After nearly five months of continuous violence, Israel finally seems to have lost its nerve.
Although Israelis have encountered far more serious periods of conflict with Palestinians in the past, the current era of stabbings and vehicle attacks has thrown them off balance. Even in the most horrific times of the Second Intifada, when suicide bombers blew themselves up twice a week on the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, a very Jewish version of the “stiff upper lip” persisted — everyday life continued apace, with businesses and schools remaining open.
This time, however, things have evolved differently. While the number of casualties remains significantly lower than the comparable period in the beginning of the Second Intifada in 2000 — 174 Palestinians and 31 Israelis have died so far, about 60 percent of the numbers last time — the Israeli reaction seems far more frantic and confused.
The government is now actively promoting a bill that would allow Knesset members to suspend their colleagues for supporting terrorism, as well as a “transparency bill” that would force left-wing NGOs receiving financial support from foreign governments to publicly report such assistance.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu led the campaign against Arab-Israeli members of the Knesset (MKs), after three such MKs attended a meeting with families of Palestinian attackers who were killed by Israeli police. He also threatened Arab-Israeli citizens after a shooting attack by an Arab-Israeli in Tel Aviv, vowing that Israel “will live forever by the sword.” Months later, he promised to continue building fences along all of Israel’s borders in order to keep out “predators.”
Meanwhile, an ultra-right-wing grassroots organization, Im Tirtzu, initiated a public campaign against left-wing groups and human rights organizations, describing them as shtulim — Hebrew for “implants” or “moles,” carrying the implication that they are aiding Israel’s enemies. On Feb. 16, Jerusalem police even briefly detained two Washington Post journalists for suspected “incitement” of Palestinians after conducting interviews with residents outside the Old City.
In what might be perceived as a rare moment of comic relief, a Likud backbencher surprised fellow MKs earlier this month by revealing that, in fact, there’s no such place as Palestine. The reason? There is no letter “p” in Arabic. “Pa, pa,” she sputtered from the podium while Arab MKs watched in disbelief.
The response of Israel’s opposition to the current situation has also been beset by confusion. Opposition leader Isaac Herzog recently proclaimed that the two-state solution was currently unrealistic. His partner in the Zionist Union party, Tzipi Livni, slammed international media for being “hostile” toward Israel at a special session convened by a Knesset subcommittee. Herzog and Livni’s main competitor for leadership of the anti-Netanyahu camp, Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid, has been busy attacking Breaking the Silence — an NGO made up of Israel Defense Forces (IDF) veterans that collects soldiers’ testimonies about the moral price of the ongoing occupation.
Nobody should be nostalgic for the Second Intifada. It was an ugly period, full of devastating incidents on both sides. Israel’s prime minister at the time, Ariel Sharon, used aggressive means to thwart Palestinian attacks. But Sharon, for better or worse, was constantly on the initiative: He ordered a military operation to reoccupy Palestinian towns in the West Bank after the Passover night massacre that killed 30 Israelis in March 2002; began construction of a barrier that separated Israel from the West Bank; and later on, fearing a loss of support for Israel in the West as well as growing rifts in Israeli society, ordered a unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip.
Netanyahu’s never-ending era as prime minister has been far less eventful. To the prime minister’s credit, there is always a significant gap between his tough rhetoric and actual cautiousness when applying military force. He has avoided unnecessary wars with Hezbollah, limited the scope of armed conflicts with Hamas, and showed much better recognition of the risks posed by the so-called Arab Spring than Western leaders, who were thrilled by events in Tahrir Square five years ago.
But the current mini-Intifada has caught Netanyahu, as well as Israeli security agencies, ill-prepared. Out of more than 280 attacks since Oct. 1, only one — the first — has been the work of an organized Hamas cell. Most others were “lone-wolf” attacks, initiated by young Palestinians with no prior record. The Israelis are now trying to develop a better way of monitoring Palestinian social media, hoping that this could provide them with clues for future attacks. But as Army Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot admitted last month, not even one attack has so far been foiled because of an early warning supplied by Israel’s massive intelligence-gathering apparatus.
It is, of course, much harder to identify in advance a 16-year-old armed with a knife he took from his mother’s kitchen than a suicide bomber sent on his way by a small network. But the series of attacks has eroded many Israelis’ sense of relative personal security, which has been Netanyahu’s main accomplishment — and the source of his electoral strength — during the last seven years. Some attacks initiated by Arab-Israeli citizens have also damaged the sensitive relationship between Jews and Arabs inside Israel, and there is a growing risk of a new round of violence in Gaza, where Hamas has successfully rebuilt its network of tunnels.
Faced with such challenges, Netanyahu’s rhetoric has become more bellicose, but little has changed in Israel’s actual military stance. The reason for the Israeli army’s rather restrained approach is the attitude of both Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon and Gen. Eizenkot. The conduct of these two leaders represents the only source for relative optimism in this rapidly darkening picture: Eizenkot, in particular, has been quite outspoken about lessons he learned from the Second Intifada and has insisted on the need to avoid collective punishment against Palestinians in the West Bank.
Eizenkot has also been wary of suggestions that the army conduct a massive incursion inside the Gaza Strip as a preemptive measure against the Hamas tunnels. The two officials support a rise in the number of work permits for Palestinians inside Israel; earlier this month, the security cabinet approved their proposal to increase the number by 50 percent, to 90,000 permits.
Nahum Barnea, a veteran political commentator in Israel and a critic of Netanyahu, wrote this month that in his unassuming way, Eizenkot is now filling Israel’s leadership vacuum. A few more of these public compliments, and the IDF commander might find himself at odds with the prime minister’s office.A few more of these public compliments, and the IDF commander might find himself at odds with the prime minister’s office.
Meanwhile, the political discourse in Israel continues to deteriorate. On Feb. 18, two teenage Palestinian boys stabbed two Israelis at a supermarket in a settlement north of Jerusalem; one died from his wounds, and the other was severely injured. An Israeli citizen shot and wounded the two boys, who were evacuated to an Israeli hospital, along with the wounded Israelis.
The Israeli right quickly pinned blame for the attack on an unlikely source. “I hope that Eizenkot’s remarks yesterday [Wednesday] against the use of automatic weapons while dealing with attackers didn’t cause life-threatening hesitation,” Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz wrote on Facebook. “Terrorists who attack Jews should not come out of this alive.”
Katz, whose relationship with Netanyahu has recently soured, entered politics as a close supporter of former Prime Minister Sharon. It’s hard to imagine Sharon putting up with such behavior during the Second Intifada. But perhaps Sharon was luckier than Netanyahu — at least he didn’t have to deal with his ministers turning to social media in order to give advice about self-defense to soldiers and civilians. Not only is this new Intifada not going anywhere soon, it is already making Israelis lose all sense of proportion.