Continuing Violence and Diplomatic Brinksmanship in the Holy Land
This week the cycle of violence that erupted with the August 18 terror attacks in southern Israel continued to wreck havoc for both Israelis and Palestinians. (See last week’s Bulletin for additional details.) Rockets fired from Gaza into Israel increased significantly and Israel responded with a series of airstrikes in the strip.
After the initial attack that killed eight Israelis, the Israeli Air Force bombed a building in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, killing the commander of the Palestinian Resistance Committee (PRC) and two other prominent members of the group. Israeli officials initially said they believe the PRC is behind last week’s attacks in southern Israel, but as yet, no group has claimed responsibility for the attack and questions have been raised about the PRC’s involvement.
Militant factions within Gaza responded to Israeli airstrikes with a barrage of 160 rockets, 120 of which landed in Israeli territory. On August 20, two Grad rockets hit the Israeli town of Beersheba, causing the death of one Israeli civilian. Several Israelis were injured due to the increased rocket fire. At least 15 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli airstrikes before Hamas announced a cease-fire on Sunday evening, brokered by Egypt.
By Wednesday, the cease-fire was broken when Israel launched an airstrike killing Ismail Asmar, a senior member of the armed wing of the Islamic Jihad. At least six other Gazans were killed and more than 30 injured in a series of assaults Wednesday night. After the airstrike, Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for at least four rockets and several mortar rounds.
In the chaos following the terror attacks in southern Israel, an Israeli war plane inadvertently killed three Egyptian security officers while pursuing several perpetrators of the attack across the Egyptian border. The casualties and the Israeli response have created a diplomatic crisis between Israel and Egypt to a level unseen since the Camp David peace accords in more than 30 years ago.
During the reign of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak Israel and Egypt maintained a civil relationship. But the new Egyptian government, put in place after popular protests toppled Mubarak, must take into account the sentiments of the Egyptian people, who are likely not as committed to the status quo relationship as the previous government.
Egypt demanded an official apology from Israel and initially there were reports that the Egyptian ambassador to Israel would be recalled, but recent reports say that the ambassador will remain in Tel Aviv given Israel’s statement of regret about the deaths on Saturday. Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak, released a statement saying, “We regret the deaths of members of the Egyptian security forces during the terror attack on the Israeli-Egyptian border.” The Egyptian cabinet did not feel that statement went far enough and demanded a statement accepting responsibility.
In Cairo, thousands of protestors demonstrated outside the Israeli Embassy and removed the Israeli flag from the building. Mohamed Bassiouni, former Egyptian ambassador to Israel said the protests indicate that, “The Egyptians do not accept what has happened and it means that Israel should take care. If they continue their behavior toward the Palestinians and the peace process, it means that the situation will escalate more.”
On Thursday Israel agreed to a joint investigation with Egypt to examine the events that let up to the deaths of the three Egyptian security officers.
In the midst of the diplomatic escalation, U.S. Rep. Kay Granger (TX - 12th) warned that the United States’ $2 billion dollars in aid to Egypt is “predicated on the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel,” and would not continue if the treaty was broken. Rep. Granger is Chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations which controls the allocation of all most all U.S. foreign aid.
The cross-border violence between Egypt, Israel, and Gaza threatens to overshadow the protests that have continued in Israel’s streets for more than a month now. Protesters are calling on their government to ameliorate the high costs of living that impact the country’s middle class. Organizers say they will continue to protest despite the spike in violence in southern Israel, but they are opting for more subdued displays. Last Saturday, as rockets were falling near Israeli towns and cities, protestors canceled a large rally and instead held a vigil of several thousand people.
One protestor said, "The rockets are a short term danger. The disintegration of a society is a long-term threat ... we have to keep going. We can't let the security situation erode us from within."
Another said the protesters would not allow the government "to say that because of this we can't make changes and that we need a budget only for security. We want education and health and taxes, and a fair government, and I think this is no less important.”
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told Al-Jazeera, “Israel has been witnessing real unrest and weekly demonstrations calling for social justice. These protests could have grown had it not been for the escalation, which diverted attention from the events. Since then, the demonstrations have stopped.”
Indeed the intra-border violence has cast a shadow over the domestic protests in Israel, but protesters aren’t likely to disappear and can still offer “new hope,” as Daniel Levy writes in The Nation. He says the protest have the potential to draw “the connections in people’s minds between the costs of occupation, settlements and ‘no peace’ and the inadequate provision of social goods.”
Israel’s popular protests are not the only thing overshadowed by the outbreak in violence. Despite the focus on the Israel’s southern border, there were key shifts elsewhere in the diplomatic arena. China announced Thursday that it will support the Palestinians bid for statehood. Spanish Foreign Minister Trinidad Jimenez also stated Spain’s support for an independent Palestinian state and said that she hopes a meeting of European Union foreign ministers in Poland next week will bring progress toward recognition. However, with a U.S. veto in the UN Security Council likely, one option being considered by the Palestinian leadership is a request for an upgrade in status with the International body from a non-state observer to a non-member state, with a status equal to the Vatican.
In a monthly UN Security Council briefing on the region, a UN official told Security Council members that recent uptick in violence makes breaking the deadlock more important than ever. Warned UN Under Secretary General for Political Affairs B. Lynn Pascoe, “Ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and establishing an independent and viable State of Palestine living side by side with Israel in peace and security are long overdue. In a rapidly changing regional context, serious progress towards this goal is urgent.”
While Palestinian leadership describes their initiative at the UN as a means to circumvent a moribund diplomatic process, there is little evidence of a strategy by either side for what could come after a confrontation at the UN. A recent report by the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, led by Chairman Shaul Mofaz, reportedly shows that Israel is ill prepared and that the Palestinian’s bid could have been diplomatically prevented. A few members of the Knesset are dismayed by the report’s finding and are trying to prevent its publication.
For a compilation of resources on the Palestinian Initiative at the UN, see CMEP’s resource page.
U.S. political commentator Glenn Beck held a rally on Wednesday at the foot of the Temple Mount. More than a thousand people attended the event, organized to demonstrate Beck’s unmitigated support for Israel. Most in the audience were U.S. Christians who traveled to Israel for the rally and right-wing Israelis, but Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat as well as a few members of the Knesset were also in attendance. Beck spoke to the crowd for about an hour, telling them, “In Israel, there is more courage in one square mile than in all of Europe. In Israel, there is more courage in one soldier than in the combined and cold hearts of every bureaucrat at the United Nations.”
Danny Danon, a member of the Knesset from the Likud party who helped organize the trip said, “I do not agree with everything he has said or will say in the future,” but even so, Beck “is a true friend of Israel.” The rally coincided with a delegation of 26 Republican members of Congress organized by a charity associated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
Several dozen Peace Now protestors were outside the event. Yariv Oppenheimer, Secretary General of Peace Now responded to the rally by saying, "I think he tried to use the tension in this city for his career and we have enough fanatics here. We don't need any more. We need friends who come from abroad to support the idea of two states, of sharing Jerusalem a capital for two states, for the Palestinians and the Israelis, and not people who come here just to provoke."
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