Israeli President Reuven Rivlin addressed the ninth annual conference of the Institute for National Security Studies in mid-January. “The Islamic State is already here,” he told delegates, “that is no longer a secret. I am not speaking about territories bordering the State of Israel, but within the state itself.” From its birth, Israel’s defence policy has revolved around a perceived threat to destroy the Zionist state.
Today, the main threat preoccupying the Israeli defence ministry is Daesh. The head of the Israeli army, Lieutenant General Gadi Eizenkot, has expressed concern about a Daesh presence on the Syria-Israel border; the nearest force of the extremist group is just 40 kilometres away.
While such concerns do carry some legitimacy and need to be addressed, there is a certain imbalance in the way that the Israelis are projecting such threats. There seems to be a clear divide within the Israeli rhetoric: “Iran is waging a war against Israel via proxies like Hezbollah in Lebanon, which today poses the most serious threat to Israel,” is another recent statement of Eizenkot. He then said that there is a possibility that pro-Iran sentiments could infiltrate into Israel as a result of Palestinian nationalism. Since the start of the Arab Spring, different perceived threats to Israel have been used interchangeably, but they have all been tied to the Palestinian question inside the country.
For the head of the army to use such strong language against multiple groups in the Middle East in this way suggests that there is no real risk assessment to prioritise threats, and defence policy is being devised on the hoof. There are no signs of balancing out the threats and strategic assessments, especially when trying to link external threats to those within the state.
In all cases, there is a fear that terrorism will infiltrate into Israel through Palestinian society. Tel Aviv fears that the kind of attacks carried out by Daesh in Europe will be mirrored in Israel as Palestinians become increasingly frustrated by the conditions under which they are forced to live.
Many of the Bedouin in the Negev Desert have been displaced by illegal settlements in a bid to help the community integrate into Israeli society. When Israel’s former ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, visited the community at the end of January, he looked at the social sentiments of the Bedouin, noting that over the past few decades there has been an increase in Islamisation and Palestinian nationalism, referring to these as “twin movements”. Essentially, the argument is that any external threat that bases itself on an ideology could infiltrate into the Palestinian community, giving the people more of a reason to turn against Israel.
This outlook is problematic because it seeks to demonise the legitimate Palestinian nationalist movement. It also demonstrates that the Israelis are putting themselves in a position whereby they are becoming increasingly disconnected from the plight of the Palestinian people and the reasons for their frustrations. The rise in neo-fascist sentiments and policies in Israel makes Palestinians less likely to feel that peace is achievable, especially when there are anti-Palestinian marches in Jerusalem calling for “no co-existence with cancer”. Add to that the building of illegal settlements, apartheid and brutality that extends to burning Palestinian babies alive as well as police brutality, even against children, and it is clear that Israel’s defence policy is becoming increasingly concerned with the perceived radicalisation of Palestinians, whilst systematically oppressing them. This is counterproductive.
If there is a genuine fear in Tel Aviv of a Daesh presence through “Palestinian radicalisation from within”, the only way it should be correlated with the Palestinian nationalist movement is if the movement starts to show its frustration at the futility of the political status quo because of the hard-line approach being taken by the dominant Israeli right-wing. If the movement continues to be undermined while conditions for Palestinians are worsening to the extent that their survival is called into question, there is the potential for groups like Daesh to take advantage of desperate conditions. Such support would arise out of coercion, not ideological radicalisation.
Furthermore, even the Islamic movements in Palestine have been threatened by Daesh. Last June, Hamas was warned that if it does not pledge allegiance to Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, it will be doomed to hell. The ultimate aim of Hamas is to seek Palestinian statehood with pre-1948 borders, whereas the aim for Daesh is to take both Palestine and Israel into the so-called caliphate; there is an intrinsic conflict there. The fact that comparing Daesh to Hamas has become common practice in Israel since 2014, even with the likes of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who really should know better, shows that not only are Palestinian frustrations misunderstood, but there is also a lack of understanding of Palestinian institutions which challenge the Israeli occupation.
Describing all Palestinian resistance groups as potential allies of Daesh is a lazy tactic that both demonises Palestinians and leads to more Israeli state violence against them; it also sidesteps the real issues faced by Palestinians inside Israel and the occupied territories. The increase of violence by Palestinians is not a product of religious radicalisation; it’s an understandable reaction to the increasingly hostile conditions that are forced upon them by Israel. Cause and effect is in full play, and the original cause, of course, is the occupation. Failure to acknowledge this is the fundamental flaw behind the logic of Israel’s counterterrorism policy.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.