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No desire to de-escalate

Rainer Sollich / rcNovember 11, 2014

One side attacks; the other side hits back with no mercy. The latest wave of violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories is not entirely inopportune for the political actors involved, says DW's Rainer Sollich.

An Israeli police officer next to a civilian
Image: Reuters/Finbarr O'Reilly

Emotions are running high in the Holy Land once more. Arab youths are attacking security forces and civilians with knives and stones and ramming their vehicles into crowds.

There have been deaths. The Israeli police, for their part, are not restrained in response. Two young Arab protesters were shot in one of the latest confrontations. There has been significant doubt about the official explanation in one case - that one youth carrying a knife was shot down only after several warning shots had been fired. Palestinians have described the killing as murder. The facts have yet to be established.

In any case, many on both sides are eager to believe to worst of each other - clinging to their internalized images of the perceived enemy. The guilt is always on the opposite side - part of the Middle East's all-too-familiar pattern of mutual recrimination.

Of martyrs and terrorists

Words have also become weapons. Bombers who deliberately target civilians are honored as "martyrs" on the Palestinian side. Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself has with visible intent poured fuel on the fire - putting the rioters on the level of terrorists and threatening to blow up their houses, to withdraw their Israeli citizenship and to banish them "to Gaza."

So what is it all about? The unrest was ignited after an attempt by Israel's religious right to end Muslims' exclusive right to prayer in the al-Aqsa Mosque at the Temple Mount and allow Jewish pilgrims there, as well.

Rainer Sollich
DW's Rainer SollichImage: DW/P. Henriksen

Netanyahu has insisted on not rocking the boat as far as the status of the site is concerned, but there have been efforts to have it changed even within his own party and coalition government. The Palestinians see such moves as a deliberate provocation. The King of Jordan has withdrawn Amman's ambassador to Israel. Jordan's opposition Muslim Brotherhood is clamoring for the severing of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Paranoia and conspiracy theories

At the latest since former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon triggered the second intifada with his provocatively staged visit to Temple Mount, the potential for this shared holy site to generate bad blood has been generally known. Israel's perceived intention to change the status quo has already been enough for radical forces on the Palestinian side to mobilize frustrated youths.

The fact that the Israeli government has avoided making its position clear with regard to the ultra-conservative forces in its own camp has fueled irrational paranoia and conspiracy theories on the Arab and Islamic side. The attack on Israeli religious activist Yehuda Glick should be seen in this context.

Neither side appears to have any interest in de-escalation at present. On the contrary, terror and violence give Netanyahu an ideal pretext to continue to create new and ever-more expansive Jewish settlements. That makes the creation of a viable Palestinian state all the more difficult, as well as the stated goal of the Palestinians to one day make East Jerusalem their capital. There has been increasingly harsh criticism of Israel's aggressive settlement policy settlements from Washington and other Western governments. However, these have had just as little influence on Netanyahu as European calls for recognition of a Palestinian state before a final peace agreement. Netanyahu knows very well: Israel has nothing to fear in terms of tough measures from Western nations, in particular the United States.

Threat of a new intifada?

There is little to be expected at present in terms of signals of reconciliation from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Given that emotions are running so high on the Palestinian side, this would by very risky for him. Abbas has never been particularly brave, although he has shown a tendency to be power hungry. In doubt, then, that means he's more likely to pursue escalation rather than risk marginalizing himself by calling for peace domestically.

A possible third intifada - which many observers already see as likely and which would make the establishment of a Palestinian state all the more difficult - is something he would certainly have to take accept along the way.