Jaffa waterfront is one of Israel’s showpieces. It is a location popular with Tel Aviv hipsters and leaders of study groups seeking to show the best of co-existence between Jews and Arabs. It was, therefore, hugely symbolic that this was the scene of stabbing carnage this month as the US vice president Joe Biden met with former president Shimon Peres, Israel’s father-statesman politician, less than a mile away.
Even more poignant was the fact that one of those killed in the attack was Taylor Force, a 28-year-old America MBA student and West Point graduate who served in the US military in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The Jaffa attack attracted widespread attention (particularly in the American press) because of the main victim of stabbing and the presence of Biden close by. It was one of the few occasions when a vicious Palestinian insurrection has in recent months attracted any more than cursory media attention.
The current uprising, known as the ‘knife intifada’, has its origins over an alleged Israeli plot to take control of the Temple Mount. Unlike Ariel Sharon’s provocative walk in 2000, this time there has been no apparent trigger. Instead, the violence seems to have been provoked by rumours and faux anger on social media.
In this regard, it resembles the disastrous Arab Spring of 2009-10. It is very much a 21st century digital uprising. The unusual aspect is that, in contrast to recent violence in the west, from San Bernardino to Paris, where the ISIS weapon of choice have been deadly automatic weapons, the jihadists have gone back in time with stabbings. This may appear less intimidating, but it is easy to underestimate the numbers who have died or been injured and the damage inflicted on Israeli society.
Since September, some 30 Israeli civilians and soldiers have died in more than 300 attacks. More than 150 Palestinians – mostly attackers – have been killed, say the Palestinians. Any notion that these are simply a series of isolated incidents with no meaningful pattern must be ignored.
Potentially, the Biden visit to Israel should at least have provided a trigger for more US attention. Until the vice president’s trip, President Obama largely appeared to have washed his hands of an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue. Instead, he seemed satisfied to see the nuclear deal with Iran as his crowing Middle East achievement and chose to turn his guns on the UK and France over unfinished business in Libya.
Biden was strong in his condemnations of the Palestinian attacks and, in particular, a statement from Fatah, headed by the Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, praising the Jaffa stabbings. This looked to be an own goal in that the main victim was a young American. The suggestion is that although time is short and some of the rhetoric on the presidential campaign over-heated, Obama might have one last go at kick- starting the peace talks before he leaves office. A perceived lack of leadership from the Palestinians may pose the highest hurdle.
In the meantime, relations between the parties are deteriorating. Israeli is seeking to tighten security by withdrawing permits to cross to Israel by ‘relatives’ of attackers. It is also planning to shut down Palestinian media outlets perceived to incite violence. The tightening may be seen as justifiable given the threat to Israeli lives.
Nevertheless, closing down media outlets can only reinforce outside impressions that the Netanyahu government is becoming ever more contemptuous of Israel’s rich tradition of open debate and democracy.
There must also concern that clampdowns on Palestinian media will damage increased efforts in Jerusalem to strengthen the position of Israeli-Arabs in broader society having substantially upped the budgets for this cause.
The ‘knife intifada’ has proved to be a peculiarly insidious and effective weapon in undermining Israel’s self-confidence and created a real sense of uncertainty for ordinary citizens and people going about their business.
Violence fills the vacuum when there is no formal peace process. That ought to be the lesson drawn in Washington, Ramallah and Jerusalem.