The real problem is the absence of hope among Palestinians
It is a disturbing film clip, taken on a mobile phone, young protesters running down a darkened street, illuminated by the flames of burning buildings, shouts, screams, gunfire in the background.
No, it was not last Monday in Jerusalem, Lod, Jaffa or Gaza. It was Karbala, in central Iraq, on Sunday. The protests had been sparked by the latest assassination of a young activist by shadowy gunmen, almost certainly backed by Iran. The protesters wanted what they have always wanted: Freedom from fear, freedom from Tehran’s baleful influence, freedom to live their lives in dignity and hope. They set fire to the Iranian Consulate, shouted their slogans and ran for their lives.
This is not meant to diminish the impact of what is happening in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. It is simply to provide some context. Violence — from states, their clients, militias and other ideologically motivated psychopaths — is endemic in much of the region. The difference between what Israel (say) and Iran, Hezbollah or Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq do is that one responds to actual or imagined threats with the full force of a mobilised state: The others work in the shadows, through bribery, intimidation, assassination. When yet another activist is shot in the head, when protesters are picked off by snipers, when Yazidis, Assyrian Christians and Sunni or Kurdish villagers are displaced from their ancestral homes to make way for those whom Iran and its friends prefer — the world looks away.
The nearest parallel perhaps to what is happening is the protracted and bloody campaign by the Assad regime against its own people, backed by Russian airpower and Iranian auxiliaries. That has now lasted 10 years, not 10 days. But the atrocities of Daesh, the barrage of propaganda coming out of Damascus, Moscow and Tehran, brutal restrictions on proper reporting and the sheer complexity of the situation have exhausted people’s attention span.
I lived in Sheikh Jarrah for four years. It is not a big place, sitting to the east of the old Mandelbaum Gate, to the north of Wadi Al-Joz and to the south of French Hill — the site of the first post-June 1967 Israeli settlement. To the northeast stands Mount Scopus, where besiegers of Jerusalem such as Titus, the future Roman emperor, or Abu Ubaidah pitched their siege camps. Today the Hebrew University, that monument to both the liberal hopes of the 1920s and the savage battles of 1948 and 1967, looms over the city.
If you walk down and then up the hill past the elegant mansions built a century ago by the notable families of Jerusalem, you will come to the American Colony Hotel, the so-called Tombs of the Kings and St George’s Cathedral and School, that educator of the old Palestinian elite. You will come to Salahuddin Street, the main shopping artery of East Jerusalem which leads past the tranquil Ecole Biblique to the Damascus Gate. Stand at the gate and look to your left and some meters below you will see the old Roman street that once stood there. Go through the gate and you will find yourself lost in the souqs and winding alleys of the Old City. There are beautiful Ayyubid, Mamluk and Ottoman khans, madrasas, and mosques, Armenian, Syriac, Orthodox and Crusader churches. You will pass groups of Muslim clerics, Jewish Haredim, nuns and priests, tour parties walking the Via Dolorosa, worshippers heading for Al-Aqsa. If you look carefully under the great stone arches you will see the marks left by the medieval masons, proud of their craft and — like builders throughout the ages — keen to let you know it. You will pass gradually and then suddenly from the Muslim to the Jewish to the Armenian to the Christian quarter. And you may find yourself at the Jaffa Gate, crassly widened to accommodate the visit of Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1898, and now another contested communal space. Outside lies the Mamilla complex, controversially built on the site of a Byzantine church, a medieval cemetery and a Mamluk mausoleum.
Muslims, Jews and Christians, Israelis, Palestinians, Armenians, Greek Orthodox and many others all believe they own a part of the soul of the city. That has led to conflict in the past. In more recent times the spark that set the fire of the second intifada was Ariel Sharon’s inflammatory visit to the Haram Al-Sharif.
The last two decades have fostered a dangerous delusion that the Palestinians would simply go quietly into history’s long night.
Sir John Jenkins
And here we are again. Each time is the same. Each time is different. This time the sparks were heavy-handed Israeli police action, right-wing Jewish nationalist parades through the Old City on Jerusalem Day and the prospect of new Palestinian evictions in Sheikh Jarrah, cheered on by Israeli provocateurs.
These grievances are real. By and large Palestinians cannot get building permits in Jerusalem nor reclaim confiscated property. Israeli Jews can do both. Young Palestinians resent being corralled at the Damascus Gate in Ramadan because it is a visceral reminder of their second-class status in the heart of their most important city. And harsh policing of worshippers in Al-Aqsa is asking for trouble, as it did in July 2000. Distrust runs too deep for words.
But the real problem is the absence of hope. Too many ordinary Palestinians feel abandoned. They are denied political agency. The Palestinian Authority no longer represents their interests. Elections, which could have offered some relief, were canceled last month at short notice on a transparently flimsy excuse.
Meanwhile, Hamas seeks to exploit despair and inflame the situation by posing as the only effective defender of Jerusalem. Regular polling suggests that Hamas’ popularity in Gaza is consistently lower than in the West Bank: The people they rule with a rod of iron know them only too well. But Hamas has its own internal reasons for provoking a conflict, not least the hope of displacing Fatah within the PLO as the protector of all Palestinians. It also probably calculates that exacerbating chronic political uncertainty in Israel can only help its cause.
And the net result of the hundreds of rockets — many supplied or designed by Iran — which Hamas has fired in the direction of Tel Aviv, Ashdod, Ashkelon and Beersheba? As I write this, 7 dead Israelis (including 2 Palestinians living in Israel), scores wounded, a furiously vengeful reaction by the Israeli military against targets in Gaza, around 60 Palestinian dead, including senior members of Hamas, hundreds more wounded in Gaza, Jerusalem and elsewhere and the eruption of vicious intercommunal violence pitting Palestinians living in Israel and Jewish Israelis against each other.
Abu Mazen has again been made to look weak. And those states which signed up to the Abraham Accords have suddenly found themselves in a highly uncomfortable position. They have made clear their deep unease with what is happening. But part of the rationale for the accords was always that they would give the signatories some influence over Israel. Making that claim look hollow — and in the process undermining the accords — is why Iran and Hezbollah (for example) now sound so gleeful. Ismail Haniyeh, Yahya Sinwar and especially Mohammed Deif — who seems to be calling the shots — must be happy with their week’s work.
Anyone who thought that the future of the Palestinians no longer mattered has been disabused. It is true that the Palestinian issue has ceased to be the dominant issue for most people in the region. Jobs, security, dignity, the battle against extremism, the construction of an efficient and equitable state all matter far more. But it still matters. Like it or not, and irrespective of the individuals involved, it has a unique power to rouse emotion and mobilize opinion.
And without a political settlement that gives Palestinians real control over their own destiny the conflict will never end. It will continue to cause massive human suffering. It will continue to elicit waves of visceral sympathy and solidarity across the Arab and Islamic worlds. It will polarize opinion more widely. And it will damagingly distract attention from the other issues that objectively matter more to the US, Europe and the West in general — Iran, China, Russia, North Korea, climate change, the future of the liberal world order. And that is just for starters.
The question is: What can be done to stop this happening again? And the answer is the same as it has always been. We need a proper process designed to allow the legitimate representatives of both Israel and Palestine to negotiate the end of a century-old conflict and the creation of an independent Palestinian state which can meet the aspirations of its future citizens without compromising or endangering those of others, including Israel. For this to work, we need the US to pay more attention than they have done for a decade. We need the EU to become at least for a moment the political power it has always claimed and so far failed to be. And we need to acknowledge the importance of Egypt and Jordan. They bear a heavy burden. They need our support. Because without them, this will not work. We then need to ensure that those Gulf states that have made — or wish to make — their peace with Israel are genuinely able to shape and guarantee the outcome and support the aspirations of ordinary Palestinians rather than being asked either to deny their own national interests or to go against the deeply-held feelings of much of the region as a whole.
We should above all try to make this latest round of savage and cynical violence the last. The last two decades have fostered dangerous delusions: That the Palestinians would simply go quietly into history’s long night, that Hamas is part of the answer, that the old men of Fatah represent their community, that Iran can be tamed and that Israel could normalize relations around the region and everything would be fine. We should rediscover our collective will to find a solution that serves justice as well as security. Will we?
• Sir John Jenkins is a senior fellow at Policy Exchange. Until December 2017, he was Corresponding Director (Middle East) at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), based in Manama, Bahrain, and was a Senior Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. He was the British ambassador to Saudi Arabia until January 2015.