Why Incitement runs both ways in Israel/Palestine

In working to rein in manifestations of incitement to violence, Europe must not lose sight of the factors that, while never justifying violence, create conditions that are particularly conducive to radicalisation

The Israeli government seems intent on proving the malicious and contemptible nature of President Abbas and his Palestinian Authority (PA). Since the latest wave of Palestinian violence started last October, Israel and right-wing NGOs have increasingly focused on statements by Palestinian officials including those that are anti-Semitic and incite violence. Their attention stretches to what is taught in the Palestinian education system, what appears in apparently officially sanctioned media, salaries allegedly being given to terrorists, and on general corruption in the PA.

Presumably the implicit conclusion to be drawn from this litany is that ties to the PA should be cut, leaving it isolated and without financial stability. The suggestion is that, at the very least, wholesale reform should be the overriding priority in any dealings with the PA. Yet in making such demands of European governments and the US Congress, Israel would seem to be pushing a double standard. Israeli allegations should therefore be treated as political spin rather than a profound cry for help. Indeed, they form part of a broader campaign aimed at delegitimising Palestinian national political identity and painting President Mahmoud Abbas as the main cause of Palestinian violence and an obstruction to peace. In doing so, Prime Minister Netanyahu has linked the ongoing instability to “the same radical Islam that struck in Paris and threatens all of Europe”.

If the government of Israel were to treat the charges that it regularly makes against the PA and its leaders with seriousness then one would expect the Israeli government to end its relations and cooperation with the PA, cease the transfer of tax revenues it collects on the PA’s behalf (a step taken by the Israeli government in the past on less dramatic grounds), and explicitly request that the EU and other donors cease all funding for the Palestinian Authority. So far this has not happened.

Putting propaganda and point scoring exercises to one side, Israel actually continues to see a value in constructive cooperation with the PA. The government of Israel and its defence forces maintain intense security cooperation with their Palestinian counterparts, which the Israeli defence establishment considers vital to its security mission. Despite the current surge in violence Israeli security officials have praised the PA for maintaining close security cooperation, to protect Jewish settlers, and crack-down on attacks. Shin Bet is also on the record rejecting Israeli government accusations that the PA and/or incitement is the cause for latest round of violence. So on the most sensitive issue of all for Israel, that of security, the PA is considered an important partner to work with.

Since its inception in 1994, the PA has relieved Israel of large part of the financial and administrative burden of managing Palestinians on a daily basis. As the largest donor to the PA, Europe plays an important role in maintaining security and stability in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, effectively subsidising Israel’s occupation and supporting a bloated Palestinian public sector upon which 25 percent of the population is dependent. In 2013 for example, international donor support made up 39 percent of the PA’s €3 billion budget, with the rest coming from taxes and revenue. That year, €856 million from the PA’s budget went to the Interior and Security Ministry, representing 71 percent of foreign support. Meanwhile, PA salaries amounted to €448 million, represented 37.3 percent of foreign aid.

Moreover, allegations levelled against Palestinian officials, such as Israeli Minister Yuval Steinitz’s claim that President Abbas has orchestrated incitement at all levels of Palestinian society, “in the educational system, on official television and even on the website of his Presidential Guard”, largely have no basis in fact or are distorted. As a Tel Aviv district court found when dismissing a legal claim brought by a right-wing NGO accusing Palestinian officials of inciting attacks against Israelis, the examples used to depict incitement by the PA are highly selective and chosen to support a pre-existing assumption of incitement.

Israeli accusations that the Palestinian school system is responsible for inciting Palestinian violence have also been disproven. A 2002 report by the Council of the European Union found that “new [Palestinian] textbooks, though not perfect, are free of inciteful content and improve the previous textbooks, constituting a valuable contribution to the education of young Palestinians”. A 2013 study conducted by a team of external experts in the field of textbook analysis reached the same conclusion. They did, however, contend that “both Israeli and Palestinian school books present unilateral national narratives that present the other as the enemy, chronicle negative actions by the other directed at their own communities, and present their own communities in positive terms”.

Given how difficult it is to imagine another conflict situation (for example Northern Ireland) in which schools would be instructed to teach the occupied population to accept the legitimacy of the occupying power, this finding is perhaps not that surprising. That said, the PA has accepted the need for ongoing review, revision and improvement to their curriculum, and now uses a history textbook that offers the central narratives of both Palestinian and Zionist movements – a book that was banned in Israeli schools by Israel’s Education Ministry.

Israeli accusations that the PA has been paying the salaries for Palestinian terrorists in Israeli prisons also misses the mark. While such cases do exist their frequency has been purposefully exaggerated, not least by applying the term “terrorist” as a catch-all definition for any Palestinian in an Israeli jail. In doing so, Israel has effectively lumped together approximately 20 percent of the Palestinian population (and 40 percent of the male population) that has been detained at some point since Israel’s occupation began in 1967. And while Palestinian stone-throwers are now equated to terrorists, the same label has not been used when describing similar actions by Jewish Israelis.

None of this, of course, can excuse Palestinian violence or incitement, and the PA should be challenged over instances of financial mismanagement or impropriety. This includes using EU funds to subsidise the salaries of thousands of PA civil servants in Gaza who are not currently working as a result of the current intra-Palestinian split – a reality that European and US policies helped create. But the latter should above all point to the continued need to push Palestinians towards reconciliation, and illustrates one area of possible European leverage that can be used in supporting this objective. It should also be acknowledged that the PA exists in a complex reality shaped, amongst other things, by its continued existence as an interim body that has not been granted sovereignty and is still under occupation.

There is no doubt that the €3 billion EU countries have spent in Palestinian aid between 2007 and 2013 has made a positive difference – and not just to the benefit of Israel. As Hans Gustaf Wessberg of the European Court of Auditors reported, overall funding has played an important role in supporting vulnerable families, and maintaining health and education services in Palestinian areas. Thanks to European aid, the Palestinians institutions have been deemed by the IMF and World Bank to be “statehood ready”. But given that the prospects of realising a two state solution have receded from the political horizon, there is a legitimate question as to the continued effectiveness (and wisdom) of sustaining such high levels of financial commitment in what has essentially become an exercise in perpetuating the status quo. If Israel wants to have a discussion on European aid to the Palestinians, then this should be the starting point.

In working to rein in manifestations of incitement to violence, Europe must not lose sight of the factors that, while never justifying violence, create conditions that are particularly conducive to radicalisation and provide a scenario in which violent messages and actions may resonate. These conditions undoubtedly include the continued disenfranchisement of the Palestinians, the conditions of occupation and restrictions under which they live, and the ongoing denial of their freedoms, rights, and dignity. Palestinian despair was also pointed to by Israel’s Shin Bet as a driver of Palestinian violence. Ultimately, it is the occupation itself that has become the greatest inciter of Palestinian violence.

Those questioning the Israeli narrative pushed by Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government, or criticising Israeli policy towards Palestinians, however, are regularly accused of incitement, delegitimisation, and anti-Semitism. As a result, it is not just legitimate Palestinian narratives that have been targeted, but the EU’s own policy positions. Similarly, those attempting to contextualise Palestinian violence are often accused of justifying such actions – those in the crosshairs include Sweden’s Foreign Minister Margot Wallström and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.  

It goes without saying that any real manifestation of anti-Semitism or collective blaming and generalisation of Jews is utterly unacceptable. But the gratuitous use of anti-Semitic slurs detracts from efforts to guard against the genuine threat of a resurgence of anti-Semitism and the pride that European governments take in close working relations with Jewish communities across Europe in countering such manifestations. Concern over Netanyahu’s statements that Jews should seek refuge in Israel in the aftermath of attacks on Jewish targets in Europe has been voiced by many Jewish community leaders. Such statements strengthen the narrative that European Jews can only be truly safe in Israel. Part of the blame for conflating Israel and all Jews must rest at the feet of the Israeli leadership and notably Prime Minister Netanyahu who has been pushing Israel to be defined as the nation state of Jewish people.

Recognition of Israel’s right to exist should not be conflated with recognition of Israel as a Jewish state as Prime Minister Netanyahu demands. The PLO has consistently upheld Israel’s right to exist since 1988 and Palestinian efforts to advance statehood recognition based on the 1967 borders through international fora is an affirmation of this belief. But whereas constant accusations of denial of Israel’s right to exist by the PA/PLO is questionable, the Israeli official denial of Palestinian statehood is absolute.

Neither the governing Likud party nor any other party in the governing coalition has ever recognised the Palestinian right to a state, the two state solution, or the territorial basis of the 1967 lines. At a time of continued Palestinian commitment to a two state solution, such attitudes are on the decrease on the Israeli side, with many politicians including those in the current government openly rejecting these principals and the right of Palestinians to a sovereign state of their own. Nor did Likud Member of the Knesset Anat Berko stray that far from the Israeli consensus when denying the existence of the Palestinian nation.

And indeed there is no shortage of incendiary remarks or racist statements emanating from Israeli elites. Israel’s Education Minister Naftali Bennett has advised Israelis that if they “catch terrorists, you have to simply kill them. I’ve killed lots of Arabs in my life – and there’s no problem with that”.  Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked has warned “behind every terrorist stand dozens of men and women, without whom he could not engage in terrorism… They are all enemy combatants, and their blood shall be on all their heads…They should go, as should the physical homes in which they raised the snakes. Otherwise, more little snakes will be raised there”. The late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the long-time spiritual leader of Israel's ultra-orthodox Shas party, similarly asked “how can you make peace with an [Arab] snake? Those evildoers, the Arabs — it says in the Gemara [Talmud] that God is sorry he ever created those sons of Ishmael”.

Israel’s political rhetoric has fanned (or reflected) what one Israeli journalist recently described as a combination of public incitement, rabbinical edicts, Facebook insults, chants by some sections of supporters of the Beitar Jerusalem football team, and prevalent anti-Arab sentiment. At the same time, the Israeli government is reported to have funded various right-wing movements seeking to alter the status quo on the Temple Mount / Haram al-Sharif, as well as non-profits promoting price-tag attacks against Palestinians. The recent execution of an incapacitated Palestinian assailant in Hebron by an IDF soldier and immolation of a Palestinian family in Duma are but two of the inevitable manifestations of these dynamics. Incitement it would seem, is a two-way street in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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