U.S. pres. Donald Trump continued work on a peace initiative this quarter, without any resolution to lingering uncertainties on key issues (e.g., whether the U.S. should move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem; see JPS 46  and 47 ). He and his negotiating team met with Israeli and Palestinian officials, as well as other country and organizational leaders, but they failed to produce anything concrete. Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and his senior advisor, along with Dep. National Security Advisor Dina Powell and Special Representative for International Negotiations Jason Greenblatt, made an unannounced visit to Saudi Arabia on 10/25–28. The White House declined to disclose with whom Kushner met but media reports indicate he held talks with Prince Mohammad, who had recently had several Saudi ministers and 11 princes arrested, presumably to consolidate his power, though he claimed to be fighting corruption. Shortly afterward, Lebanon’s PM Hariri visited the kingdom and announced his resignation. Two days later, Prince Mohammad summoned PA pres. Abbas (see “Regional Affairs” below) in what some analysts viewed as efforts to derail the Hamas-Fatah unity deal and to further marginalize Iran.
After Palestinian support for Trump’s efforts began to waver last quarter (see JPS 47 ), the Palestinians shifted their focus almost entirely to internal and regional issues (see “Intra-Palestinian Dynamics” and “Regional Affairs” below). Meanwhile, the Israeli govt. dealt with internal issues of its own, including an increasingly acrimonious debate over: a bill that would grant Israeli sovereignty to settlements ringing East Jerusalem, effectively annexing them into Israel, and settlement growth, which put Netanyahu at odds with the ultranationalists in his own ruling coalition.
THE TRUMP INITIATIVE
As the quarter opened, the Trump peace initiative was all but stalled. Trump maintained he was still eager to make “the ultimate deal,” as he referred to the prospect of a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, but he rarely brought the subject up of his own accord. Instead, he focused on confronting North Korea over its nuclear program and overhauling the U.S. health-care and tax systems. The Israelis, led by Netanyahu, still supported Trump’s efforts, but were more concerned with countering the alleged Iranian threat as well as with their own internal issues. The Palestinians were the least enthusiastic of all parties. After the U.S. Middle East negotiating team consistently defended Israel’s installation of cameras and checkpoints under the guise of security at Haram al-Sharif in 7/2017 (see JPS 47 ), it was clear that the Trump admin. was going to have to rebuild relationships in Ramallah before moving forward on peace talks.
Their first opportunity to do so was set for 8/24, when Kushner was scheduled to visit Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt). In the lead-up to Kushner’s trip, some PA officials aired their skepticism publicly. Abbas reportedly told a delegation from the Israeli leftist party Meretz that he couldn’t understand the Trump admin.’s conduct (8/20). “I have met with Trump envoys about 20 times since the beginning of his term as pres. of the U.S. [in 1/2017],” he said. “Every time, they repeatedly stressed to me how much they believe and are committed to a 2-state solution and a halt to construction in the settlements. I have pleaded with them to say the same thing to Netanyahu, but they refrained. They said they would consider it but then they didn’t get back to me.” PLO Executive Comm. mbr. Ahmad Majdalani then clarified (8/22) that the Palestinians brought up those 2 key issues during a meeting in 6/2017 (see JPS 47 ). “Since then we haven’t heard from them,” he said. “We hope they bring clear answers this time. If not, then the peace process cannot be resumed because we cannot negotiate from scratch.”
The day before Kushner arrived in Israel, a U.S. State Dept. spokesperson responded (8/23) to the Palestinians’ complaints. “We are not going to state what the outcome has to be,” she said, addressing the open question of Trump’s support for a 2-state solution. “It has to be workable to both sides. And I think, really, that’s the best view as to not really bias one side over the other, to make sure that they can work through it.” Kushner was apparently more reassuring in his meeting with Abbas on 8/24. “We know that this [U.S.] delegation is working for peace, and we are working with it,” Abbas said (8/24). “We know that things are difficult and complicated, but there is nothing impossible with good efforts.” The meeting was “productive,” according to a PA statement (8/24). “Both sides agreed to continue with the U.S.-led conversations as the best way to reach a comprehensive peace deal.”
The Kushner meeting established the dynamic that prevailed through the end of the quarter. Amid a spate of rumors and unconfirmed reports, Israel Hayom reported (8/27) that Kushner pledged the Trump admin. would present its peace plan, including positions on all final status issues, within 3–4 mos. in exchange for the Palestinians indefinitely postponing their pursuit of statehood recognition in the international arena. Abbas, whose deputies were threatening to resume that very strategy, reportedly agreed contingent upon Trump personally backing Kushner’s pledge. According to an unnamed Palestinian official, Kushner and Abbas sealed the deal by agreeing to arrange a meeting between the 2 presidents on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York on 9/2017.
With the Palestinians mollified, the Trump admin. turned back its attention to the Israelis. By the end of 8/2017, U.S. and Israeli officials resumed talks on Trump’s pledge to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem (Times of Israel, 8/28; see JPS 46  and 47  for background on Trump’s shifting position on the embassy move). According to a U.S. source, both sides brought up the issue during Kushner’s meeting with Netanyahu on 8/24. Israeli officials confirmed that the subject did come up, but made no comments on the nature of the discussion.
Ahead of the UNGA, Trump and his aides lowered expectations for their peace initiative and directed the focus to the implementation of the 7/14/2015 Iran nuclear deal (see “Iran” below). “Achieving peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians remains one of the president’s highest priorities, but the UN meetings will primarily focus on other issues and serve as check-in opportunities,” a senior U.S. official said (9/16). The Palestinians, apparently content with the promised time frame and occupied with their own national reconciliation process (see “Intra-Palestinian Dynamics” below), refrained from calling for clarity from the Trump admin. on settlements and the 2-state solution. Netanyahu, for his part, was eager to redirect the discussion as well.
In New York, Trump met first with Netanyahu on 9/18. “Most people would say there is no chance whatsoever” to reach a peace agreement, Trump said, at a joint press conference. “I actually think that with the ability of Bibi, and frankly with the other side, I really think we have a chance.” After the meeting, the White House released (9/18) a statement saying that the pair discussed their “continuing efforts to achieve an enduring Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, the optimism in the region about peace, and expanding economic opportunities to improve conditions for peace.” No further details were disclosed.
Trump’s meeting with Abbas was potentially more critical, since Abbas was reportedly hoping for the U.S. president’s personal commitment to the pledge Kushner had made on 8/24. A PA spokesperson said (9/18) that Abbas planned to reassess his dedication to the U.S. initiative after the meeting. On 9/20, hours after Abbas addressed the UNGA reaffirming his support for a 2-state solution and reasserting the Palestinians’ right to pursue justice through international arenas such as the International Criminal Court, he met with Trump. The U.S. pres. told (9/20) Abbas that this was their “best shot ever” to make the “toughest deal of all” and reportedly repeated Kushner’s request for more time. According to senior PA officials, Abbas acquiesced (Haaretz, 9/24).
In the aftermath of the UNGA, the Palestinians, U.S., and Israelis all displayed some optimism in their public comments and actions. The Trump admin. was presumed to be working on its plan; Netanyahu took apparent steps to limit settlement growth, despite pressure from his ultranationalist coalition partners (see “Settlement Growth in the Trump Era” below); and the Palestinians proceeded to reach a major national reconciliation agreement (10/12), in hope of presenting a unified front ahead of peace talks.
At the same time, there was one indication that Trump was starting to feel the same kind of frustration with Netanyahu that his predecessor, Barack Obama, experienced. According to a Western diplomat on 10/4, Trump had told (9/19) UN secy.-gen. António Guterres that both Netanyahu and Abbas were “problematic,” but that between the two, “Netanyahu is the bigger problem.” A senior White House official later challenged (10/4) that narrative, saying, “The pres. said that he feels both sides want to make peace and he remains optimistic about an enduring peace deal. We are focusing on our productive conversations and not on the noise created by spoilers.”
Although there were some early signs that the Palestinian reconciliation agreement of 10/12 would be a game changer, the Israeli security cabinet quickly imposed strict conditions on Hamas before Israel would agree to work with the consensus govt. (10/17). According to a statement from Netanyahu’s office, the conditions included Hamas recognizing Israel, ceasing all so-called terrorist activity, disarming and dismantling its military infrastructure in the West Bank, severing ties with Iran, returning to Israel the remains of the 2 Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers and the Israeli civilians being held in Gaza (see “Prisoner Swap” below), and giving up security control of Gaza to the PA. A senior Israeli official said (10/17) that the cabinet had also authorized Netanyahu to impose punitive sanctions on the PA, including deductions from the tax revenues Israel collects on the Palestinians’ behalf and transfers to the PA on a monthly basis. “Any other cabinet decision would have given legitimacy to the terror organization Hamas, which strives to destroy Israel,” Education Minister Naftali Bennett said (10/17). Later that same day, a PA spokesperson said that the Israeli govt. would not be allowed to stand in the way of reconciliation, indicating that Abbas would prioritize reconciliation with Hamas given the choice between that and the possibility of another round of talks with Israel. Another senior Palestinian official accused the Israeli cabinet of falsely assuming that Hamas would join the PA, and putting forth a “new excuse” to back out of the process.
Two days later, Greenblatt offered (10/19) the first official U.S. response to the reconciliation deal. “All parties agree that it is essential that the PA be able to assume full, genuine, and unhindered civil and security responsibilities in Gaza and that we work together to improve the humanitarian situation for Palestinians living there,” he said in a statement. “The U.S. reiterates the importance of adherence to the Quartet principles: any Palestinian govt. must unambiguously and explicitly commit to nonviolence, recognize the State of Israel, accept previous agreements and obligations between the parties—including to disarm terrorists—and commit to peaceful negotiations. If Hamas is to play any role in a Palestinian govt., it must accept these basic requirements.” Another senior Trump admin. official offered some context on Greenblatt’s statement on 10/22, saying that the U.S. expected Hamas to disarm, but didn’t necessarily expect it to happen soon. “Egypt has helped us crack open a door to Gaza that didn’t exist a few weeks ago, and we see it as a possible opportunity,” the official said (10/22).
Then two days later, Kushner, Powell, and Greenblatt made a surprise, unannounced trip to Saudi Arabia (10/25–28). The White House would not disclose with whom they met but media reports indicate Kushner met with Prince Mohammad, who in November worked to consolidate his power by arresting dozens of ministers, and 11 princes. While Kushner returned to the U.S. on 11/28, Greenblatt continued on to Amman, Cairo, Ramallah, and Jerusalem (Politico, 10/29/2017). Within days, Prince Mohammad summoned Hariri, who suddenly announced his resignation from Riyadh, as well as Abbas. These events had analysts indicating that Saudi Arabia, supported by Trump through Kushner, was working to marginalize Iran’s growing power in the region and to force Abbas to accept Israel’s conditions on the unity govt
As the initial surprise of the reconciliation deal wore off, both the Israelis and Palestinians continued meeting to discuss the Trump peace initiative. On 10/29, Israeli minister of finance Moshe Kahlon met with PA PM Rami Hamdallah for the 2d time in 6 mos., reportedly following U.S. pressure to make progress on measures that could strengthen the Palestinian economy. The meeting resulted in no new agreements, but the 2 men made “important progress . . . on key issues,” according to Greenblatt (10/29). Then, after mos. of unconfirmed reports that PA Security Forces (PASF) had resumed some coordination with the IDF, the chief of the Palestinian police, Maj. Gen. Hazem Atallah, confirmed the news on 11/8. “Everyone is coordinating now. That means things returned to what they were before,” Atallah said, referring to Abbas’s 7/21 announcement of an indefinite suspension of PASF-IDF coordination in response to new Israeli security measures at Haram al-Sharif. The suspension had been extremely popular among the Palestinian public (see “Palestinian Opinion” below). Atallah also said that security coordination had never ceased completely, as many Israeli politicians pointed out at the time. “The only thing we stopped is we didn’t meet them in the field,” he said, explaining that approximately 95% of coordination activities continued.
As the quarter came to a close, the New York Times unearthed a few more details about the Trump plans on 11/11. According to White House officials, the plan was set to be ready in early 2018, considerably later than the 3–4 month window Kushner had promised Abbas on 8/24. The officials also said that Trump’s core team—Kushner, Greenblatt, amb. to Israel David Friedman, and Powell—had put together a series of “non-papers” covering various issues related to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, including settlements and the status of Jerusalem, over the course of Trump’s first 10 mos. in office. “We have spent a lot of time listening to and engaging with the Israelis, Palestinians and key regional leaders over the past few months to help reach an enduring peace deal,” Greenblatt said (11/11). “We are not going to put an artificial timeline on the development or presentation of any specific ideas and will also never impose a deal.”
SETTLEMENT GROWTH IN THE TRUMP ERA
With the Palestinians demanding that the U.S. take a firmer position on Israeli settlement growth and Trump steadfastly refusing to do so, the most contentious debates this quarter took place within the ranks of the Israeli govt. They played out similarly to other conversations in the Knesset that had become even more heated ever since Trump assumed office in 1/2017. Netanyahu, wary of a notoriously mercurial Trump blaming him for any possible breakdown in the peace process, made enough concessions to his ultranationalist coalition partners to maintain power, but not so many as to draw anything more than tepid criticism from the international community, including the U.S. Yet, in view of trends that transpired in both the Knesset and the Jerusalem Municipality during this quarter, it is evident that Netanyahu and his far-right coalition govt. were intent on sealing Jerusalem off from the rest of the West Bank, further enclosing Palestinians in isolated bantustans. While there was much settlement news this quarter, five specific settlement-related developments stood out for their magnitude and implications.
The first concerned the imminent issuance of tenders for the new settlement of Givat Hamatos, which, once built, would create an impassable barrier between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, effectively dividing the West Bank. Next, two settlement projects were announced, one establishing a strong Jewish presence inside the Palestinian neighborhood of Jabal Mukabir in East Jerusalem and the other in the city of Hebron. And, lastly, the Knesset debated two pieces of legislation that would forever change the demographic makeup of Jerusalem, in contravention of international law, including Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. The five developments constituted further evidence of continued Israeli efforts to augment Palestinian displacement, expropriating ever more Palestinian land and dividing the West Bank in such a way as to make a contiguous Palestinian state a physical impossibility.
On (10/2), Netanyahu spoke at a Likud Party meeting in Ma’ale Adumim—a major settlement under the ambit of the aforementioned Greater Jerusalem bill calling for the de facto annexation of several West Bank settlements. The PM openly supported the proposed legislation, saying,“This place will forever remain part of Israel.” The location of Netanyahu’s remarks was important because of the ties between Ma’ale Adumim and the proposed E1 settlement bloc. Together, the two settlements carve out a significant portion of the West Bank, making it more viable for full annexation. The following day (10/3), Netanyahu indicated that he would move ahead with construction of Givat Hamatos between Gilo and Har Homa, effectively cutting off Bethlehem from Jerusalem. Strategically, Givat Hamatos has far-reaching implications, according to Terrestrial Jerusalem. “Givat Hamatos is a game-changer, if not a game-ender. It is not as devastating as E1 in dismembering the West Bank, but it is equally or more devastating than E1 in its impact on a political division of the city,” Peace Now wrote in 2012 when construction plans were first approved. The Israeli settlement watch NGO described the latest move as follows:
The preparation for a tender in Givat Hamatos, together with Netanyahu’s statements last week regarding the construction of thousands of housing units in Ma’ale Adumim with heavy hints towards E1, are all a part of the govt.’s effort to create a de facto annexation and prevent the possibility for two states on the ground. Netanyahu is taking far-reaching steps, which he has thus far avoided, and by doing so he risks the two-state solution and the future of Israel (Peace Now, 10/16).
Although the original plans for Givat Hamatos had been approved in 2014, they were shelved under pressure from the admin. of then U.S. pres. Obama, but the policy chaos and pro-settlement stance of the incoming Trump admin. only emboldened the Netanyahu govt.
Under pressure from Israel’s pro-settlement politicians who had been discussing annexation as recently as 1/2017 (see JPS 46 )—and with Netanyahu’s blessing—the Knesset planned to vote on the Greater Jerusalem bill on 10/29. Four days after informing the Knesset that the vote on the bill would go ahead, Netanyahu requested a delay. “The current version of the . . . bill invites international pressure and involves difficult legal issues,” explained (10/29) a senior mbr. of the ruling coalition, adding that Netanyahu could “not allow himself to advance this version at this time.” During a cabinet meeting that evening, the PM indicated that the Trump admin. had intervened. “The Americans turned to us and inquired what the bill was about. As we have been coordinating with them until now, it is worth talking and coordinating with them,” he said. Later, a senior U.S. official commented (10/29), “It’s fair to say that the U.S. is discouraging actions that it believes will unduly distract the principals from focusing on the advancement of peace negotiations. The [Greater Jerusalem bill] was considered by the admin. to be one of those actions.”
The Knesset’s second proposed bill called for excising from Jerusalem Palestinian neighborhoods such as Kafr ‘Aqab, and the Shu‘fat r.c., which are inside the city’s boundaries but on the West Bank side of the separation wall. At least 100,000 Palestinian Jerusalemites live in these areas.
The above-referenced plans to transfer Israeli Jews into settlements inside Palestinian neighborhoods in Hebron and East Jerusalem would not only greatly disrupt Palestinians’ freedom of movement but irreversibly fracture the contiguity necessary for a Palestinian state. On 10/25, the Jerusalem Municipality and District Council issued (10/25) building permits for 176 new residences in Nof Zion, a settlement inside the Palestinian neighborhood of Jabal Mukabir. “This is not a matter of real estate but a matter of politics and sovereignty, as the Israelis moving to homes inside Palestinian neighborhoods are motivated solely by ideology, and are trying to prevent a future compromise in Jerusalem,” Peace Now wrote on 9/6/2017. Likewise, the Civil Admin.’s Licensing Subcomm. on 10/16 approved 31 building permits for new housing units in c. Hebron on Shuhada Street, once the main thoroughfare through the Old City. For years, the Israeli military has prohibited Palestinians from using or crossing Shuhada Street because of nearby settlements. The new construction will be the first development in Hebron in 15 years and the first within the city itself.
The announcement came a few weeks after Israeli DM Avigdor Lieberman announced the creation of a new Israeli municipal center for settlers in Hebron, a move that will further disenfranchise Palestinians there. “The settlement in Hebron represents the occupation in its most ugly [form]. In order to protect a small group of settlers, tens of thousands of Palestinians had been forced to move from their homes, and roads and shops ha[ve] been closed. The permits approved today would increase the number of settlers in Hebron by 20%. . . . While doing everything in his power to please a small group of settlers, Netanyahu is . . . crushing basic values of human rights and dignity,” Peace Now wrote in a statement (10/16). Netanyahu had made clear his intention to fast-forward settlement plans early on, and received little or no pushback from the Trump admin. until the Greater Jerusalem bill came up for a vote.
In late 8/2017, after mos. of pressure from far-right religious nationalists in his coalition, at an event commemorating the 50th anniversary of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Netanyahu proclaimed (8/28), “We are here to stay, forever. There will be no more uprooting of settlements in the land of Israel. It has been proven that it does not help peace. We’ve uprooted settlements. What did we get? We received missiles. It will not happen anymore.” A senior U.S. official responded (8/29) by saying that Netanyahu’s pledge would not derail Trump’s peace initiative. “It is no secret what each side’s position is on this issue,” the official said. “Our focus is on continuing our conversations with both parties and regional leaders to work toward facilitating a deal that factors in all substantive issues.” The Trump admin. likewise proffered no criticism when the Israeli cabinet approved (9/3) a budget for Amichai, the new settlement due to replace the illegal Amona outpost (see JPS 46 [3, 4]), which was forcibly evacuated months earlier. The new budget, allotting NIS 55 m. (approx. $15.3 m.) to the project, allowed construction to resume 2 mos. after it was suspended due to a shortfall in funds.
Notwithstanding the PM’s aggressive statements, the pro-settlement factions within the coalition govt. remained unsatisfied. In 9/2017 and 10/2017, simmering tensions escalated after Netanyahu postponed a scheduled meeting of the Civil Admin.’s High Planning Comm. to accommodate Trump’s meetings with various heads of Middle East states at the UNGA (Haaretz, 9/24). The delay enraged the settler umbrella group Yesha Council and its allies in the govt. In a closed-door meeting with Netanyahu on 9/26, they told the PM that he was not meeting their expectations, “especially after the change in the [U.S.] admin.,” one of the participants said. He also reported Netanyahu as promising that the High Planning Comm. would approve thousands of new settler homes at its next meeting and that he had managed to convince the Trump admin. to drop its distinction between the so-called settlement blocs, which were seen as possible targets for land swaps under any final agreement with the Palestinians, and more isolated settlements. It is worth noting that Yesha Council leaders had met with Greenblatt, in the spring. The meeting, the first official encounter between settlers and the representatives of any U.S. pres., raised concerns among the international community about the continued perception of the U.S. as an “honest broker” in peace negotiations.
When the High Planning Comm. finally published (10/10) its agenda, which included plans to advance 3,800 new settler residences, Haaretz reported that the number of housing units was greatly inflated. Knesset mbr. (MK) Bezalel Smotrich (Jewish Home) and Samaria Regional Council head Yossi Dagan dismissed (10/11) the agenda as “spin,” and the Yesha Council released a statement expressing disappointment: “We are aware of the pressures being exerted on the PM, but nevertheless, as settlement leaders it is our obligation to state the facts accurately.”
On 10/24, Dagan set up a protest tent outside the PM’s residence in Jerusalem, and after meeting with him and a group of settler leaders the following day, Netanyahu promised (10/25) investments of NIS 800 m. (approx. $228 m.) in road construction and other infrastructure development in the West Bank, starting in 2018. The reaction was mixed: Yesha Council head Avi Roeh said it was a “significant message” to the settler community; others, including Dagan, were dubious. “We are fed up with promises and spin,” Dagan said, returning to his tent.
On 10/29, with the Greater Jerusalem bill on hold, Dagan escalated his protest. On 11/4, he and his allies announced that they would be going on hunger strike until Netanyahu upheld his promise of NIS 800 m. for settlement infrastructure. “It should not have come to this,” Dagan said.“Mr. PM, do the right thing. . . . Give a real source of funding for the paving of the bypass roads and the means of security.” According to an 11/5 report in the Times of Israel, Netanyahu’s efforts to appease the settlers succeeded in deflating the Dagan protest effort. Only 2 of the 24 local and regional council chairs representing settlements in the West Bank had joined Dagan in his tent by 11/5. Roeh, for his part, said that Yesha Council would not be participating because he believed Netanyahu would honor his pledge.
Also of note: Israeli settlement debates were not restricted to the Far Right. On 10/16, the leader of Israel’s Labor Party, Avi Gabbay, said that settlements would not necessarily need to be evacuated under a final peace agreement with the Palestinians, breaking from his party’s traditional stance on the issue. Gabbay “made a deliberate decision to take the risk that his base would flee in order to wink at centrist and soft-right voters,” according to one source close to the Labor leader (Haaretz, 10/16). Along those lines, there was some speculation in the Israeli press that Gabbay was attempting to woo former DM Moshe Ya’alon to defect from Likud. No high-ranking Labor officials challenged Gabbay on the record, but several expressed reservations about his comments in private.
PERSECUTING ISRAEL’S PALESTINIAN MINORITY AND OTHER OPPONENTS
As they squabbled over settlement growth, Netanyahu and his right-wing govt. advanced their years-long campaign to consolidate power, with a renewed push to pass the so-called nationstate bill and efforts to undermine opposition to it.
As with the Greater Jerusalem bill (see above), right-wing MKs had been debating competing drafts of the nation-state bill for years. Each one held to the same basic idea that Israel’s role as the nation-state of the Jewish people should be codified in the country’s Basic Law, which serves as a de facto constitution since Israel lacks one. In 5/2017, the Knesset approved a preliminary amendment in one draft of the bill, canceling the status of Arabic as an “official language.” Members also excluded a controversial provision from previous drafts that would have required “that courts rule ‘in light of the principles of Jewish law’ in the absence of clear legislation or legal precedent” (Haaretz, 10/31). There were concerns that the bill did not contain the word “democracy,” amid fears that Jewish religious law could replace a democratic judiciary as well as discriminate against minority populations, most notably Palestinians. Throughout the summer, the Knesset debated various amendments and competing drafts. MKs from the ruling coalition insisted upon focusing solely on the “Jewish character” of the state, while left-wing and non-Zionist parties argued that doing so would unjustly discriminate against Palestinian citizens of Israel. By the end of the quarter, the govt. coalition drafting the bill conceded and amended wording so that “all legislation in Israel will be interpreted according to both democratic values and the country’s Jewish nature—without giving one priority over the other” (Haaretz, 11/9). Although the new draft was still controversial, primarily due to lingering discrimination concerns, it was widely expected to pass its first reading on 12/12.
Also in the Knesset, the Ministerial Comm. for Legislation approved (11/5) an amendment to the so-called anti-boycott law, which passed in 7/2011 and allowed any Israeli to sue activists calling for boycott campaigns against Israel or its settlements. A version of the amendment had passed as a provision of the 2011 law, but the High Court of Justice struck it down in 2015 because of concerns that there was no limit on compensatory damages from lawsuits that did not demonstrate actual harm. Under the new proposal, judgements against those who repeatedly call for boycotts would be capped at NIS 100,000 (approx. $28,000), while the maximum financial judgement against people who organize systematic boycotts would be held at NIS 500,000 (approx. $143,000).
Outside the Knesset, Netanyahu and his right-wing allies continued cracking down on activists, journalists, and politicians who opposed their treatment of the Palestinians. On 8/16, Israel’s Govt. Press Office (GPO) revoked the credentials of an Al Jazeera reporter for allegedly acting as an “active partner in Palestinian resistance.” The reporter, a Palestinian citizen of Israel called Elias Karram, had said in a 2016 interview that “journalistic work is an integral part of the resistance.” After Karram publicly disavowed terrorism, the GPO reversed (8/30) its decision. “In the months to come, the GPO will keep track of the network’s reports in Israel, in Arabic and in English, and will not hesitate to reach the necessary conclusions after consulting with legal and security officials,” GPO dir. Nitzan Chen said at Karram’s 8/30 hearing (Haaretz, 8/30).
On 9/12, the Israeli press reported that the Israeli govt. was planning to cancel the special tax status of Amnesty International (AI) in response to its summer campaign, titled “Israel’s Occupation: 50 Years of Dispossession.” Had the govt. persevered, the measure would have marked a rare implementation of the 2011 anti-boycott law. In response, AI released (9/12) a statement condemning the reported plans: “While we have not been officially informed of any such action by the authorities, if true, this would be a serious setback to freedom of expression and an ominous sign for the ability of human rights–focused nongovernmental organizations in Israel to operate freely and without arbitrary interference.”
Although authorities abandoned plans to revoke AI’s tax status, Israeli authorities did deny Raed Jarrar, the Amnesty International USA advocacy dir. for the Middle East and North Africa, entry into Israel on 10/30. An Israeli spokesperson later confirmed that Public Security and Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan, who was leading Israel’s efforts to counter the growing BDS movement, had requested Jarrar’s denial. Jarrar was reportedly attempting to visit his family in Israel after the death of his father.
Finally, the population, immigration, and border authority office of Israel’s interior minister announced (11/13) plans to deny entry to 7 of the 20 mbrs. of a European delegation set to arrive in Israel the following week because of their support for BDS. Erdan explained (11/13), “We will not permit entry to those who actively call to harm the State of Israel, especially in light of their request to meet and offer support to the arch-terrorist [and imprisoned Fatah leader] Marwan Barghouti.” By conflating support for Barghouti with calls for boycotts, the announcement marked a new, expanded interpretation of Israel’s anti-boycott laws. According to a document produced by a senior official in the Strategic Affairs Ministry, “The issue of prisoner visits was not the responsibility of the Strategic Affair Ministry. Still, the issue of Palestinian prisoners and efforts to delegitimize Israel are intertwined. The ministry’s position is to not allow any delegation mbr. to visit Marwan Barghouti, as a visit is liable to give him a tailwind.”
HAMAS CRACKS DOWN ON ISLAMIST GROUPS
Hamas’s agreement with the Egyptian govt. last quarter to increase security along Gaza’s border with Sinai led to renewed violence between Hamas and the various small Islamist groups in Gaza in 8–10/2017, which in turn produced multiple exchanges of cross-border violence with Israel. Tensions between Hamas and these groups had broken out into similar intermittent episodes in recent years (see JPS 45 ), with the Islamists both directly attacking Hamas personnel and baiting the IDF into attacking Hamas with rocket fire. This quarter was no different, and it threatened to undermine both Hamas’s rapprochement with Cairo and the 10/12 Palestinian national reconciliation deal.
The violence began on 8/17. Hamas forces were responding to a report of militants infiltrating Gaza from Sinai when they encountered 2 men carrying light arms at the mouth of a small tunnel. As the Hamas troops approached, 1 of the men detonated a bomb belt, killing himself and 1 of the Hamas fighters, and injuring 5 others. The assailant was later identified as a supporter of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The day after the attack, Hamas shut down the offices of the Islamic State of Gaza and the Army of Islam, and arrested dozens of their mbrs. in raids throughout Rafah and Khan Yunis. The crackdown continued into 10/2017, with Hamas announcing (10/7) the arrests of several Islamist leaders in an overnight raid in Rafah, possibly related to continuing reconciliation talks in Cairo, some analysts said. Then on Sunday (10/8), militants, thought to be possibly ISIS sympathizers retaliating for the arrests, fired a rocket toward Israel, which landed in an open area short of the border fence. Though there were no casualties, an IDF tank targeted (10/8) a Hamas observation post e. of alMaghazi and Israeli artillery shelled a site nr. Gaza City. (Neither attack led to any serious injuries.)
A few days after the rocket attack, Sinai Province of the Islamic State (SPIS) fighters launched (10/15) 2 rockets from n. Sinai into Israel. These also landed in open areas, causing no damage or injuries. The rockets’ targets remained unclear as it could not be ascertained if Israel alone, Israel and Hamas, or Egyptian security forces had been the intended target. The attack followed a day of violence in al-Arish, Rafah, and Shaykh Zuwayd, in which Egyptian forces killed at least 24 armed fighters after SPIS mbrs. assaulted an Egyptian soldier at a vacant church in al-Arish (see Chronology). Regardless, the Egyptian authorities decided (10/15) to cancel a planned opening of the Rafah border crossing on 10/16. (The promise of more frequent openings of the crossing was among Hamas’s key victories in its agreement with the Egyptian govt. last quarter.)
The violence in Gaza continued through the end of the quarter, with no further spillover into Israel or Egypt. On 10/27, Dep. Minister of Interior and Internal Security Tawfiq Abu Naim was slightly injured in an alleged assassination attempt. His jeep exploded as he was leaving Friday prayer at the Abu al-Hassan Mosque in c. Gaza. Hamas officials initially blamed Israel for the attack, but later said they suspected local Islamists. The next day, Abu Naim alleged that it was a politically motivated attempt to undermine the reconciliation process. “The objectives of those who committed this despicable act will not be achieved,” he said, affirming that Hamas was still on track to meet its 11/1 deadline to hand over control of Gaza’s border crossings to the PA (see “Intra-Palestinian Dynamics” below).