Israeli-Palestinian tensions threaten regional overspill

Israeli-Palestinian tensions threaten regional overspill

As violence surrounding worshipping status at the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary grows, what are the chances of a regional conflict escalation and how can we understand the current tensions?

The tragic events surrounding what could now be termed the ‘Al-Aqsa confrontation’ are showing few signs of abating as the international community continues to stall on further peace endeavors.

On October 16th, over 100 people were injured in Hamas’ self-professed ‘Day of Rage’, as Palestinian protestors turned out in droves to protest Israeli occupation across Gaza and the West Bank.

International efforts to quell the latest surge in violence has bordered on the negligent. With tensions spiking from early October due to Israeli-imposed restrictions on the Al-Aqsa Mosque, a uniform international response was expected. Yet, it was not until October 24th that US Secretary of State, John Kerry, sat down with Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, in Jordan.

A US-brokered agreement was accordingly reached between Israel and Jordan, tasked with dampening the furor surrounding worshipping status at the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary. But the violence continues, with Palestinian deaths now topping 60.

With Arab attention currently distracted by the fight against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, and the proxy Saudi-Iranian conflict in Yemen, the banner of Arab nationalism is unlikely to be hoisted in support of their Palestinian brethren. With Arab eyes trained elsewhere, is there potential for regional overspill, and if not, what does the future hold pertaining to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

The root cause of unrest

The dire situation that the majority in the Palestinian Territories find themselves in is a telling indicator as to the intensity of today’s violence. Figures released in an International Labour Organization (ILO) report, produced in May this year, point to structural factors underlying Palestinian motives.

The situation in Gaza remains dire to this day. As the report recounts, ‘poverty has become endemic, and Gaza remains dependent on food and other aid from the outside word.’ Reconstruction of destroyed infrastructure has proved a painfully slow process with promises of aid from Arab neighbors, for the most part, failing to materialize.

In the West Bank, poverty rates stand at around 70%, and total employment across the Palestinian territories was measured at just 33.7% in the fourth quarter of 2014. The withholding of Palestinian Authority (PA) tax revenue by the Israeli government has further hampered economic growth in the West Bank.

With unemployment particularly prevalent amongst young Palestinians, today’s violence stems from a stark lack of alternatives. Clearly the disaffected have been attracted to the religious zealotry of Hamas, with the natural extension of such a course pointing to the doomsday scenario of ISIS involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Correcting the employment deficit in the territories would be a solid place to start in attempting to reverse the current course of events.

The Arab dimension

The post-WWII Middle East has been consistently permeated by Arab call-to-arms in support of Palestine. But hardy rhetoric, usually emanating from annual Arab League summits, has remained just that: rhetoric. It is an accusation not confined solely to the Arab world, with Israel’s American benefactors continually being harangued for perceived inaction.

Such a situation is unlikely to be altered by the recent spate of violence. As Netanyahu stated in a recent speech, ‘common dangers are clearly bringing Israel and its Arab neighbors closer’.

Meanwhile, the Saudis are beset by internal strife and legitimacy questions concerning the Al Saud family. President Sisi in Egypt is more concerned with maintaining Egypt’s large US aid program than supporting the Palestinian cause. As recently as October 27th, Egypt destroyed 12 tunnels on its border with Gaza.

Strategic convergence is the buzz phrase with which to explain Israel’s firm footing with its previously hostile neighbors. For both Israel and Saudi Arabia, Iran is the number one enemy, closely followed by the Islamic State.

The Saudis are more concerned with defeating the Iranians in Yemen than delving into the quagmire of the Israeli-Palestinian debacle; Egypt will stop at nothing to maintain its close ties with the US. Sisi has thus aided Netanyahu in his war against Hamas.

This points to a future in which key Arab regional players will continue to hold their tongues as the violence intensifies. Arab nation-states, scarred by the recent Arab awakening across the region, will remain inward-oriented, focusing on legitimacy and Sunni-Shia schisms. Specific nation-state concerns will continue to override the shallow nature of pan-Arab nationalism.

The future?

What happens next is anyone’s guess, but it is the religious nature of today’s tensions that is most troublesome to regional policymakers and analysts. As is the case across the region, ISIS is a looming threat and a factor that deserves serious attention when discussing the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations.

As Uri Savir recounted in a column for Al Monitor, security officials in Ramallah are certainly not underestimating the pull of ISIS for disaffected young Palestinians. He wrote that there is concern within the territories that ‘IS is captivating the imagination and support of young Palestinians, inciting them to follow its lead into a religious war’.

With today’s battle over religious rights in Jerusalem, the conflict has taken on an inexorably religious tone. This could have serious ramifications. Religion buttresses Hamas’ support, and also props up Netanyahu’s government as Bibi’s coalition remains afloat due to the support of Naftali Bennett’s ultra-religious, Jewish Home party.

With questions over worshipping status at the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary, religion will only continue to play a prominent role for both sides. Though impossible to predict, this can only have dire consequences for Jewish-Muslim relations across the world on a much broader scale than state-to-state relations.

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