Israel’s Man-Made Crisis

Benjamin Netanyahu stoked the hatred that is now erupting in violence.

A wounded Palestinian protester is evacuated after he was shot by Israeli troops near the border between Israel and the central Gaza strip on Oct. 13, 2015.

Photo by Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters

Two weeks ago, after a series of domestic terror attacks, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a challenge to Israel’s Arab citizens. “Will you follow the path of coexistence, peace, loyalty to the country of which you are a part?” he demanded. “You cannot have it both ways … enjoying all the rights available in democratic Israel” while “undermining the country.”

The same challenge could be posed to Netanyahu. Earlier this year, he won re-election by vilifying Israeli Arabs. He promised that no Palestinian state would be established on his watch, and he warned Israeli Jews and right-wingers that “Arab voters” and “the Arab population” were trying to topple him. Now, in the face of Israeli Arab violence, he’s demanding loyalty. He can’t have it both ways. Netanyahu cultivated an enemy within, and now he’s got it.

When Netanyahu promised to block a Palestinian state—violating his previous commitments to the United States and the United Nations—his rationale was that Arabs would use that state for “terrorist attacks against Israel.” His concern was well-founded. But he forgot the other side of the equation: Without a Palestinian state, Israel is being attacked anyway. And this time, the assaults aren’t coming from Gaza or the West Bank. They’re coming from East Jerusalem and Israel’s core territory.

As of Oct. 17, people from East Jerusalem, where Arabs enjoy the privileges of permanent Israeli residency, had committed more than 70 percent of the terror attacks during this month’s wave of violence. Other perpetrators came from Hura in Israel’s south and from Nazareth and Umm el-Fahm in the north. According to the Israeli foreign ministry, the culprits “have not been operatives of any established terrorist organization.” They’re teenagers and novices, armed with knives and inspired by Internet propaganda.

Against these attackers, Israel’s usual counterterror measures are useless. You can’t defeat them with a wall—as Netanyahu promises to do everywhere else—because they’re domestic. You can’t foil them through intelligence gathering, because they’re not connected to any networks. You can’t deter them by threatening “Hamas and the Palestinian Authority,” as Netanyahu pretends to do, because Hamas and the PA don’t control them.

Netanyahu claims that the perpetrators are motivated by reports of Israeli schemes against the al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem and that these reports are bogus. He’s right. But when hundreds of thousands of ordinary people in your country are willing to believe such reports, and when dozens are ready to throw away their lives by attacking strangers with kitchen implements, you can’t just fact-check the madness. You have to ask what’s causing the underlying paranoia and desperation. And the answer to that question doesn’t just lie in Ramallah or Gaza City. It lies in Israel.

Netanyahu didn’t invent Israel’s domestic strife. But he has exacerbated it. By pledging to prevent a Palestinian state, and by winning re-election on that pledge, he crushed many people’s hopes for a peaceful resolution. In a poll taken two weeks ago, more than 60 percent of Israelis dismissed Netanyahu’s commitment to a two-state solution as fake, and 57 percent of Israeli Arabs said the two-state solution was dead. By continuing to build settlements in the West Bank, Netanyahu sabotaged peace talks and signaled his contempt for Palestinian autonomy. During his re-election campaign, Netanyahu bragged that he had used settlements to seize strategic land. Now he tells the world that he reined in the settlement process, even as he assures Israeli right-wingers that he’s doing everything he can to promote settlements. Some settlers have moved into Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem—the area from which this month’s attacks are coming.

Netanyahu hasn’t just antagonized Arabs outside Israel. He has targeted Arabs within it. First he added a new demand to peace talks: The Palestinian Authority had to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Then, after claiming that this demand was just basic Zionism, Netanyahu used fear of Arab voters to rally Jews to the polls. Now he’s giving security briefings to the heads of all of Israel’s opposition parties, except the Arab parties. These gestures of hostility don’t excuse terrorism or cause people to pick up knives. But they cultivate an atmosphere that makes such violence more likely.

Unable to stop the attacks by building walls around Israel, the government has begun to erect walls within it. First came the metal detectors on Jerusalem streets. Then came the checkpoints and concrete barriers. When skeptics pointed out that East Jerusalem couldn’t be sealed off as easily as the West Bank, politicians demanded tougher measures. “The residents of East Jerusalem must understand that they cannot lead a normal life while terrorism continues on the streets of Israel,” a Cabinet minister declared. A lawmaker in Netanyahu’s coalition went further: “Stop them from leaving their homes.”

To defeat the enemy within, civil liberties have been curtailed. For the first time in 14 years, lacking evidence to file charges, the government has put an Israeli Arab in administrative detention. The detention order extends for three months, and Israel’s justice minister is threatening to use the same power in other cases. She’s also proposing to jail 13-year-olds for terrorism—and to apply this penalty retroactively. The government’s culture minister has demanded the abolition of public defenders for East Jerusalem residents, including Israeli citizens, who are charged with terrorism. The Cabinet has approved a bill to let police frisk almost anyone without probable cause. The education minister has called for street executions.

Next comes the campaign to evict Arabs. The government is revoking the residency status of Jerusalem Arabs charged in the recent attacks. It’s also proposing to block welfare benefits for their families. A defense official says if the violence doesn’t stop, the government “will begin deporting the families of terrorists to the Gaza strip.” On Monday, after a 21-year-old Israeli Arab was charged in an attack—and after local Bedouin leaders vouched for his family’s loyalty to Israel and opposition to terrorism—a Cabinet minister demanded that the entire family be expelled to Gaza.

The crackdown has led to social segregation and vigilantism. Israeli cities have barred laborers from their schools, with some municipalities explicitly targeting “minority members” and others using occupational categories to exclude Arabs. Renovations have halted, as fearful Jews refuse to let Arabs work in their apartments. On Sunday, an Eritrean man who had applied for asylum in Israel was mistaken for a terrorist, shot by police, and assaulted by a mob. Now he’s dead.

Netanyahu recognizes his country’s peril. By turning its weapons inward—separation, constriction, expulsion—Israel could implode. Belatedly, the prime minister is courting Israeli Arabs and pleading for coexistence. “It is very easy to unravel the bonds that bind us together,” he lectured them in a speech last week. “Do not be tempted to do so.” If only he had heeded his own advice.