Understanding The Middle East May Require More Than 140 Characters

In non-baseball, non-debate news, the on-again-off-again cycle of insane violence in the Holy Land seems to be back on. Foreign Affairs asks, “can anyone prevent a Third Intifada?”:

It all feels grimly familiar. Last year, these same measures followed an assault on a Jerusalem synagogue that killed five people, the apex of a month of violence. On Tuesday, two attacks — one Palestinian man attacked pedestrians with an axe after driving his car into a bus stop; two others shot and stabbed passengers aboard a municipal bus — once again sent Israel into a state of panic. Three Israelis were killed, raising the death toll this month to seven, after more than 20 attacks. On Wednesday evening, an elderly woman was injured in a stabbing at Jerusalem’s central bus station, and a separate attack was foiled near the Old City.

Unlike last year, however, the violence has spread far beyond Jerusalem. Israelis have been stabbed on the street in Raanana, Hadera, and Afula — quiet cities, away from Israel’s contested borders, and hardly hotbeds of tension. The West Bank and Gaza have also seen sustained unrest, with 18 Palestinians killed in a week of protests, mostly by live fire from Israeli troops. The number of wounded now tops 1,400 people, according to medics. The entrances to several East Jerusalem neighborhoods have been blocked with checkpoints; hundreds of new security guards are being hired to protect buses in the capital.

Once again, politicians and pundits debate what to call it. On this matter, there is rare agreement between Ismail Haniyeh, the Gaza-based leader of Hamas, and Isaac Herzog, the Israeli opposition leader: Both say that we are witnessing the beginning of the Third Intifada.

Yet it is not like the previous two revolts, led respectively by civil society and militant groups. Palestinians are more geographically and politically divided than ever; there is nobody left to lead an uprising. Young people are driving the new wave of violence, most of them without criminal records or political affiliations. The attacks are random, almost spur of the moment, many inspired by videos of past incidents that are shared widely on social media.

Both Israeli PM Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority chief Abbas seem utterly powerless:

Netanyahu has ruled the land for six years and seems to have no aspirations beyond indefinitely prolonging the status quo. Abbas is exhausted and isolated, and while he succeeded in raising the Palestinian flag outside the United Nations, that symbolic gesture brings Palestinians no closer to raising it over a capital in East Jerusalem.

The two men can seem like mirror images: unpopular, uninspired leaders who allowed the ailing two-state solution to die a slow death on their watch. A poll conducted last month found that 51 percent of Palestinians no longer believe in it, the highest number ever recorded. It also found, for the first time, that a majority want to dissolve the PA.

“The first intifada gave us the [Palestinian] Authority,” one young man in Jabal al-Mukaber said on Tuesday, dragging on a cigarette and glaring at the hastily erected Israeli checkpoint down the road. “The Third Intifada, maybe we’ll give it back.”

As you might expect, the blame game has already begun:

There’s never been a real solution for this cycle of violence absent large-scale Muslim acceptance of Israel’s right to exist. But until that day comes, we can at least acknowledge reality and oppose evil. That means telling Abbas that he can hate Jews on his own dime and that when Israel cracks down on the violence he encourages — as it must — he can’t cry out to the United States for help. We don’t stand on the side of crazed religious bigots. But Barack Obama is still in the Oval Office, and that means he’ll find a way to blame Israel. He’ll find a way to excuse jihad. And he’ll find a way to undermine our own power and influence in the Middle East. Savvy jihadists know this all too well. So when pondering whether to launch yet another round of terrorist violence, they may well believe there’s no time like the present. Sadly, they may well be right.

And while “the National Review being hackish” may be one of the one constants in this mad, mad, mad world — David French may have a significant fraction of a legitimate point. While the Occupation of the West Bank, Gaza debacles, and inchoate racism may be contributing causes to this latest violence, it is not entirely fair to blame Israel.

Aaron Simons at Zionish writes (h/t to J-Street), in response to op-eds by Marwan Barghouti , Mairav Zonszein and others, makes this necessary point — policies don’t kill people, people kill people:

Palestinian terrorists are not merely physical objects in the Newtonian world of action and reaction. A terrorist has moral agency.  The terrorist who picks up a screwdriver and stabs five Israelis in Tel Aviv has made an explicit choice to do so. Zonszein reduces the Palestinian terrorist to the “noble savage”; unthinking, unchoosing, and unaccountable for his or her actions. It is only by the Newtonian logic of the noble savage that Zonszein can dismiss the agency of the terrorist, and make Netanyahu directly to blame, rather than the actual perpetrator of the attack.

But while the usual pro/anti-Occupation talking points are fired back and forth, David Rosenberg in Ha’aretz describes in detail the newest entry in the blame game competition:

If the wave of violence we’re seeing now morphs into a full-fledged Third Intifada, blame it on Facebook.

In Israel, the right-wing seems to think it’s still fighting the Second Intifada. It’s accusing Mahmoud Abbas of inciting terror and, by implication, organizing it, as if he were Yasser Arafat.
Abbas does speak with a forked tongue, making inflammatory remarks in public while privately urging Palestinians leaders stop the attacks, but so what if he does: An opinion poll last week showed that two-thirds of Palestinians want him to resign. It’s hard to imagine many are inspired by him to go out and kill.
If the right isn’t blaming Abbas, then it blames Palestinian schools and media, as if teenagers imbibe everything they learn from textbooks or classroom lessons. It’s a pity Netanyahu never gave them one, or the Israeli right wing would blame the peace process.
The right doesn’t want to hear it, but this violence isn’t simply a function of empty propaganda. Whether it’s due to Israeli oppression, frustrated national sentiment, economics or religion can be debated, but Palestinian anger is real. It only takes something to actualize it, and for our up-and-coming intifada it seems that social media is what is doing it, with tools like this: A staged YouTube video making the rounds shows a young man watching on his smartphone a video of what appears to be Israeli soldier fighting Palestinians. He looks up to see two Jews walking down the street, pushing some Palestinian boys in their way to the ground and laughing. To the strains of portentous music, the young man pulls out a knife and attacks the two. The scene ends with a close-up of the bloody knife held above the victims.

By itself, the 40-second video clip isn’t inspiring, but in the context of the Palestinian social reality and a universe of online support and encouragement, it’s easy to see how stuff like that can incite a young person. Multiply it by tens of thousands of times and a mass movement is born. It’s the democracy of social media in its purest form.

Given that the Arab Spring was in large part fueled by social media, it will be interesting to see whether Israel — an otherwise liberal democracy — might be tempted to cut off Internet access to Arab neighborhoods and the West Bank. Activists are already calling on Facebook to crack down on inflammatory posts. So far, however, it doesn’t seem like anyone has called for blocking websites or cut network access entirely, as Egypt’s Mubarak regime tried to do (unsuccessfully) in its waning days.

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