Peace has never seemed further away for Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. Several dreadful incidents recently have made that point sadly obvious.
The most vicious was a terrorist attack: a horrific shooting in which seven people were killed and many injured outside a Jerusalem synagogue on Friday. We don’t know the organisational affiliation of the attacker, Khairi Alqam. He could have been Hamas. He could have been Islamic Jihad. None of those organisations claimed this attack. Some observers – on the basis of speculation, or possibly evidence not in the public domain at the moment – believe that he was a member of the Islamic State. What we know for sure is that this was a dreadful crime – one which shocked the world.
Israel’s government promised an immediate and firm reaction to the attack, including the demolition of the shooter’s home. The prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, also said his cabinet would look again at allowing Israeli civilians to carry more guns – something at least as likely to cause more shootings than to prevent them. To a terrorist who aims to be killed in the attempt, there is little extra deterrent offered by an armed civilian population.
This is a time of ever-rising tension. The day before this terrorist attack – and unrelated to it – an Israeli raid in Jenin in the West Bank killed ten people: it was one of the deadlier counter-terror raids this century. Israel says it was breaking up an Islamic Jihad cell plotting an attack. But most seized upon by Palestinian and Arab media was another aspect of the raid: one of the dead was a male civilian; another an old woman.
Despite much speculation, these two events are too close to have anything to do with each other. Instead, they all come at the same time amid a more general collapse – and after two decades of general decay.
Israel has a new government, whose policy is – in both perception and reality – likely to be unhelpful in its sectarianism. The Palestinian Authority is under siege from militant groups; its leader, Mahmoud Abbas, is an old, ailing man incapable of ruling his dominion, and unwilling to name a successor.
For some of the past twenty years, the world kept up a fiction that there would – at some distant moment in time – be a so-called ‘solution’ to the ‘Israeli—Palestinian problem’. The fiction was that this could involve ‘two states for two peoples’.
Perhaps at the time of the Oslo Accords in 1993, people tricked themselves into believing this might be possible. But they can do so no longer. The stated policy of most of the Israeli right is explicitly ‘one state’; in many cases, it is outright annexationist. The country’s current governing coalition is to the right of a great proportion of Jewish Israelis, let alone Christian and Arab Israelis, and inhabitants of Gaza and the West Bank.
Meanwhile, Hamas and Islamic Jihad have rarely been more violent. Armed with newer and better missiles and drones from Iran, allied by Hezbollah’s efforts to antagonise Israel via Lebanon and southern Syria, the current of violence is surging. It threatens to sweep all possibility of calm away.
What is incredible is that this downward spiral in relations has happened largely without much international reaction. Politicians from overseas appear to think that, once a year or so, a serious escalation in the Middle East is likely. But there is little appetite to do much about it. The West has tried its best, seems to be the logic – and the view holds that, whatever happens, will happen whatever they try.
As always, of course, things can still get worse, though: many Palestinian leaders and observers say that whatever their parties and movements say or do, a new Intifada – a new movement of violent resistance – is likely, even inevitable.
And if Isis really is potentially in the mix, the number of attacks by both sophisticated means (bombings, ambushes) and unsophisticated means (knife attacks, attacks with vehicles) will likely increase. They have their own sick doctrines to follow.
More tension, more violence, and more competition from both Israeli political parties and terror groups to be the toughest and to have the most decisive reactions, looms. This is a dangerous moment for the civilian population of several countries as a result. And we simply don’t know where it will go. Only that things will get worse, as if by law of nature.
This piece was originally published in The Spectator.