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Terror Wave subsides amid worrying signs in Palestinian society/ Discrediting ISIS

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Update from AIJAC

June 24, 2016
Update 06/16 #04


This Update features some pieces on some worrying developments in Palestinian society - even as the current wave of knife violence seems to be subsiding overall (notwithstanding the Tel Aviv Sarona market attack earlier this month). Plus, following up on the last Update on the aftermath of Orlando, it also includes an important piece on his to discredit ISIS from veteran American Middle East mediator Amb. Dennis Ross.

We lead with a look at the decline in terror attacks - and social background to them - from top Israeli Palestinian Affairs reporter Avi Issacharoff. Issacharoff notes that the decline is due to a realisation that stabbings and car attacks accomplish little - but this does not mean the situation is any less explosive. Palestinian commentators he speaks to say anger is directed today as much at the Palestinian Authority (PA) as at Israel, and social media continues to be an ongoing source of incitement to violence. For this important article in full,
CLICK HERE

Next up is another top Palestinian Affairs reporter, Khaled Abu Toameh. He documents the increasingly authoritarian approach PA President Abbas is taking to any dissent against his rule - using as an example the over-the-top recent reaction to an article by Jihad al-Khazen  which reported on a lack of confidence in the Palestinian leadership by Gulf Sheikhs. Abu Toameh also reports how even former close collaborators of Abbas are now finding themselves in legal trouble for dissenting, while ordinary Palestinians can be vulnerable to legal vindictiveness over tiny acts of dissent. For this troubling and knowledgeable report, CLICK HERE. Abu Toameh also had another important recent piece on a renewed religiously-tinged  Palestinian campaign to threaten with death anyone who sells land to Jews.

Finally, as noted above,  Dennis Ross offers some sage advice on overcoming the ISIS challenge. He says one key to blunting the group's appeal is undoing its symbolic achievements, such as control of Mosul, and showcasing defections and surrenders by its fighters. But he says another key is demonstrating to Sunnis that the US takes the threat of Iran and its allies seriously and can protect them from it. For important insights from a very experienced and knowledgeable source, CLICK HERE. Ross's Washington Institute for Near East policy colleague Jacob Olidort also offered some sound and thoughtful advice on fighting radicalisation after the fall of ISIS.

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Article 1

As Palestinian violence recedes, some question if lull can hold


A social media echo chamber creates a sense of an intifada run wild, but it’s not clear that those cheering terror attacks are also willing to carry them out

 

By Avi Issacharoff June 19, 2016, 12:48 pm
  Thousands of Muslims pray in front of the Dome of the Rock on the compound known to Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif and to Jews as Temple Mount during the second Friday of the holy month of Ramadan in Jerusalem's Old City, June 17, 2016. (Suliman Khader/Flash90)
Thousands of Muslims pray in front of the Dome of the Rock on the compound known to Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif and to Jews as Temple Mount during the second Friday of the holy month of Ramadan in Jerusalem's Old City, June 17, 2016. (Suliman Khader/Flash90)  

Eight and a half months after the “lone-wolf intifada” — or the Al-Quds Intifada, as Hamas refers to it — began amid scuffles on the Temple Mount and prayers by Knesset members there, the area received a visit that was unexpected given the political circumstances: Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah attended prayers in Al-Aqsa Mosque on Saturday afternoon, accompanied by Palestinian general intelligence chief Majd Faraj and Preventive Security Service head Ziad Hab al-Rieh.

The visit was coordinated with Israel’s security establishment. It went off without a hitch. So did the prayer services of the second Friday of Ramadan 24 hours before, which were attended by 80,000 worshipers. The prayer services of the previous week, the first Friday of Ramadan, also took place quietly, with no unusual incidents.

This may sound surprising considering the terror attack that took place a week and a half ago at the Sarona Market in Tel Aviv in which four people were killed, or considering all the incitement and hate speech filling social media.

But things are relatively quiet throughout the West Bank. While stones and firebombs have been thrown, there are almost no organized demonstrations or riots except for specific memorial days (Nakba Day, Naksa Day and so on). The number of terror attacks continues to decline significantly compared with the terrible final months of 2015.

Israeli security forces at the scene of a deadly shooting attack at the Sarona Market shopping center in Tel Aviv, June 8, 2016. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Thus, for example, according to statistics on the Shin Bet’s website, there were 67 terror attacks and significant terror attacks in May (including firebombs), while there were 483 in October 2015. These numbers are similar to those of particularly quiet months over the past two years, such as March 2015 (61) or July 2015 (66). Something odd is happening on the Palestinian street: on the one hand, public opinion’s hatred of Israel and of the Palestinian Authority as well appears to be greater than ever. But on the other hand, things have calmed down on the ground and the number of terror attacks continues to drop. How can this be explained?

“If you look at Facebook pages of the young people and of the public in general, and also according to public opinion polls, you might easily think that dozens of people were waiting with bomb belts, knives, and rifles, ready to engage in terror attacks,” one Palestinian commentator told The Times of Israel. “But many times, Facebook creates an illusion, and both you and we do not understand that. There is a wide gap between the statements being made on the social networks or in public opinion polls and people’s willingness to act. And since the beginning of this year, at least, around January and February, we can see and fewer and fewer young people are willing to be killed carrying out these terror attacks.

A post on the Fatah Facebook page celebrating a female terrorist. (Screen capture Palestinian Media Watch)
A post on the Fatah Facebook page celebrating a female terrorist. (Screen capture Palestinian Media Watch)

“In the end, we need to understand that there is a difference between praising the Al-Quds Intifada or the attacks in Tel Aviv and the willingness to engage in a terror attack. Most of the public, and even most of the young people, prefer to continue working or studying and not be killed. What for? They also realize that the possibility that a stabbing attack will lead to change is close to zero. Also, today anyone who writes on Facebook or anyplace else that he wants to perpetrate a terror attack is arrested right away.”

His colleague sees things a bit differently.

“Many people are willing to take action today. Even violent action. They are fed up with their personal situation and the national situation; this is particularly true of the young people. So yes, the older generation and the middle generation mainly want quiet. But it’s different for the young people, and it could burst out at any moment.”

Why is that not happening? Why is the situation in the West Bank so calm?

“There are quite a few reasons for that. First, the realization that stabbing or ramming attacks bring no benefit. Nothing. So there’s more support now for shooting attacks and even for suicide attacks. Second, this is the Palestinian Authority. The young people see it as part of the problem, not part of the solution. In other words, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas himself came out against these terror attacks when he said that the security services were holding inspections at schools and confiscating knives. Also [intelligence chief Majid] Faraj made similar statements. So people are thinking twice. What benefit will come from something like this if the Palestinian leadership itself is working against anyone who plans or wants to perpetrate terror attacks?

“Look: in the First Intifada and even in the second, there was at least an attempt in the beginning to guide the public by means of posters or announcements: what would be done on which day. In the latest outbreak, there was nothing. There was no leadership, no guiding voice, no plan. And there are other reasons: this whole incident started around the Al-Aqsa Mosque, with the visit of Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel and the statements that Israel wanted to divide Al-Aqsa. But people saw that this wasn’t really how it was. The visits by the Knesset members stopped, no change was made in the status quo and the restrictions on the worshipers’ ages no longer exist. Israel’s policy has a part in that, too. Take Jerusalem as an example: places from which people set out to commit terror attacks, such as Jabel Mukaber or Issawiya, were put under closure, while other, quieter neighborhoods, continued to enjoy freedom of movement. And this was something that people, even the young people, understood.”

But he sounds far from optimistic. “The situation is still very explosive. The motivation of these young people to fight against Israel and Israelis still exists. But as I see it, the next stage we see will be an outbreak against the Palestinian Authority itself, and against Israel at the same time. The hostility that the young people felt toward the ‘occupation’ is changing its form, and now it is against the PA. They see the PA as a heavy burden that damages the effort toward change and does not benefit it. They follow the incitement on social media, including against Abbas, and it influences them.”

One of the big stars on Palestinian social media is 33-year-old Fadi Elsalameen, who has 530,000 followers. He lives in the United States and was educated abroad; his mother is from Beersheba and his father from Hebron, and he has Israeli residency. From where he lives abroad, he criticizes Abbas and his sons, various high-ranking PA officials and Hamas as well. The only one who has escaped his critical remarks is Mohammed Dahlan, Abbas’s chief rival.

Elsalameen quotes extensively from essays written by Dahlan’s close associates (such as Hassan Asfour). Palestinian security officials say that they have proof of the connection between Elsalameen and Dahlan. And that is only part of the problem that the PA deals with on Facebook or on Twitter: criticism on these social networks is not aimed solely at Israel but also against Hamas, or against Abbas and the PA, as well.

So Fatah and the security services are leading opposing campaigns over social networks, but the battle is doubtless almost a lost cause from the start in light of the terrible frustration and hostility that the young people feel toward Abbas. And that is also part of the problem for whoever seeks to understand the situation in the Palestinian arena (or any other arena) at present. For some time, Facebook and Twitter have not been a true reflection of public opinion in the media. They are often influenced by organized and orchestrated campaigns.

Meanwhile, it is almost business as usual in the West Bank. As we learn from the high-ranking Palestinian officials’ visit to the Temple Mount, security coordination continues, even more strongly. Despite all the statements made by the PLO’s upper echelon, the PA’s security services are keeping close cooperation with Israel on the ground.

The unending discourse around the identity of Abbas’s successor also refuses to subside. Marwan Barghouti has succeeded in marking himself as the leading candidate for the presidential elections, though it is doubtful whether such elections will take place even if Abbas cannot continue functioning or announces his retirement. Barghouti has also succeeded in creating a feeling that he has a specific plan that will bring about change in the status quo, a plan that was published in these pages approximately a month ago. Incitement against Israel continues, as stated, but it is also accompanied by incitement against the PA. Violence is declining, and the toughest and most problematic question of all is whether the terror attack in Tel Aviv might signal a change in direction of the Palestinian attacks: beyond stabbing and ramming, back to shootings and bomb belts.

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Article 2

President Mahmoud Abbas: The Palestinian "Untouchable"

by Khaled Abu Toameh

Gatestone Institute, June 23, 2016 

  • For many years, Palestinians hoped that one day they would enjoy public freedoms under the leadership of the Palestinian Authority (PA), like the freedoms their neighbors in Israel have. But more than two decades after the establishment of the PA, democracy and freedom of speech are still far from being introduced to Palestinian society.

  • A PA court sentenced Anas Saad Awwad to a year in prison for posting on Facebook a photoshopped picture of Abbas wearing a Real Madrid shirt.

  • "Come and invest in the Palestinian areas, but if you don't bribe their corrupt officials, the Palestinian Authority will arrest you. This is a desperate political arrest by an undemocratic Palestinian Authority president who has no credibility amongst his people. " — Khaled al-Sabawi, son of Palestinian-Canadian investor Mohamed al-Sabawi, who was jailed for recommending the removal of Mahmoud Abbas from power.

It is not easy for an Arab journalist to criticize his or her leaders. If there is one thing Arab dictators cannot tolerate, it is criticism, especially when it comes from an Arab journalist, columnist or political opponent.

For many years, Palestinians were hoping that one day they would enjoy freedom of expression under the leadership of the Palestinian Authority (PA). But more than two decades after the establishment of the PA, Palestinians have learned that democracy and freedom of speech are still far from being introduced to their society.

Since then, Palestinians have also learned that their leaders are "untouchable" and above criticism. Both Mahmoud Abbas and his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, have even taught Palestinians that "insulting" their president is a crime and an act of treason.

 

Both Mahmoud Abbas (right) and his predecessor, Yasser Arafat (left) have taught Palestinians that "insulting" their president is a crime and an act of treason. Pictured above: A Fatah propaganda poster featuring Abbas and Arafat. The Arabic text reads "Bearer of the trust" on top.

During the past two decades, several Palestinians who dared to criticize Abbas or Arafat have been punished in different ways.

The latest victim of this campaign against critics is Jihad al-Khazen, a prominent Lebanese journalist and columnist who recently wrote on article about the need for the "failed and corrupt" Palestinian Authority leadership to retire.

Al-Khazen, a veteran journalist with the London-based pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat, is now under attack by the PA. The goal: deterrence of free speech.

In the Looking Glass land of the Palestinian Authority, criticism of Abbas is classed as "insult to the president" and has landed critics behind bars -- or worse.

In 2013, a Palestinian journalist working for the al-Quds TV channel in Bethlehem, Mamdouh Hamamreh, was sentenced to one year in prison for posting a picture on Facebook that was deemed insulting to President Abbas. Abbas was depicted in the image as a fictional character who collaborated with French colonial forces in Syria. Abbas later pardoned the journalist.

That same year, a Palestinian Authority court sentenced Anas Saad Awwad, from the West Bank village of Awarta, to a year in prison for posting on Facebook a photoshopped picture of Abbas wearing a Real Madrid shirt.

Also in 2013, PA security forces detained a Palestinian-Canadian investor, Mohamed al-Sabawi, 68, on charges of insulting Abbas. Al-Sabawi was president of the Board of Directors of Ahlia Insurance Group, which employs hundreds of Palestinians in the West Bank. He was detained for two weeks after he publicly called for the removal of Abbas from power.

The businessman's son, Khaled, who is from Ontario, Canada, said that the detention of his father showed that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's plan to bring $4 billion in private investment to the Palestinian territories was "nonsense." He added:

"Come and invest in the Palestinian areas, but if you don't bribe their corrupt officials, the Palestinian Authority will arrest you. This is a desperate political arrest by an undemocratic Palestinian Authority president who has no credibility amongst his people. I think my father hurt President Abbas's feelings."

In the past few years, Palestinian officials who have also dared to criticize Abbas, or were accused of insulting him, paid a heavy price. The list of officials who were punished for raising their voices against their president includes Mohamed Dahlan, Yasser Abed Rabbo and Salam Fayyad.

Mohamed Dahlan, an elected Fatah member of the Palestinian Legislative Council and a former PA security commander in the Gaza Strip, was expelled from Fatah in 2011 at the request of Abbas. Dahlan was also forced to flee the West Bank after Abbas sent his security forces to raid the Dahlan's Ramallah residence and arrest some of his supporters. Dahlan has since found refuge in the United Arab Emirates.

Until recently, Yasser Abed Rabbo served as Secretary-General of the PLO and was considered one of Abbas's closest aides. Last year, however, Abbas removed him from his job after he reportedly criticized the president in closed meetings.

Salam Fayyad, the former Palestinian Authority prime minister, was also punished for allegedly criticizing Abbas. Last year, the PA froze Fayyad's bank account and accused him of money laundering. The decision came after Fayyad received a large sum from the United Arab Emirates for a non-governmental organization that he, Fayyad, heads. Under pressure from the international community and some Arab countries, Abbas was later forced to rescind the decision.

Now Jihad al-Khazen has joined the list of critics who are being targeted by Abbas and the Palestinian Authority. Al-Khazen's crime is that he wrote an article lambasting Abbas and the veteran leadership of the PA.

The controversial article was published earlier this month in the Al-Hayat daily.

The article quotes an unnamed senior Gulf official saying that the time has come for Abbas and the entire Palestinian Authority leadership to retire. "We don't trust them," the Gulf official is quoted as saying, referring to the PA leadership. Although the Gulf official is not mentioned by name, Abbas and his aides in Ramallah say they believe the man is Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi (the emirate that hosts and funds Abbas's arch-enemy, Mohammed Dahlan).

Commenting on Abbas's decision to freeze the bank account of Fayyad, the senior Gulf official is quoted in the article as having said:

"Do you really believe that the United Arab Emirates would choose to launder money though the Palestinian territories? The Palestinian prosecutor-general later admitted that Abu Mazen [Abbas] had ordered him to fabricate the charge. The United Arab Emirates is now demanding a public apology from Abbas. We have suspended all aid to the Palestinian Authority."

Al-Khazen said that the Gulf official also spoke with him about Abbas and his wife and children. "But I have decided not to publish these things," he added. Al-Khazen said he spent nearly two hours talking to the Gulf official whom he quotes in the article.

The response from the Palestinian Authority was swift. In Ramallah, calling for the retirement of the president and the PA leadership in an influential Arab newspaper is a deadly serious matter. The 77-year-old al-Khazen can consider himself fortunate that he does not live in the fair city of Ramallah with the PA leadership.

The first attack on al-Khazen was framed in the traditional Palestinian theory of a Zionist conspiracy. Published by the official Palestinian Authority news agency Wafa, which is controlled by Abbas loyalists, the article referred to the al-Khazen's charges as "vulgarities," and attempted to establish a link between Israeli "incitement" against the PA and the article in Al-Hayat.

Next we read of the beleaguered defensive posture. Abbas's agency notes that the article aired at a time when the Palestinian Authority is "facing the Zionist project on all fronts." Finally, we get to the heart of the matter: dictatorial censorship. As in, where is it?

"Does a respected and responsible newspaper have the right to allow such filthy words to appear on its pages?" the Wafa agency asks. "And does Jihad al-Khazen or anyone else have the right to say whatever they want without any control? And do they have the right to insult people or Arab leaders without being held accountable?"

Abbas's ruling Fatah faction has also been recruited to defend its leader's reputation. Again, the faction resorted to the famous tactic of linking any legitimate criticism of Abbas to Israel. In a statement, Fatah accused the columnist of "serving the state of occupation [Israel] and those who are working towards undermining President Abbas, Fatah, the Palestinian leadership and the Palestinian people." The statement added: "This is a service for the [Israeli] government of Binyamin Netanyahu, which is interested in stepping up its organized campaign against President Abbas."

In the eyes -- and words -- of Abbas and his cronies, anyone who opens his mouth in criticism of the Palestinian president -- from a Gulf leader to a respected Arab columnist -- is a mouthpiece for the Zionist project.

Deterrence is the name of this game. And prison is probably the best place some would-be whistleblowers can hope for. This is not what Palestinians were hoping for when the Oslo Accords were signed with Israel, paving the way for the creation of the Palestinian Authority. Many Palestinians were hoping back then that, under the PA, they would enjoy public freedoms like the ones their neighbors in Israel have. Sadly, most Palestinians are no longer living under the illusion that their current leaders would ever bring them democracy and freedom of speech.

The case of al-Khazen, who is facing a campaign of intimidation and insults, serves as a reminder to Palestinians that their leaders are infallible and untouchable, and that the liberty they had hoped for is still far, far away.

Khaled Abu Toameh, an award-winning journalist, is based in Jerusalem.


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Article 3

 

PROVE ISLAMIC STATE A FALSE PROPHET

By Dennis Ross

 

USA Today, June 21, 2016

Washington needs to destroy the group's image and achievements, and give Sunnis reason to help in that effort.

Fifteen years after 9/11, it might seem strange that terror and securing the American homeland are central to the presidential campaign. After all, combating terror was a priority of the Bush and Obama administrations. Both presidents invested a great deal in preventing external terrorist groups from being able to carry out terror attacks here and were successful in doing so.

Yet the San Bernardino and Orlando attacks, demonstrating the threat of homegrown terrorists and their shockingly easy access to automatic weapons, make the choices even starker, the stakes even higher. Slogans won't prevent such attacks but intelligence (particularly on email and social media posts), early detection of possible radicalization, and active cooperation with Muslim communities will all be part of the answer. Obviously, alienating Muslim communities is not a smart way to make them active partners in the effort. Nor is it effective in countering the Islamic State terrorist group, which portrays a world against Muslims as a recruiting tool.

Defeating and discrediting ISIL is essential for any strategic plan to deal with terror. Though there are other terrorist groups, ISIL represents a unique threat for at least three reasons. First, its use of social media is slick, professional and designed to appeal to those young people who are alienated and outcast socially. Second, it is a source of inspiration for lone-wolf attacks -- especially with its calls to "kill non-believers" and its claims of heroic martyrdom for those who do so. Third, it defines as its mission the need to produce a cataclysmic confrontation with the non-believers to yield Islam's final victory. And that means even if we do not attack ISIL, it will attack us.

What must be done to defeat ISIL? To begin with, we must blunt its appeal. ISIL claims to have a divine mandate. Suffering military defeats can demonstrate the hollowness of this claim. Presently, we are rolling it back in both Iraq and Syria. Unfortunately, until we undo the group's greatest symbolic victories -- its seizure of Mosul in Iraq and the establishment of a capital in Raqqa, Syria -- its image of success will remain. Losing the symbols of these achievements is thus essential and would be impossible to hide.

There are other means for exposing the fraudulent nature of the group's claims, and here social media can play a role. Take the claim that ISIL fighters are divine messengers. With their resources and territory being squeezed, increasing numbers of fighters are surrendering and defecting. Why not showcase those surrendering on social media? What kind of divine messengers surrender? Similarly, put defectors on social media platforms and let them tell the story of the brutality, injustice, exploitation of women, and corrupt and arbitrary nature of rule in ISIL-controlled territory.

Ultimately, ISIL must be discredited. While we can debunk its claims by inflicting military defeats and exposing the group's actual behaviors, the United States and its non-Muslim partners in the coalition cannot discredit ISIL. Only Sunni Muslims can do that. ISIL claims it is the protector of Sunni Muslims against the non-believers and "the rejectors" -- the Shiite Muslims. If nothing else, this tells us that Iran cannot be a partner in discrediting ISIL. On the contrary, its role in the mass killing of Sunnis in Syria has contributed to the rise of ISIL.

We need the Sunnis -- clerics, tribes and governments -- to discredit and replace ISIL on the ground. Indeed, even if we succeed in militarily rooting ISIL out of Mosul and Raqqa and removing the remnants of ISIL control over territory, Sunni governance must take the place of ISIL. If it does not, if there are revenge killings by Shiite militias in the aftermath of liberation, if Sunnis are politically and economically excluded and repressed (as was the case when al-Qaeda in Iraq was defeated in 2008), it will be only a matter of time before we see the next incarnation of ISIL.

Our problem in getting Sunnis to take on this role is that our priority in Syria and Iraq is ISIL -- while Iran, the Shiite militias and Syrian President Bashar Assad are the Sunni preoccupations. They see a predatory Iran using Shiite militias to dominate the region and fear we are ready to acquiesce in their dominance. Until we can show we take the Iranian threat seriously, and will work with our Sunni partners to raise the cost to Iran of its destabilizing actions, the Sunnis will be unlikely to play the role that only they can against ISIL. The next president must understand this complicated reality and use our readiness to counter Iran in the region to gain leverage and influence to move the Sunnis to make ISIL their priority as well as ours.

Dennis Ross is the counselor and William Davidson Distinguished Fellow at The Washington Institute.


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