Behind the Headlines: Emerging Patterns of Arab Unrest Have Israeli Officials Concerned
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Behind the Headlines: Emerging Patterns of Arab Unrest Have Israeli Officials Concerned

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Israelis pondering the unprecedented wave of Arab violence have discerned new elements and patterns that are causing them deep concern for the future.

The latest and most serious of these was the spread of rioting to East Jerusalem over the weekend, on a scale as bad as any in the West Bank or Gaza Strip, though no lives were lost.

Second, there is the real threat of sympathetic unrest among Israel’s normally quiescent Arab population, whose expressions of solidarity with their fellows in the administered territories have already been heard.

Finally, and possibly most dangerous in the long term, is the religious fervor that seems to have joined Palestinian nationalism as the driving force behind the disturbances.

Although Premier Yitzhak Shamir has consistently played down the significance of these events, many in his own political camp view the situation with alarm.

Violence and unrest are not new phenomena in the territories Israel captured during the 1967 Six-Day War. Always simmering, they usually erupt on dates significant to Palestinians — Nov. 2, the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration; Nov. 29, the anniversary of the United Nations resolution to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states; and Jan. 1, the anniversary of the founding of Al Fatah, the terrorist branch of Yasir Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization. The unrest usually abates within a few days after these anniversaries.

This month, the rioting has been almost continuous. Fierce confrontations occurred in the streets of East Jerusalem between young Palestinians and Israeli police. It even spread to Bethlehem, the only major town in the West Bank that until now was spared the convulsions elsewhere in the territory.


The timing, just days before Christmas, compounds the gravity of the situation. Arab rioters apparently gave little thought to the massive damage they were doing themselves with respect to tourism and pilgrimages to the seat of the Christian faith.

But the worst fears of Israelis were realized in Jerusalem, the proud capital of Israel, its showpiece to the world. “We have had commercial strikes and demonstrations here before, but nothing like this,” Mayor Teddy Kollek noted.

The outbreak in the Arab sector of the city appears to have had two converging causes: the contagion of violence from the Gaza Strip — some sources said the rioting was led by youths from Gaza — and the high-profile move by Commerce and Industry Minister Ariel Sharon into an apartment in the Moslem Quarter of the Old City on Dec. 15, the first night of Chanukah.

Sharon insisted his move would only enhance security for Jews in the Old City and expressed hope it would encourage other Jews to move into the Moslem Quarter.

Many politicians, including members of his own Herut faction, disagreed and called his move provocative. Mayor Kollek said at the time it would raise tensions in the city — and his prediction proved to be an understatement.

The latest controversy surrounding Sharon underscores the deep divisions in Israel. The right wing is more determined than ever to hold on to the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The left is more convinced than ever of the need to reach a settlement that would divest Israel of a hostile, bitter, resentful and ever more violent Arab population in the territories.


Thousands of supporters of the dovish Peace Now movement braved rain and cold Saturday night to demonstrate outside the Tel Aviv museum. They chanted, “Give peace a chance now,” “An end to the violence” and “Begin peace negotiations now.”

Posters at the rally said peace was preferable to the territories. Others, displayed at an earlier Communist Party march, called for “two states for two people.” A large detachment of police kept counterdemonstrators representing the militant Betar youth movement from disrupting the gathering.

Diplomatic sources in Jerusalem said the disturbances there over the past two days were “directed from above.” They may be right, in a spiritual as well as literal sense.

Israeli experts have noted the growing role of the Islamic faith among Arabs in the territories and in Israel proper. The “return to religion” has been an important feature of Palestinian life for some years. Now it seems to be merging with nationalist motifs.

It is an ironic development, because Israeli policy up to now has been to encourage religious groups, especially in the volatile Gaza Strip, while cracking down hard on purely nationalist and politically radical elements in the Arab high schools and universities. The religious leaders, the Israelis believed, were conservative and, therefore, less hostile.


But conservatism has become indistinguishable from Islamic fundamentalism. The lines between religion and nationalism are fading. The PLO flag flew from the minarets of mosques in Gaza during the worst of the rioting last week.

The muezzins — those who call the faithful to prayers — used their loud-hailers to rally Palestinian youths to the barricades with their rocks and gasoline bombs. The calls to holy war continued until the IDF cut off the mosques’ electric supply.

The same intermingling of religious and nationalist sentiment was evident at the Balata refugee camp near Nablus. There a mother, mourning her eldest son, who was shot to death by the IDF last week, declared that “Ibrahim has joined the ranks of the martyrs. . .Even if we lose all our sons, the struggle will continue.”

The other troubling question — what will happen among Israel’s 750,000 Arab citizens–may be answered Monday. A one-day general strike has been called, a demonstrative act of solidarity with the Palestinians in the administered territories.

This will be an unprecedented act of vicarious protest. It remains to be seen whether the feelings of solidarity have penetrated more deeply than a formal stoppage of work, services and schools might indicate.

Some Israelis believe there has been a blurring of identities in the minds of Israeli Arabs — especially the young generation — who may see themselves less as Israeli and more at one with the Palestinians across the “Green Line”– the imaginary demarcation between Israel and the territories. And if this is true, Israelis wonder, does it contain the same propensity for violence?


Finally, Israelis are deeply worried by reactions abroad — from friend and foe alike–which have become increasingly critical of Israeli behavior since the rioting began in the Gaza Strip early this month.

The Palestinians are making the maximum possible political capital of the unrest. Their propaganda machine has had a field day and Israelis believe the PLO wants to prolong the violence even though the dead and wounded are mostly Palestinian youths.

In Washington, the Council of Presidents of National Arab-American Organizations met Thursday with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Whitehead and Richard Murphy, assistant secretary of state for Near East and South Asian affairs. They urged the United States to take concrete action against Israeli actions to protest its handling of the unrest in the territories.

The governments of the United States, Britain, France and West Germany expressed their displeasure to Israel last week.

On Friday, the 12 member states of the European Economic Community called on the Israeli authorities “to secure the protection of the inhabitants in the occupied territories in conformity with international law and the standards in the human rights field.”

That message followed a resolution to the same effect adopted by the Parliament of Europe in Strasbourg last Thursday.

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