religious war would be a real bonanza for IS and al-Qaeda.

Images of destruction would light up social media, which would enrage Muslim youth across the Muslim world. Emotional mass demonstrations—from Ankara to Dacca and from Cairo to Islamabad—would gather in front of Israeli and American embassies and other installations. Some of these would be set aflame, seriously threatening the lives of diplomats. Deploying US Special Forces and drone strikes would not be able to neutralize the unfolding mayhem.

Enter the UN

America’s leadership, in light of the current failed policy, will be tested like nothing before, and the Obama administration will be forced to reconsider its regional calculus. Facing the threat of an “End of Days” war of religions requires the UN Security Council to devise a courageous, Mandela-type solution to the problem. The UNSC should demand that Israelis and Palestinians outline their future goals and work together under international supervision. UN peacekeeping forces should be stationed across the Occupied Territories, including East Jerusalem, for a period of five years. This would give Israelis and Palestinians time to begin charting a path for reconciliation that would allow the two peoples to live together between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea in peace, dignity, and security.

Until the Palestinians have some reason for a hopeful future and the Israelis feel secure, there will be no decent future for either of them. The simple historical fact is that a state cannot occupy another people forever. Israel must either end the occupation or give Palestinians citizenship and allow them the opportunity to live in peace and dignity.

For decades, the permanent members of the UNSC have ignored the problem hoping that it will go away. The Jerusalem violence no longer allows international diplomats in New York the luxury to wish the problem away or to outsource the crafting of a solution to regional adversaries. This time around the conflict is too big to fail and too critical to ignore.

Photo: Israeli soldiers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem

Emile Nakhleh

Dr. Emile Nakhleh was a Senior Intelligence Service officer and Director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program at the Central Intelligence Agency. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a Research Professor and Director of the Global and National Security Policy Institute at the University of New Mexico, and the author of A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World and Bahrain: Political Development in a Modernizing State. He has written extensively on Middle East politics, political Islam, radical Sunni ideologies, and terrorism. Dr. Nakhleh received his BA from St. John’s University (MN), the MA from Georgetown University, and the Ph.D. from the American University. He and his wife live in Albuquerque, New Mexico.