Hundreds of Palestinian youths wrapped in checkered headscarves held demonstrations in the West Bank last week. Some erupted in violence. Last weekend, no less than three Palestinian factions clamored to take responsibility for killing two Israeli soldiers. The week before that, the Israeli army reported “a violent riot by Palestinian youths.”
Violence has spread across both Palestinian territories in recent weeks. A new Palestinian intifada, or uprising, may be under way. If it takes off, Washington’s policymakers must know that it is ultimately Iran that will benefit.
The roots of the latest Palestinian violence can be traced to the Goldstone Report, a wildly erroneous report issued in September of last year by the United Nations Council for Human Rights. The report falsely accused Israel of targeting civilians during the December 2008-January 2009 war in Gaza.
The Palestinians were thrilled that this libelous report was getting attention on the world stage. Some leaders sought to exploit it further. To this end, the Islamic Movement, a group with close ties to Hamas, called for Arabs living in Israel to march on Jerusalem. Disturbances were reported in Eastern Jerusalem and the Old City throughout the fall.
By November, as analysts mulled the possibility of a new intifada, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced repeatedly that he did not want violence in the West Bank.
Last month, however, things heated up again. Responding to an Israeli initiative to make Jewish holy sites in the West Bank protected shrines, Palestinian leaders called for violence. Recently, former Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei threatened a “third intifada.” Iranian media outlets began calling for violence, too.
President Barack Obama’s manufactured outrage last month over Israeli housing in North Jerusalem has only drawn out the crisis. The Palestinians took their cue from him, announcing “days of rage” and disturbances that have lasted for more than two weeks.
By even tacitly encouraging Palestinian frustration, the president is playing right into Iran’s hands. Here’s how:
The Palestinians are currently in a low-level civil war. The West Bank and the Gaza Strip are now governed by two rival Palestinian factions. Hamas controls the Gaza Strip. Fatah controls the West Bank.
Hamas and Iran have both stated recently that the Palestinians can regain unity if they join forces to fight against Israel. In reality, however, a new intifada would almost certainly lead to another round of internecine war.
By its own admission, Hamas is in a constant state of war against Israel. The group has fired thousands of rockets at Israel in recent years, and smuggles in tons of weapons in preparation for another war against Israel. It has little to lose by calling for renewed violence.
The West Bank, however, has much to lose. It has been on life support since 2007, after Hamas conquered the Gaza Strip from the Fatah faction in a brutal war. To save the West Bank from a similar fate, the U.S. and Israel began providing the Fatah faction military and economic assistance.
For more than three years, U.S. and Israeli intelligence, military training, and cash infusions have kept the West Bank stable and growing. The GDP is projected to grow an estimated 7 to10 percent there this year. As journalist Avi Issacharov of the left-leaning Haaretz Israeli newspaper noted recently, “Things have never looked so good.”
If the Fatah faction and other West Bank factions launch a new intifada, it could very well satisfy their desire for violence against Israel, but it will ultimately weaken their hold on the West Bank. The violence would almost certainly prompt the departure of the U.S. and Israel, who have been working with Fatah because it professes to be non-violent.
Without a U.S. or Israeli presence, the West Bank’s safety net would be lost. Fatah would be susceptible to a replay of the 2007 Hamas offensive. Indeed, Hamas still has an underground presence in the West Bank, thanks to Iranian support.
It is for this reason that Iran continues to agitate for a new uprising. Indeed, the Mullahs just named a new figurehead for their “International Conference on Support for Palestinian Intifada,” the Tehran Times newspaper reported Monday.
The Obama administration should now step back and recognize that the current round of violence in the Middle East is not a spontaneous form of Palestinian self-expression. Iran is trying to engineer a new round of violence that will destabilize the West Bank. If successful, Fatah’s West Bank could go the way of Gaza.
Jonathan Schanzer is vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and author of “Hamas vs. Fatah: The Struggle for Palestine.” (Palgrave 2008).