The American Jewish Committee’s Jerusalem office director blamed a radical wing of Islam for inciting the violence that has taken the lives of 21 people in Israel since Oct. 1.
Speaking Nov. 19 to 25 members of the AJC’s Central Jersey chapter via Skype, Avital Leibovich said an Islamist group led by Sheik Raad Salah has been stirring up crowds of Arabs in Israel and the territories with false claims that Israel intends to change the “status quo” on the Temple Mount.
She also blamed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for failing to calm things down early on, and for allowing incitement to be broadcast on Palestinian television.
When he finally took steps, Leibovich said, “it was too little too late.”
Leibovich described the attackers as working independently. They ranged in age from 13 to 25 and came from a variety of backgrounds — secular and religious, single and married — and used different kinds of weapons, including vehicles.
“From an intelligence perspective, it is hard to get into the minds of these people,” she said. “There is no prototype for an actor — everybody is suspect in a way.”
Leibovich added that the wave of violence “cannot be detached completely from what we are seeing on our borders,” especially with Syria.
The Israeli government, she said, has taken several steps to calm the situation. It has recruited battalions of border police to patrol the streets and give Israeli citizens “some sense of security.” It also ordered all Knesset members and ministers not to visit the Temple Mount.
(Earlier this month, Israel’s Security Cabinet voted to outlaw the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, led by Raad Salah, accusing the group of incitement and links to terrorism.)
And, she said, there are arrest operations in the West Bank every night.
“We are trying to reach those ticking bombs before they reach Israel,” she said.
Up to the day of Leibovich’s appearance at the AJC meeting, no Arab Israeli citizens had been involved in stabbings. Almost all were from East Jerusalem and have blue IDs, which means they are not stopped at crossings. Two or three were from the Hebron area, an extremist pocket.
Whereas a small percentage of Israeli Arabs do have extreme opinions, Leibovich said, they are generally doing well economically and have a high quality of life. Arab women are going to university and working, and the number of births in Arab families has gone down — a sign of rising living standards.
But she does not foresee an end to the violence in the short term. “My assumption is this wave of violence will continue a long time, especially in the West Bank and Jerusalem,” she said.
Leibovich also expressed concern that Abbas is 82 and not likely to stay in his position much longer.
“Any instability, like changing the authority, can be an opportunity for Hamas to take over like they did in Gaza in 2007,” she said. “Hamas is trying vigorously to raise its head in the West Bank, and recruit as many people as possible, and urge them to get in the streets and get in conflict with Israel.”
Leibovich said she puts Iran first in terms of threats to Israel’s security, noting that the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that Iran hadn’t completely fulfilled its obligations under the new agreement with the West. Iran, she explained, is active on three of Israel’s borders: in Syria, where Iranian forces are fighting with Assad; in Lebanon, where Hezbollah is active; and in Gaza, which is under the control of Hamas.
In response to a question about the potential for a two-state solution, she said, “The minute [Abbas] declared last year that he was going to the [International Criminal Court] and [appealing] to parliaments all over the world to recognize a Palestinian state, Netanyahu recognized he had no partner.”
She added that she is not sure the Palestinians today would be “strong enough to stand against Hamas if it tries to take over. At present most of the activity against Hamas is coming from Israeli intelligence.”
Leibovich does not see the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement doing any significant damage to Israel. Jewish factory owners in the West Bank told her that the European Union’s decision to label settlement goods can be circumvented.
“They told me if they would have to label their goods in a way to damage their profits, they will find ways to bypass it or move their factories,” she said. The primary result, she continued, would be that “dozens of Palestinians working in some 600 factories in the West Bank will lose their jobs.” Palestinians, she said, wait in line for these jobs because of the benefits they get from the Israeli government.
“Israelis have alternatives; Palestinians don’t have alternatives,” she said.