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'Terrorism affects both sides'

Kersten Knipp / wngJune 11, 2016

The terror attack against Israeli civilians in Tel Aviv shows just how convoluted the conflict is in the Middle East says, political scientist Sylke Tempel.

Israel bulks up security in wake of terrorist attack
Israel bulks up security in wake of terrorist attackImage: Reuters/M. Qawasma

DW: Ms. Tempel, there's been another terror attack in Israel. What do you see as the background?

Sylke Tempel: We don't know yet who exactly the attackers are or whether they were in some way organized. That hasn't always been the case in recent instances. The larger background is, of course, what's seen as the fight against the occupation. Meanwhile, Israel has granted more entry permits due to Ramadan than at any time before. There are many motives to consider: the struggle against the occupation, the dream of becoming a hero, or even personal troubles could have played a role - recently that has often been the case. The attackers could have also been blackmailed. This, too, has been a factor. Experiences at checkpoints, where people are treated poorly, could have played a role, as well. Most notable, however, is that two people were successful in getting weapons across the border into Israel.

How do you judge the capabilities and willingness of both governments - both Israel and the Palestinian Authority - to deal with the challenge of terrorism?

Terrorism affects both sides. In the Palestinian Territories under Mahmoud Abbas, the concern is that some of the fighters could have jihadi aspirations. That would be a threat to the Palestinian Authority itself. Therefore, cooperation with Israel in this respect is relatively close.

Sylke Tempel: "As far as negotiations, at the moment I don’t see anything that could start them up again."
Sylke Tempel: "As far as negotiations are concerned, at the moment I don't see anything that could start them up again."

At the same time, someone who opens fire on passers-by in a café in Israel isn't viewed as a terrorist, but celebrated as a hero and fighter in the resistance to occupation. That sentiment is there, and the Palestinian Authority is hesitant to act against it.

It's striking how restrained the Israeli government has recently shown itself to be. In the last months we've seen attacks carried out not by Hamas or another militant group, but by individuals. As far as negotiations are concerned, at the moment I don't see anything that could start them up again.

What role might Israel's West Bank settlement policy have played in this or other recent attacks?

I've never been able to make any rhyme or reason of the settlement policy. It seems completely nonsensical to me. The foundational concept of Zionism was to have a secular state; religious intentions had no place in the state's founding. The single priority was that Jews would be the majority in the new political system. Simply pragmatically speaking, the settlement policy is flawed: It only consumes resources, especially if parts of the settlements are at some point evacuated. However, the settlements are not the main obstacle to a peace agreement.

What is, then?

A state that is demographically Jewish and a democracy cannot function along with the occupation of the West Bank. Yet the settlers have managed to accomplish something that's been long underestimated: their political power is far greater than their actual numbers. They've successfully projected an image of being the new pioneers, but that is just not the case. And they've redirected attention from the problems they've created onto the conduct of the Palestinians. Israelis therefore face a fundamental question: Do they want to rule over territory to keep control of holy sites such as Hebron? Or do they want a functioning state with a Jewish majority?

Where do you see problems on the Palestinian side?

For a long time now, there's been no answer on the Palestinian side as to what concessions they are willing to make. Many Palestinians see claiming only the West Bank and the Gaza Strip - and not all of what was British Mandatory Palestine - as a concession in itself. But even when dealing just with the West Bank and Gaza, some Palestinians wouldn't accept a land loss of even 1 or 2 percent in any land swap. So the decision comes down to a sustainable state on the one hand and the demand for reparations on the other.

What role do you see the Israeli military playing? It has repeatedly exercised restraint.

The military is one of the highest institutions in Israel, with a high moral standing attached to it. Israeli military leadership isn't particularly happy with the recent nationalistic tilt. This is also in regards to the handling of Israel's Arab citizens, precisely when many of them are prepared to do civil service. The proponents of withdrawing from the West Bank come largely from the military - Ehud Barak or Yitzhak Rabin spring to mind. The peace movement itself grew out of the military. More than a few from the military establishment are of the opinion that a withdrawal from the West Bank wouldn't put Israel in a strategically worse position.

In light of all this, how do you see Avigdor Lieberman's appointment as the new defense minister?

The appointment comes in the wake of public comments by high-level military officials about Israel's nationalist leanings. Shortly thereafter, Prime Minister Netanyahu put someone above them who not only lacks the requisite competence - this was already evident when he served as foreign minister - but is a right-wing hardliner. This can only be seen as a further attempt by Benjamin Netanyahu to rid distinguished institutions comprising Israeli democracy of their considerable independence. The serious damage this inflicts on a democratic state is obvious.

Sylke Tempel is a German journalist and author. Since 2008, she has been editor-in-chief of the magazine "Internationale Politik."