Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher: December 2, 2013


This week, Alpher discusses whether Salafist Islamist terrorists in the West Bank is another sign of escalation toward a third intifada, if Netanyahu is inciting Congress and American Jewish leaders against Obama in the wake of the Geneva agreement with Iran, and what's behind the sharp protests by Druze and Bedouin--minorities who generally serve in the IDF.

Q. Salafist Islamist terrorists in the West Bank? Is this another sign of escalation toward a third intifada?

A. Last week, Israeli security forces killed three militants in the Hebron area of the southern West Bank who were identified as Salafists and who carried arms and explosives. A Gaza-based Salafist group, Majles Shura al-Mujahideen, or Holy Warriors Assembly, later claimed the three as members. In the following days, Palestinian security forces in the West Bank reportedly arrested another 20 Salafists in Nablus, Jenin and Qalqilya.

Not all Salafists are violent, and the benign presence of a peaceful Salafist movement in the West Bank that concentrates on fundamentalist Muslim study and practice has been known for some time. Last week's events were the first known instance of violent Salafists in the West Bank, echoing a growing belligerent Salafist presence in the Gaza Strip (and Sinai) that Egypt is pressuring Hamas to suppress.

The Salafist incident near Hebron should be seen in the context of an overall increase in West Bank violence. Over the past month or two we have witnessed murderous attacks against Israelis, primarily settlers, by individual, non-affiliated Palestinians, and escalating extremist settler "price tag" attacks on Palestinian civilians. Most experts reject the notion that another intifada is brewing, particularly while peace talks are proceeding and Israel continues to release veteran Palestinian prisoners.

Q. Is Netanyahu inciting Congress and American Jewish leaders against Obama in the wake of the Geneva agreement with Iran?

A. According to former prime minister Ehud Olmert and a growing circle of knowledgeable commentators, this is indeed the case. On Sunday, Olmert accused Netanyahu of waging a destructive and "aggressive quarrel" with the administration and "declaring war on the American government". Elsewhere, Netanyahu was reported to be highly critical of President Obama in briefings to American Jewish leaders and visiting members of Congress.

Olmert was preceded by Dan Meridor, a former minister of intelligence and atomic energy under Netanyahu who was discarded by the Likud prior to January's elections due to his moderation. Meridor told al-Monitor last week, "It's a mistake to pick a fight with partners when we're in the midst of a campaign against Iran, in which the Americans have the main role. . . . Nothing is achieved by public disputes. The alliance between Israel and the United States is an important component of our powerful image."

The Israeli security community, too, appears focused on working quietly with the US regarding the next phase of negotiations between the P5 + 1 and Iran. While Olmert's criticism can be ascribed at least in part to the political ambitions he still harbors if and when his legal trials end happily, this is not the case with Meridor, whose integrity has always hobbled his leadership ambitions, and certainly not with the security community.

Netanyahu, hearing Olmert's comments while in Rome on Sunday, responded defiantly, "I will not be quiet" regarding existential threats to Israel. The prime minister appears to believe that he can maintain an atmosphere of business as usual regarding security cooperation with America while undermining the administration in Congress and the US Jewish community.

Others would argue that he is panicking in view of Israel's growing international isolation and his own role in engendering it in the Iran and Palestinian contexts. Not only were Obama and Secretary of State Kerry able to ignore Netanyahu's protests in reaching the recent Geneva deal. The government of Israel essentially folded to European Union pressure last week in order to remain a partner in a prestigious and lucrative research and development scheme that required ironclad assurances from Jerusalem that European funds would not find their way to West Bank settlements or even to East Jerusalem Jewish neighborhoods. Next could be an American proposal to break the current negotiating deadlock in the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, backed up by pressures (or, alternatively, by a "take it or stew in your own juice" approach) that takes advantage of the dilemma Netanyahu has maneuvered Israel into regarding both the Iran nuclear and Palestinian issues.

Q. The past week has witnessed sharp protests by Druze and Bedouin--minorities who generally serve in the IDF-- regarding discrimination. What's behind the unrest?

A. We're looking at two very different issues with different origins and different contexts that come together under the rubric of prejudice. In the first instance, three Druze soldiers serving in an elite IDF unit were told they could not enter the nuclear research facility at Dimona with the Jewish soldiers in their unit in order to implement a security exercise. In the second instance, a government plan to resettle 40 percent of the 200,000 Bedouin in the Negev has provoked mass demonstrations alleging second or even third class treatment.

The first case produced immediate and widespread apologies to the Druze community, from President Peres and PM Netanyahu on down, accompanied by pledges that it would not happen again. The Druze in Israel number around 130,000 and constitute less than two percent of the population. They are sedentary and live in 19 communities in the north of the country. Of all Israel's minorities, they are the most integrated, particularly in the security services. The Dimona reactor incident, however painful and indicative of ingrained prejudice, is not likely to sour the Jewish-Druze relationship.

The case of the Bedouin is completely different. They are the poorest sector in Israeli society, with a high crime rate. They are largely tribally organized, with men taking multiple wives and producing large numbers of children subsidized by government family allowances, which apply to all Israelis. While many Bedouin have long ceased to be herders and wanderers, they still bring to bear a nomadic heritage, particularly when applied to claims of land ownership that Israel's courts are completely unable to authenticate. So at one level, we are looking at a classic conflict over land between a nomadic people and the spread of "civilization".

As the Negev Bedouin population has grown five-fold in less than 50 years, the sprawl of "unauthorized" Bedouin villages--desert slums that are bereft of electricity, water and road infrastructures--has increasingly impeded orderly planning for Jewish and even Bedouin towns and villages in the Negev. With the IDF increasingly transferring large portions of its base infrastructure (including housing for personnel) to the Negev, demographic pressures have produced radical Bedouin politicians and a growing move away from a loosely animistic Islam to classic Islamic fundamentalism.

All this has culminated in the government's Prawer-Begin plan, named for Prime Minister's Office planner Ehud Prawer and former minister Benny Begin, to eliminate unplanned Bedouin villages and move their residents into existing Bedouin towns and new, planned settlements. Unsubstantiated land claims will receive some monetary compensation. Additional funds will be directed toward infrastructure development.

The government claims 80 percent of the Negev Bedouin favor the plan because it will radically improve their quality of life. Human rights activists claim this is a land-grab. They argue that the government actually subsidizes and develops "unauthorized" Jewish settlement outposts in the West Bank while tearing down Bedouin encampments. They point to at least one instance where a Jewish village is being planned for precisely the place where Bedouin currently live. Last weekend witnessed widespread protests, including instances of violence, by Bedouin who oppose the plan and their Jewish supporters.

Implementation of the Prawer-Begin plan is supposed to take seven years. We may have seen just the beginning of the unrest and disruption it will produce on the way to the government taking control over demography and geography in the Negev. Alpher200x200.jpg