Predicting troubles in the Middle East in general, and with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian situation in particular, is a safe bet. This is the region of the world where troubles are the rule, and good news is the exception. So, there is nothing new about predicting/anticipating a third Palestinian intifada against the Israelis, and with it all hell will break loose, and the West Bank and Israel itself will yet again become the arena of suffering, bloodshed and shuttered hopes. Well, not so fast. Maybe -- I should say hopefully -- not now, not again.
The immediate catalyst to the repeated talks about a new intifada is the unfortunate death of a Palestinian detainee, Arafat Jaradat, in the Megiddo Jail in Northern Israel.
The Palestinians charge that he died as a result of torture; the Israelis deny, citing the autopsy operation. In a case like this, the best solution is to refer the inquiry to people agreed to by both sides, who will issue an objective report. There is talk about that happening, but there have already been demonstrations in some areas of the West Bank, and some Palestinian organizations call for large-scale rioting, one which will ignite a full-scale third intifada. As yet, that has not happened, and both the Palestinian Authority [PA] under Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas in Gaza call for restraint, while repeating the unfounded charge that Jaradat was tortured to death. In fact, Hamas went to the length of denying any responsibility to the firing of an improved Grad missile from Gaza towards Ashkelon in south Israel, which was allegedly done as a revenge over the death of Jaradat.
Clearly, both Hamas and the PA are not interested right now in any uncontrolled flare-up in the West Bank and along the Gaza-Israel border. In the case of the former, it is because the Abbas administration knows that encouraging an eruption is very easy, but putting out the flames can prove to be very difficult, if not outright impossible. In the case of the latter, it may be that Hamas is still licking the wounds of its recent military clobbering in the second Gaza war. They have had discussions with the Israelis in Cairo in the last few days, and not much was leaked about their contents, and in the reality of the Middle East it should be taken as a good sign. When the two parties want to achieve something, they talk and then do, rather than leak and blame. The fact is that the reconstruction of Gaza is under way, and hundreds of trucks cross from Israel to Gaza, while the Egyptian military is engaged in an effort to block the tunnels from Sinai to Gaza, being used to smuggle war materials to the Palestinians there.
So, the Egyptians are doing what they should, according to their agreements with the Israelis, regardless of the vitriol which comes out of the presidential palace in Cairo. So, what about the Israelis? The Palestinians want a solution to the problem of thousands of detainees in Israeli jails. This is a constant source of complaint against the Israelis, but also against the PA. This is clearly one issue on which the Netanyahu government could and should be more flexible. Those who committed the most heinous crimes against humanity, those with blood on their hands, should stay behind bars and pay the price. That goes without saying, but it also goes without saying that there are many inmates, perhaps in the few thousands, who could be released as a gesture of good will.
Two points are of the essence here; first, the Israelis have released inmates in the past on a wholesale basis ONLY as a result of deals with Hamas. They did it out of necessity, but the political implication was that they release inmates only to the militants and under pressure. They should change the disc and strategy, and release a large number of inmates as part of talks and arrangements with PA, and not as a sign of weakness, thus enabling Abbas to claim success and with it neutralize the negative impact of Hamas propaganda that they are the only ones who do something about detainees in Israel.
Second, after previous exchanges, a sizable number of released detainees got involved again in bloody terror activities. The Palestinians have not done enough to prevent it from happening, and in this way, fueled Israeli suspicions and fears that any release of a significant number of detainees could trigger another wave of terrorism. Then, the Israelis could and should do more to help the PA in its efforts to prop up the Palestinian economy, preventing it from collapse, something that could lead to violence out of despair. In fact, the economic situation in the West Bank has gradually deteriorated in recent months, and both the PA and Israel, with the help of the international community, are required to an urgent and extra effort in order to improve the situation.
There is another element in the equation which is possibly of greater importance than the previous two points, and this is the moribund peace process. Not much hope on this front, as Israel still is grappling with the effects of the inconclusive recent elections, Abbas shows no overt desire to renew the talks, and the traditional arbiters, the Americans, have no plan of their own. President Obama's impending visit could provide an incentive to the parties to do more, as well as it could be also a flash point to Palestinian militants to ignite troubles in order to embarrass Abbas and Obama, and provoke the Israelis into disproportionate reactions. So long as the talks are still stalled, it is incumbent on the parties to deal with the inmates and Palestinian economy, surely for the sake of gaining time.
The bad news is that the talk of another intifada is gathering momentum, while the good news is that it has not yet happened and could still be averted. That brings us back to Megiddo, also known as Armageddon... all parties involved can do without the calamities associated with this place.