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Is Israel Trying to Spark an Intifada?

The Israeli government insists that it wants peace more than anything, but its actions can seem deliberately provocative.

Photo by Eloïse Bollack

It's a strange fear for a government that's surrounded itself with concrete walls, missile batteries, and armored steel, but the Israeli state seems to have a pathological phobia of flying stones.

Palestinians facing armed soldiers in full combat armor often have no other weapons than the rocks under their feet; in much of the occupied territories, stone-throwing is considered a form of all but nonviolent protest. (In the history of the occupation, 14 Israelis have been killed by stone-throwers. For comparison, roughly twice that many Americans are killed each year by skateboarding injuries.)


This threat is so great that a new law passed by the Israeli Knesset in July has introduced mandatory four-year prison sentences for stone-throwers, with some liable to imprisonment of up to 20 years. Palestinians are forbidden from bringing any object into aerial motion; in the occupied territories, the law of gravity is enforced by the police.

But if stone-throwing is such a dangerous activity, why are Israeli soldiers doing it themselves? In dramatic video footage that emerged online last week, Israeli soldiers disguised in T-shirts and keffiyehs were seen throwing rocks as part of a group of young Palestinians, apparently inciting a confrontation, before suddenly pulling out pistols and firing on the crowd. The video also shows one of the undercover soldiers firing his gun directly into a protester's leg as he attempts to squirm away from the punches and kicks of a group of furious Israelis.

The Israeli government insists that it wants peace more than anything, and that it's trying to defuse tensions—but sending agent provocateurs to carry out an impromptu kneecapping is a pretty weird way of going about it. It doesn't look like Israel trying to avoid an intifada; it looks like a deliberate attempt to spark one.

Israelis disguised as Palestinians attacking Palestinians

During the First Intifada, what had been a generally peaceful Palestinian uprising in the face of military repression only began to employ violent tactics in 1990, when an Israeli group placed a cornerstone for a rebuilt Jewish temple by the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.


The Second Intifada, brutal from its beginning, was sparked in 2000, when then-Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon made a provocative visit to Temple Mount flanked by hundreds of cops in riot gear. It'd be a gross oversimplification to reduce these struggles entirely to disagreements over architecture (many Palestinians would probably be more forgiving of unscheduled political walking tours around the Old City if they had national self-determination and full political rights), but if Israel was serious about peace then a fairly important first step would be to abstain from fucking around with the Temple Mount.

Instead, in recent months rumors have abounded that the Israeli government has plans to relax longstanding rules about the number of Jews allowed to visit the holy mountain—many of whom do so as a display of Jewish sovereignty over an undivided Jerusalem—in a bid to strengthen Jewish rights in the complex. Israel has repeatedly denied such claims, but the result has been a disastrous upsurge in random, undirected, and deadly violence from both communities.

There have been stabbings and shootings and pogroms—including one grimly ironic instance in which one Jewish Israeli knifed another because he thought he looked a bit too Arabic. Violent clashes between both sides continued this weekend when four Palestinians were shot dead after authorities said they tried to attack Israelis in separate incidents across the region.


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But if elements in the Israeli state are seeking to deliberately inflame tensions, it's not immediately clear why—after all, don't Israelis have as much to lose from a possible Third Intifada as Palestinians?

It might be possible to find some kind of answer in the escalation that preceded the last war in Gaza, just over a year ago. In June of 2014, three teenage Israeli settlers were kidnapped in the West Bank; one of them managed to call the emergency services, but the tape was allegedly placed under a judicial gag order and the Israeli media purportedly forbidden from reporting sounds of automatic gunfire at the end of the recording, which may have indicated that the boys had been murdered.

If the reports are true, the Israeli public could have been encouraged to believe that the teens were being held hostage somewhere in the West Bank, and the military carried out a vast and intrusive search operation in which hundreds were arrested, including dozens from the Hamas leadership, and five Palestinians were killed, on this basis.

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If the rescue operation was a calculated attempt to provoke Hamas into violence, it worked: Ten weeks later, 2,000 Gazans were dead in the rubble that had been their city. The political context is important here—immediately before the kidnappings, Hamas and its rival Fatah movement had formed a Palestinian unity government, one that would have involved Hamas officially recognizing the State of Israel.

Everything the Israelis claimed to want was happening: They finally had a negotiating partner that could represent the entire Palestinian people and that was willing to recognize Israel's legitimacy as a precondition for talks. Suddenly, a negotiated end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was almost in reach, one that might have ended in the formation of a fully independent Palestinian state. Instead, there was a war and the unity government fell apart.

For Israel, these brutal outbreaks of violence aren't a disruption of the ordinary status quo, they're a way of preserving it. Something similar is happening now—the Palestinian flag has been raised at the United Nations, and Palestine has formally joined the International Criminal Court. Netanyahu is faced with the prospect of a peace process that might actually go somewhere, instead of stalling for time while the concrete cools in new West Bank settlements. And in the weird and chasmic world of Israeli politics, that might mean it's time for another war.

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