A Palestinian woman paints a mural, depicting a masked Palestinian holding a knife, in support of Palestinians committing stabbing attacks against Israelis, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip November 3, 2015.
A Palestinian woman paints a mural, depicting a masked Palestinian holding a knife, in support of Palestinians committing stabbing attacks against Israelis, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip November 3, 2015. 
Ibraheem Abu Mustafa / Reuters

As Palestinian stabbing attacks have spread throughout Israel and the Palestinian territories in recent months, Israelis have once again started questioning the role of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in tolerating or even encouraging violence. When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the site of a stabbing attack in the West Bank settlement of Otniel this past January, he said, “Palestinian incitement is what is causing terrorism.” At a cultural event in March, the Israeli minister of science, technology, and space, Ofir Akunis, echoed Netanyahu’s sentiment, saying, “The [Palestinian] Authority has embarked on an extreme campaign of incitement against Israel in its education system and the Palestinian media.”  

The Palestinian government’s failure to condemn the stabbing attacks has given credence to the charge. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has spoken only in generalities, saying, “We are concerned over every drop of blood from any person.” Meanwhile, other Palestinian leaders have praised the stabbings. Jabril Rajoub, chairman of the Palestinian Football Association and a member of the Fatah Central Committee, told Palestinian TV in early January, “These individual acts are heroic and we, in Fatah, salute them.” And official Palestinian and Fatah media consistently laud the incidents and refer to the attackers approvingly as “martyrs.”

Deeds tell a different story than words, however. There is indeed a Palestinian campaign against extremism and violence taking place behind the scenes. The Palestinian Security Services (PSS) maintains a relationship with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), however shaky. And the PA has cracked down on radicalized mosques in Palestine, trying to make it harder for potential attackers to use places of worship for organization and recruitment. Trapped between Israelis who want peace and quiet and a Palestinian public that still hungers for resistance, the PA is trying to do just enough to placate everybody. How long that balancing act can continue and whether it will be able to keep the situation from exploding remains unclear.

KEEPING A WATCHFUL EYE

After Hamas militants shot and killed Eitam and Naama Henkin, two Israelis traveling on a road near Nablus in October 2015, the Palestinian Preventive Security Organization provided the IDF and Shin Bet with crucial information that led to the arrest of the five attackers. In January, Palestinian Authority’s General Intelligence Service (GIS) Chief Majid Faraj, a rising Fatah star, told Defense News that the PSS has foiled “200 attacks against Israelis, confiscated weapons, and arrested about 100 Palestinians” in recent months. And in early March, Israeli journalist Avi Issacharoff reported that the PSS had arrested a Hamas cell in Hebron that had been planning attacks against Israelis.

Such intelligence-sharing efforts have been complemented by the PA’s attempts to push Hamas out of Palestinian mosques. After Hamas took over Gaza in 2007, PA leaders in the West Bank launched a campaign to suppress Hamas’ militant activity, a major component of which involved cracking down on incitement in mosques. The campaign largely succeeded, and resulted in the firing of more than 200 imams who were unwilling to abide the new regulations. The PSS also raided a number of mosques, including one in Qalqilya that had been used to store weapons and shelter a top Hamas military commander. (The Hamas commander and three of his subordinates were killed, and the raid ended with the PSS taking back control of the mosque. 

Palestinians place a red carpet between the ruins of houses, that witnesses said were destroyed by Israeli shelling during a 50-day war last summer, before they display a film on the war in the east of Gaza City May 12, 2015.
Palestinians place a red carpet between the ruins of houses, that witnesses said were destroyed by Israeli shelling during a 50-day war last summer, before they display a film on the war in the east of Gaza City May 12, 2015.
Mohammed Salem / Reuters

Since then, Palestinian leaders have established a number of mechanisms to cement their control. The vast majority of imams in the West Bank—about 1,000 in all—are now employed by the Palestine Ministry of Awqaf (Islamic endowments) and Religious Affairs, which meets with them monthly to receive updates on what is happening in their mosques. The Awqaf ministry also distributes topics for sermons and guidelines to imams every week and places plainclothes intelligence officers among the crowds of believers. If these officers report back that an imam is inciting violence against either Israelis or fellow Palestinians, the Awqaf ministry will bring the imam in for interrogation. In most cases, he will be warned and told that further offenses could result in firing or arrest. Hamas parliamentarian Ayman Daraghmeh told me that the imams toe the line because “otherwise they could be imprisoned.” 

Palestinian leaders say that they have brought in only a handful of imams for violating their mandate during the recent round of stabbing attacks. The PSS arrested one of those, Musab Abu Arqoub, for inciting violence. Abu Arqoub, who is affiliated with the Hizb al-Tahrir movement, had launched a scathing attack on Majed Faraj during a Friday sermon at a mosque in Dura, a village near Hebron, calling on the crowd to kill the GIS leader and attack Israelis. PA officials hesitated to reveal the specifics of other summonses and arrests, but say they have indeed held other violators accountable.

An Israeli police officer gestures as he holds a weapon near the scene of an attack at a Jerusalem synagogue November 18, 2014.
An Israeli police officer gestures as he holds a weapon near the scene of an attack at a Jerusalem synagogue November 18, 2014. 
Ronen Zvulun / Reuters

Mahmoud al-Habash, the Palestinian supreme sharia judge and President Abbas’s adviser for religious affairs, told me during an interview in his Ramallah office recently that the Palestinian Authority is “trying to prevent these [violent] acts.” He emphasized that the Palestinian Authority will not tolerate politicization or incitement to violence in mosques, saying, “We have been able to establish rules and foundations for mosques in a respectable way, but there has been some disobedience.” Jamal al-Qassim, a senior Awqaf ministry official, echoed Habash’s remarks, noting, “The Awqaf ministry maintains specific principles for religious discourse in mosques, which include promoting moderation and rejecting violence. These principles are fixed and not up for discussion.” And Osama al-Tibi, the imam of the Gamal Abdel Nasser Mosque, the biggest mosque in Ramallah, harshly criticized Israel for its continued occupation and for “violating the status quo at the Al-Aqsa Mosque,” but said, “We do not incite to violence against Israelis here and I personally do not support the stabbings.”

BETWEEN A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE

The Palestinian Authority is in a difficult position. On the one hand, its leaders continue to believe that Palestinians can achieve statehood through nonviolence and are determined to use their mosque regulation mechanisms and their security forces to prevent incitement, head off attacks, and maintain control. On the other hand, PA leaders have to deal with a population that has seen little progress toward independence, remains fairly hostile toward Israel, and does not have infinite patience or confidence that the future will be different from the past. This contributes to a situation in which 56 percent of Palestinians support the stabbing attacks, making it difficult for Palestinian leadership and mosque authorities to condemn them strongly and still maintain popular legitimacy. 

Palestinian authorities will likely continue their security cooperation with Israel and their strict supervision of mosques, not least because they realize that if the current violence evolves into a full-fledged intifada, they themselves may ultimately be at risk along with Israelis. But the status quo is not indefinitely stable. As Habash, Abbas’ religious adviser, put it, “We are in control of those situations [in which militants cause problems], but I cannot say for how long.”

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now