The Russian Military’s People Problem
It’s Hard for Moscow to Win While Mistreating Its Soldiers
On July 31, arsonists firebombed a small home in the West Bank village of Duma. The attack, suspected to be the work of Jewish terrorists, claimed the lives of an 18-month-old Palestinian child and his father, and another sibling and the child’s mother remain in intensive care. Several Jewish extremists have since been arrested, but the perpetrators remain at large. The horrifying tragedy was an urgent wake-up call, many Israeli politicians argued, for some serious soul-searching in Israeli society. It could also have been something more: a spark that lit a wider conflagration in the West Bank. Yet the often predicted “third intifada” has once again failed to materialize.
For several years now, Israeli security professionals have been concerned that a deadly settler attack on Palestinian civilians would lead to mass unrest in the West Bank. Causing such unrest has, in fact, been a stated goal of settler extremists for some time. As one handbook circulating in 2012 put it, targeting the Palestinian population was a strategy to “unbalance the system,” by tying up Israeli military and police resources and “sending a message” of deterrence to the authorities. If the settlers were not allowed to keep their homes, then the Israeli government would not be allowed to keep the West Bank quiet.
In the wake of the Duma attack, the Israeli military moved four additional battalions into the West Bank, anticipating the worst. Small-scale protests did take place in a handful of cities, but they petered out quickly. Similarly, there has been an increase in attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians by lone wolf Palestinian terrorists, but the West Bank has not tipped into outright violence and chaos. The absence of sustained upheaval remains a puzzle for many.
ORDERS FROM ON HIGH
The most important factor in transforming high tensions into open conflict has always been the organization and encouragement provided by some kind of Palestinian leadership. Even the first intifada, a popular uprising nominally sparked by one isolated traffic fatality in the Gaza Strip in December 1987, lasted for years, precisely because of an organized infrastructure directed by local civic, trade, and student committees which eventually came to include the Palestine Liberation Organization (the Palestinian Authority’s transnational parent movement).
The Palestinian leadership also fanned the flames of the second intifada, which broke out in September 2000 after then-Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon’s provocative visit to the Temple Mount (Haram al-Sharif). Yasir Arafat, at the time president of the Palestinian Authority, organized mass demonstrations and outright violence. Arafat called for “a million martyrs” to march on Jerusalem, and his Fatah party (which dominates the Palestinian Authority) unleashed its own terrorist wing, the al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. Many of these militants had, prior to the outbreak of hostilities, been official, uniformed members of the Palestinian Authority security forces.
The Palestinian leadership has also played an integral role in managing tensions during more recent times. For instance, the largest single instance of West Bank unrest since the second intifada came last summer, at the height of the Gaza war between Israel and Hamas. On the night of July 24, between 10,000 and 25,000 Palestinians marched on the Qalandia checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem. Most demonstrations in the West Bank garner several dozen protestors, and they rarely exceed several thousand.
As one senior Palestinian intelligence official told me afterward, the march on Qalandia was not a spontaneous outpouring of emotion. Nor was it an event sponsored by Hamas. It was Fatah that organized the demonstration, in order to allow the public to “vent out” while “directing people’s anger against Israel, and not the [Palestinian] Authority,” as the official explained. The Fatah leadership, he continued, wanted to be seen as supporting the people while at the same time “maintaining a sense of control.”
For the most part, the Palestinian Authority has sought to contain protests, rather than condone them, let alone actively organize them.
The demonstration that night quickly devolved into a riot, with protestors targeting Israeli security forces with fireworks, rocks, and even live fire from gunmen who were thought to hail from the al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, which had lain dormant for years. The events of that night, though, were a one-off affair. For the most part, the Palestinian Authority has sought to contain protests, rather than condone them, let alone actively organize them.
Israeli politicians have often misunderstood this. For instance, in response to the burning alive of teenager Muhammad Abu Khdeir by Jewish extremists last summer, riots broke out in several Arab towns inside Israel proper and East Jerusalem, but not in the West Bank. Amid heightened tensions and a wave of terrorist attacks that fall in Jerusalem, several right-wing Israeli politicians blamed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for inciting the unrest, calling him a “terrorist.” Israel’s own domestic intelligence chief, Yoram Cohen, rejected the assessment, telling lawmakers that Abbas “is not interested in terror and is not leading [his people] to terror. Nor is he doing so under the table.”
Fatah’s vast patronage network, reaching into all aspects of Palestinian institutional life—government offices, schools, mosques—has not been mobilized to take to the streetsThe Palestinian Authority’s refusal to encourage violence explains why the West Bank has remained quiet even after the recent Duma attack. "If there was a plan to … push the Palestinian street towards clashes,” Jibril Rajoub, a high-ranking Fatah leader, recently told an Israeli newspaper, “the current situation would be very different. But the decision was clear, and the commanders of the [Palestinian Authority] security services were present, understood the tone, and their instructions."
Palestinian Authority riot police still act as an initial buffer in containing demonstrations in Palestinian cities, before they can reach Israeli military checkpoints and settlements. Palestinian security and intelligence forces have conducted an unprecedented crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank, arresting well over a thousand of the group’s activists in the past year. And Fatah’s vast patronage network, reaching into all aspects of Palestinian institutional life—government offices, schools, mosques—has not been mobilized to take to the streets.
A PARTNER FOR PEACE?
Despite what many Israelis choose to believe, they do have a partner on the Palestinian side, flawed as it may be. The Palestinian Authority has kept the West Bank relatively stable, in part as a means of self-preservation and in cooperation with Israel, but also as a principled stand against the utility of violence. “My motto since the outbreak of the second intifada was that it must be stopped,” Abbas said in 2010, “because armed activity destroys us, and it indeed destroyed us.” Such mutual strategic interests with a neighboring Arab entity would, in a different political context, be built upon and expanded. But in the case of the Palestinian Authority, these mutual interests are being ignored.
Despite a recent official denial from the prime minister’s office, rumors persist that Israel has been negotiating indirectly with Hamas on a long-term ceasefire. Only a year after the two parties fought a brutal 50-day war, Hamas is now viewed by some as a buffer against chaos and the rise of ISIS in the Gaza Strip. No comparable negotiations are currently underway with the Palestinian Authority, Israel’s security partner in the West Bank. As Israeli opposition leader Isaac Herzog put it, the government’s policy appears to be “speaking with Hamas and isolating Abu Mazen [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas].”
For Israel, it seems, realpolitik takes precedence, except when ideology, domestic politics, and West Bank land are involved. A third intifada isn’t here—not thanks to the grace of God but because of deliberate decisions being taken in Ramallah. Given the continued uncertainty surrounding Abbas’ presidential succession, it’s an open question how long the Palestinian Authority will continue to make the same decisions. The Israeli government may come to regret not talking to Abbas while it had the chance.