It’s tempting to view the current outbreak of violence in Israel as a spontaneous Palestinian reaction to an Israeli provocation, as much of the world is asserting. But Dr. Kobi Michael says that is a mistake.
Dr. Michael is the former deputy director-general of the Ministry of Strategic Affairs and a senior research fellow at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). He is also editor of the institute’s “Strategic Assessment” journal.
In an interview with the Jerusalem Press Club on Monday, Dr. Michael explained that both the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza had preexisting motivations for escalating the conflict at this time, and had already laid the groundwork.
“Everything was well prepared in advance. There are many pictures that we can find now on social media, about the stones, and water bottles, and other means which are used by the Palestinians in their violence,” noted Dr. Michael. “Those means and elements were not brought to the Temple Mount yesterday or the day before. They have been prepared for a long period of time, and all this escalation is something that was prepared in advance by the Palestinians in order to escalate the situation, in order to push Israel into the corner, in order to make Israel react aggressively because the aggressive reaction actually serves the interests of those who escalated the situation.”
Waiting for a catalyst
With everything in place, the Palestinians just needed the right excuse, and they found it in a perfect storm or, as Dr. Michael put it, a “golden opportunity” presented by a series of events: Palestinian frustration over the cancellation of elections, the religious fervor that accompanies the end of Ramadan and mounting demonstrations over the Sheikh Jarrah controversy.
Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas seeks to “divert attention from his strategic failure in regard to the elections, and from the public criticism and the erosion of his legitimacy,” said Dr. Michael. “For Hamas, it was a golden opportunity to present themselves as the defenders of Jerusalem in the eyes of the Palestinians, to embarrass Abbas, and to change the rules of the game with Israel.”
So far, Hamas has exploited the situation to the tune of 200 rockets fired at Israeli cities, including Jerusalem, and the country is gearing up for several days at least of heavy armed conflict.
How will Israel respond?
Dr. Michael sees the fact that the Palestinians, and especially Hamas, felt they could get away with this as a failure of Israeli deterrence.
“Unfortunately, the Israeli response to [recent rocket attacks] validated Hamas assumptions with regards to [self-imposed] Israeli restrictions,” the expert noted. “Israel doesn’t want to escalate the situation in Gaza, so Hamas assumes that launching dozens of rockets will elicit no greater Israeli response than launching only a handful.”
This time, insisted Dr. Michael, Israel must prove them wrong. “The Israeli response this time is going to be very tough. I think that if the Israeli response will not be tough enough, Israel will find itself in a very complex and problematic situation in the days to come,” he warned.
Will that be the end of it? If Hamas refrains from further retaliating over the Israeli reprisals, then Dr. Michael believes both sides can walk away satisfied with their “achievements”: Hamas for “showing that East Jerusalem is part of the equation,” and Israel for “the tough response for the rockets” and showing Hamas that there’s a price to pay.
Otherwise, we could be heading to war.
Getting Israel’s house in order
While sending a firm message that the present outburst of Palestinian violence won’t be tolerated, Dr. Michael said Israel must also take care not to unnecessarily escalate the situation.
“The Israel Police have to improve its operational management and to avoid making crucial mistakes, and Israel must to deal with its own extremists in East Jerusalem, mainly in Sheikh Jarrah,” he stated.
So far, there have been no fatalities in nearly two weeks of demonstrations and rioting over the Sheikh Jarrah controversy. Officials fear that even a single death could lead to an explosion far worse than what we are seeing today.
Nor is the situation an exclusively local matter. Dr. Michael explained that there are regional forces at play in both the Sheikh Jarrah riots and the Hamas escalation.
“Turkey perceives East Jerusalem and the Temple Mount as another arena in its broader campaign for influence and hegemony in the Middle East,” the expert said.
“The Turks actually want to undermine and erode the special status of the Jordanians on the Temple Mount,” he continued. “They also want to disrupt the stability of the Palestinian Authority and to strengthen Hamas, because Turkey is the biggest supporter of political Islam, and Hamas is the Palestinian version of this political Islam. Therefore, East Jerusalem is a very convenient arena or theatre for the Turks to escalate the situation and advance their interests in the broader context.”
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