The last few weeks have seen increasing Palestinian unrest in East Jerusalem in response to increasing Israeli settlement activity in Palestinian neighborhoods such as Silwan. The Palestinian Ma’an News Agency has an interview with imprisoned Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti — whose release has seemed to be imminent for years now — who says that “there is no Israeli peace partner“:
What is happening now is the height of settlement activity since 1967. In addition there is the Judaization of Jerusalem. First it was one home after another, now it’s one neighborhood after another. I am saying this loudly: anyone who thinks that peace is possible with the current Israeli government and was not possible with the previous governments, is being delusional.
Barghouti was a leading figure among the Fatah “Young Guard” who came of age in the occupied Palestinian territories in the late 70′s and 80′s, and took a leading role in the First Intifada. Increasingly frustrated by the lack of progress toward Palestinian statehood, in 2004 he was convicted by Israel of plotting terror attacks, and received several life sentences. He continued his activism in prison, and was one of the proponents of the 2006 “Prisoner’s Agreement” which sought conciliation between Palestinian factions. Despite his imprisonment, he won a top post in Fatah’s August elections.
Barghouti features prominently in Palestinian scholar and activist Sari Nusseibeh’s excellent memoir, Once Upon a Country. A former student of Nusseibeh’s at Bir Zeit University, Barghouti was active in campus government, and was committed both to non-violently resisting the Israeli occupation, and to building institutions which would support a modern Palestinian state. Like countless others of his generation, Barghouti spent his youth in and out of Israeli prisons for the crime of being a Palestinian nationalist. Nusseibeh effectively uses Barghouti’s increasingly militant stance, and his eventual embrace of violence in response to the continuing Israeli occupation and colonization, to track the growth of radicalism among young Palestinians.
Yesterday, as if to demonstrate Barghouti’s “no Israeli partner” argument, Peace Now’s Hagit Ofran wrote of a narrowly averted incident last week that she says “could have set the entire Middle East on fire.”
Netanyahu’s secret plan to visit a disputed tunnel in the East Jerusalem Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan, at the site known as Ir David (the City of David), was canceled, probably with some international intervention. Am I exaggerating the danger? No. Judging from past experience, provocations in Jerusalem never end well, and with the tensions in Jerusalem clearly rising in recent weeks, the potential for an explosion is very real.
First, some background about this secret plan is in order: Less than a week after he returned from Washington, after lowering everybody’s expectations and holding the coldest summit possible with Abbas and Obama, Netanyahu decided it was time to unite his quarreling staffers. He decided, apparently, that the best way to do this would be to organize a morale-building event in Jerusalem. Of all possible Jerusalem sites, he decided to take them on a tour of Ir David (the City of David), in the heart of Silwan. The plan was eventually revealed (it is hard to hide a plan that involves Israeli security forces cordoning off an entire section of the city), Silwan residents organized a protest, reporters started making inquiries and high-level policymakers in Washington and around the world were alerted. Reportedly, after several calls were apparently received from Washington, Netanyahu decided to cancel the tour.
As if the Obama administration didn’t have enough on its plate without having to expend valuable energy trying to get Netanyahu to behave. As Ofran notes, this sort of thing is in keeping with Netanyahu’s approach during his first term as prime minister: Provocative assertions of Israeli claims over disputed areas, and then using the resulting Palestinian outrage to justify further land grabs under the guise of “security.”
In continuing to provoke the Palestinians over Jerusalem, Netanyahu is playing with fire. Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Haram al-Sharif in September 2000, accompanied by hundreds of Israeli troops, sparked the riots that eventually exploded into the Second Intifada. One of the more pernicious myths in the U.S. debate over Israel and Palestine is that the Second Intifada was a planned and orchestrated by Yasir Arafat, rather than the result of genuine Palestinian frustration at the Israeli occupation and their own leaders’ inability to bring it to an end. Netanyahu’s intransigence during his first term was a major accelerant of that frustration. And now he seems set to play the role of arsonist again — with his American apologists again set to blame everything on the Palestinians as they cheer him on.