+61 3 9272 5644

Latest Israel News – 17th July

Terror attack on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, 2 Israeli police killed

Three terrorists opened fire on a group of policemen near Lions’ Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City on Friday morning, killing two Israeli police officers and injuring two more before the attackers were killed by police.

The slain officers are Hail Stawi, 30, from Maghar and Kamil Shanan, 22, from Hurfeish both in northern Israel. Officer Shanan was the son of former Israeli Druse Knesset member Shakib Shanan. He was recruited into the Israel Police’s Temple Mount unit in 2012. Officer Stawi leaves behind a newborn baby.

The attackers were later identified by the Shin Bet as 29-year-old Muhammad Ahmad Mahmoud Jabarin, Muhammad Ahmed Fadel Jabarin 19, and Muhammad Hamed ‘Abd al-Latif Jabarin, 19, from Umm el-Fahm in northern Israel.  The assailants fled to the Temple Mount where they were killed by police officers. Israel Police spokeswoman Luba Samri said guns were found in their possession.

The incident, which took place shorty after 7:00 a.m., is the second attack in Jerusalem’s Old City within the past month and resulted in the closure of the Temple Mount to Muslim worshipers on Friday.

Magen David Adom initially reported that three Israeli males in their 30s were injured, two of whom were in critical condition, and one who was lightly injured and fully conscious. The critically injured were transported to Hadassah University Medical Center, and the lightly wounded was taken to Sha’are Zedek Medical Center.

Police are investigating how the assailants were able to get the weapons, which included a handgun, two Carlo Gustav rifles, and a knife, past strict security.

Jerusalem Chief of Police Yoram Halevi has ordered the Temple mount closed and evacuated, and Friday prayers at the site were cancelled. All gates to the Old City of Jerusalem have been closed.

Palestinian sources told Israeli Reshet Bet that Israeli police allegedly arrested a number of Wakf guards and confiscated their cell phones.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the closure of the Temple Mount for the day for security reasons. The area is being checked to insure there are no more weapons there.

The Prime Minister’s Office stressed that “the status quo will be preserved.”

Netanyahu also received updates from the head of the security agencies including the defense minister and the IDF chief-of-staff.

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan called the attack a “red line” which will “require us to examine the security arrangements on the Temple Mount and around it.”

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman also responded and offered his condolences.

Hamas television station Al Aksa called the attack a ‘heroic act,’ but Hamas has not yet claimed responsibility for it.

Israeli media reports that two of the three terrorists had posted a shared selfie on social media moments before the attack with the caption ‘Tomorrow our smile will be sweeter.’

Thursday’s attack comes nearly a month after border police officer St.-Sgt. Maj. Hadas Malka, 23, was stabbed to death by a Palestinian assailant next to Jerusalem’s Damascus gate.

Terror Attacks  (Jerusalem Post)

Israel mourns police officers killed in Friday’s Temple Mount attack

Israeli police released further details regarding the identities of the officers who were involved in stopping the terror attack on Friday at Temple Mount and confirmed that two had been killed and two wounded.

The slain officers are Hail Stawi, 30, from Maghar and Kamil Shanan, 22, from Hurfeish, both in northern Israel. Officer Shanan leaves behind a three-week old child, and was the son of former Israeli Druse Knesset member Shakib Shanan. He was recruited into the Israel Police’s Temple Mount unit in 2012.

Shanan joined the police as part of his national service and signed on as a career officer seven months ago. Funerals will be held in the officers’ hometowns on Friday.

Slain police officers Kaamil Shanan  and  Hail Stawi

The wounded officers are Nziya Kablan from Beit Jann and Nasser Hiab from Zarzir.

The officers were shot at by terrorists who used Carlo (home-made) rifles. Israeli media reported that one of the terrorists, who was considered to be already neutralized, was able to get to his feet and attempted to assault the officers and was then shot and killed.

The attackers were later identified by the Shin Bet as 29-year-old Muhammad Ahmad Mahmoud Jabarin, Muhammad Ahmed Fadel Jabarin 19, and Muhammad Hamed ‘Abd al-Latif Jabarin, 19, from Umm el-Fahm in northern Israel.

The attack, which took place shorty after 7:00 a.m., is the second attack at Jerusalem’s Old City within the past month and resulted in the closure of the Temple Mount to Muslim worshipers on Friday.

Israeli officials from across the political spectrum came together on social media to mourn the losses of the policemen. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent his condolences to the families in the name of all Israelis on his accounts.

Zionist Union lawmakers pointed out that Shanan was the son of former Labor  MK Shakib Shanan. “One of the policemen that was murdered in the horrible terrorist attack was the son of a friend,” MK Merav Michaeli (Zionist Union) tweeted.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett said: “The Jewish people are connected in a covenant of life with our Druse brothers.” He changed his avatar on twitter to a photo of the Israeli and Druse flags.

The police said in a statement that Friday’s attack was an “exceptional and extreme” incident. “Shooting at the Temple Mount is serious and sensitive event, which is significant on the political and international level and will be dealt with accordingly,” police said.

Police said the Temple Mount will remain closed for an undisclosed amount of time until the conclusion of an investigation into the incident and after searches of the area.  (Jerusalem Post)

Israeli officials question Temple Mount status quo after terror attack

The government will have to reconsider the security situation on the Temple Mount following Friday’s terrorist attack, in which three assailants shot and killed two police officers before being killed by security forces, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said soon after.

“Today’s terrorist attack is a serious and severe event in which red lines were crossed,” Erdan stated. “The terrorist attack is still being investigated and will require us to review all of the security arrangements on the Mount and its surroundings.”

Erdan called on public figures to try to bring calm and keep the peace in Jerusalem.

Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin said “the cynical use of the Temple Mount as a sort of area of immunity for incitement and terrorism must stop.”

“We aren’t happy to have to take action on the Temple Mount, but when we have to, we will. The fact that terrorists are using the Temple Mount starts from incitement. In the past, there were many disruptions of order, which stopped thanks to efforts by security forces and the Public Security Minister,” Elkin added.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said that “whoever turns a holy place into the site of a terrorist attack is committing a detestable act that is meant to light a fire between members of different religions and undermine the stability in the State of Israel and in the whole region.”

“Israel will continue fighting determinedly, forcefully and uncompromisingly against terrorists, those who send them and those who incite them,” he added, expressing support for security forces.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett tweeted that the Cabinet should discuss “returning security to the Temple Mount and a thorough and new consideration of the current Israeli policy on the Mount.”

Culture Minister Miri Regev called for the Temple Mount to be open to all, without time or area limits.

According to Regev, “the Wakf should only manage the mosque and not the entire Mount, which is under Israeli sovereignty and responsibility. That’s the only way quiet and security will be returned to the Mount and the Old City.”

The Wakf, or Jordanian Islamic Trust, manages the Temple Mount, and matters related to the holy site are coordinated via the Prime Minister’s Office.

Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben-Dahan said that there is a direct connection between recent UNESCO decisions leaving out Israeli and Jewish connections to holy sites and the terrorist attack.

“The Cave of the Patriarchs, Temple Mount and Nablus are three places that our Sages said were bought with money in the Land of Israel, and there is no denying their belonging to the Jewish People,” Ben-Dahan, who is a rabbi, said. “We see that in the last week there is a major Palestinian effort to erase the connection of these places to the Jewish People. It started with the UNESCO decision that the Cave of the Patriarchs is a Palestinian heritage site and continues today with the terrorist attack on the Temple Mount.”

In response, Ben-Dahan added, Israel must strengthen its presence and authority in those places and ensure that Jews can safely pray in them at any time.

The Knesset Caucus for the Temple Mount, led by MKs Yehudah Glick (Likud) and Shuli Muallem-Refaeli (Bayit Yehudi) said the terrorist attack was supported by the Palestinian Authority and the Islamic Movement in order to erase Jewish ties to the site.

“We cannot stand by quietly while this happens,” they stated. “Radical Muslims who violate with blood the holiness of the Temple Mount, the holiest place for the Jewish People, have no right to be there.”

The caucus called for security forces to find those who sent the terrorists and respond “with a painful and disproportionate strike.”

Labor leader Avi Gabbay said: “Once again, we witness a despicable terrorist attack by detestable murderers. I trust our security forces to use a heavy hand against those who sent the murderers and those who helped them.”

Opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union) said the terrorist attack is “very painful…in the most sensitive place” and called to respond “calmly and responsibly, without belligerence.” (Jerusalem Post)

Family of fallen soldier held by Hamas: ‘Don’t release bodies of the terrorists’

The family of fallen IDF soldier Hadar Goldin, killed in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge in 2014 and whose body is being held by Hamas, have called on the government to refrain from releasing the bodies of the three terrorists who carried out Friday morning’s terrorist attack in Jerusalem.

Three Arab-Israelis from the northern Israel town of Umm al-Fahm killed two police officers and injured three others in a shooting attack on the Temple Mount.

“The first organization that rushed to boast about the terrorist attack and its severe results was Hamas,” said the Goldin family in a statement.

“Even though the perpetrators are terrorists with Israeli identification cards, cabinet ministers must seriously consider the matter of releasing their bodies, which would be a prize for Hamas.”

“The release of the bodies will be interpreted by Hamas supporters in the West Bank and Gaza as further proof of the lack of clear Israeli policy on releasing the bodies of terrorists,” concluded the statement.

Israeli police remove the body of one of the assailants from the Temple Mount compound, July 14, 2017. (Reuters)Israeli police remove the body of one of the assailants from the Temple Mount compound, July 14, 2017. (Reuters)

The Goldin family also sent their wishes to the families of the two police officers killed on Friday morning.

The slain officers were named by Israel Police as Hail Stawi, 30, from Maghar and Kamil Shanan, 22, from Hurfeish both in northern Israel.

The attackers were later identified by the Shin Bet as 29-year-old Muhammad Ahmad Mahmoud Jabarin, Muhammad Ahmed Fadel Jabarin 19, and Muhammad Hamed ‘Abd al-Latif Jabarin, 19, from Umm el-Fahm in northern Israel.

On Thursday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu confirmed media reports that the Israeli government is currently working to win the release of the bodies of two Israeli soldiers held in Gaza, Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, as well as two Israeli civilians held by Hamas.

“We are not giving up on this mission – including over the last few days – until we successfully carry it out,” said Netanyahu. (Jerusalem Post)

Baby, two adults injured in Jerusalem Molotov cocktail attack

A two-month old baby and two adults were lightly injured on Friday afternoon when a Molotov cocktail was thrown at the vehicle in which they were traveling in the Silwan neighborhood of Jerusalem.

According to a hospital statement, the three were taken to Jerusalem’s Hadassah Ein Kerem hospital where they were treated for injuries resulting from smoke inhalation.

Israeli police and Border Police forces are working to identify and locate the perpetrators of the attack.

The attack comes at a time of greatly increased tension in the Israeli capital following Friday morning’s deadly terrorist attack on the Temple Mount.

Three Arab-Israelis from the northern Israel town of Umm al-Fahm killed two police officers and injured three others in a shooting attack. The perpetrators were shot dead at the scene.

The slain officers were named by Israel Police as Hail Stawi, 30, from Maghar and Kamil Shanan, 22, from Hurfeish both in northern Israel.

The attackers were later identified by the Shin Bet as 29-year-old Muhammad Ahmad Mahmoud Jabarin, Muhammad Ahmed Fadel Jabarin 19, and Muhammad Hamed ‘Abd al-Latif Jabarin, 19, from Umm el-Fahm in northern Israel.  (Jerusalem Post)

Former Palestinian officer opens fire on Israeli troops, is shot dead

A Palestinian gunman who was killed by Israeli security forces overnight raid in the West Bank was a former member of the Palestinian security forces turned arms dealer, the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) said Sunday.

Identified as 34-year-old Ahmad Halil of Nabi Saleh, he was shot by authorities after he attempted to fire at soldiers who came to arrest him during an overnight raid on suspicion that he was responsible for opening fire close to two West Bank communities on Saturday.

Another man who was with Halil at the time of the arrest was detained by security forces in connection to the attacks.

According to the Shin Bet, Halil carried out the two attacks together with his fiancee, Rawan Ambar, because their families did not approve of their engagement. Ambar was detained by Palestinian security forces after surrendering herself to authorities.

A Palestinian man was lightly injured Saturday morning after Halil shot at his vehicle on a West Bank road north of Ramallah. The man, from the village of Beitin, was lightly injured by shrapnel and treated by security forces at the scene. The vehicle also sustained damage.

Also on Saturday, Halil opened fire on an IDF post near Nabi Saleh, causing no injuries but sparking a manhunt.

“The Shin Bet, together with its partners in the Israel Police and the IDF, will continue to act decisively to thwart terrorism wherever it may be and to quickly uncover serious attacks against Israeli civilians and security forces,” the agency said in a statement. (Jerusalem Post)

Israel spends millions to shield south’s schools from rocket fire

The Defense Ministry announced Wednesday it has completed fortifying schools and kindergartens in rocket-weary communities adjacent to the Israel-Gaza Strip border, at a cost of tens of millions of shekels.

The Defense Ministry said that it now plans to invest another 20 million shekels ($5.6 million) into fortifying dozens of classrooms and public institutions in Ashkelon and the communities comprising the Shaar Hanegev Regional Council.

The work will include the reinforcing buildings’ facades, replacing existing windows with safety glass and additional modifications that will make the buildings more suitable for children.

Over the past few months, the Engineering and Construction Division at the Defense Ministry has fortified dozens of buildings in the southern district, including 40 institutional shelters and secure rooms in 14 buildings in Ashkelon and the Sdot Negev, Lachish, Merchavim, Hof Ashkelon and Shaar Hanegev regional councils.

Overall, the work encompassed 3,000 square meters (some 32,300 square feet), the ministry said.  (Israel Hayom)

Terror in the Old City is all too familiar, but Friday’s attack was something else

By Judah Ari Gross      The Times of Israel

http://www.timesofisrael.com/terror-in-the-old-city-is-all-too-familiar-but-fridays-attack-was-something-else/

Nearly every aspect of Friday’s terror attack in Jerusalem, in which two police officers were gunned down, stands out as irregular, even after two years of almost weekly attacks in the Old City.

According to police, shortly after 7:00 a.m., three Arab Israeli men (all named Muhammad Jabarin) walked out of the Temple Mount complex and opened fire at a group of police officers standing guard nearby, at the Lions Gate entrance to the Old City, critically injuring two of them.

The terrorists then fled back into the Temple Mount, with police in pursuit. Two of the gunmen were shot dead, while the third was arrested, forced to the ground and surrounded by officers. He suddenly jumped up, brandishing a knife, and lunged at an officer before he too was shot and killed.

As details came out about the attack, it was immediately clear that this was not a normal shooting. Everything from its location to the identities of those involved and the responses to the attack were sui generis.  (in a class by itself  RW)

The attack occurred just outside the Temple Mount complex, an area that has seen significant unrest but few if any attacks of this sort.

Finally, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas quickly condemned the shooting, while Arab Israeli leaders went completely dark and didn’t issue statements of any kind until almost 10 hours later.

Perhaps the only two aspects of this terror attack that seemed familiar were the weapons used — the ubiquitous Carlo-style submachine gun, a pistol and a knife — and the time at which it happened: Friday morning, shortly after Muslim prayers.

Israel’s reaction to the attack was similarly out of the ordinary.

For the first time in decades, Israel closed the Temple Mount to visitors on a Friday, which is ordinarily one of the most popular times for Muslims to visit the holy site.

In a statement, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said the site would remain closed until at least Sunday, at which point defense officials would assess if and when to reopen the site and to whom.

In response to the decision to close the site, Muslim worshippers gathered outside the Old City and prayed on a nearby street in protest.

After attacks in the Old City in the past, the government has at most restricted entrance to the Temple Mount — typically only allowing in elderly men and women — not shut it down entirely.

It was not entirely clear when was the last time Israel shut down the Temple Mount for Friday prayers. According to the Muslim Waqf, the religious authority on the Temple Mount, this was the first time Israel has taken this measure in the 50 years that it has controlled the holy site. Others, however, said Israel shut down the Temple Mount in August 1969, after an Australian Christian man tried to burn down the Dome of the Rock.

Maj. Gen. (res.) Eitan Dangot, who previously served as Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, warned that the dramatic measure could be exploited by terrorist groups to incite further violence.

“Maybe a few days later, we’ll see a tense [situation], from Hamas for sure and maybe in the West Bank,” he warned, speaking in a briefing to the Israel Project organization.

“They’ll try to use pictures or something to incite and push more and more people to terrorism,” Dangot said. “But we have to bring back security to Jerusalem.”

The killers

According to Barak Ben-Zur, a former colonel in IDF intelligence and officer in the Shin Bet security service, the most significant aspect of Friday’s attack was that the shooters were Arab Israelis.

“These were people who grew up in a city with Israeli police stations, with Israeli schools,” Ben-Zur said.

Arab citizens of Israel have carried out terror attacks before. For instance, during the second intifada, a 2001 suicide bombing in the Nahariya train station in northern Israel was carried out by an Arab Israeli.

More recently, Nashat Milhem, a 29-year-old resident of the Arab town of Arara, opened fire on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv on January 1, 2016, killing two people and wounding seven others, in an attack that he said was inspired by the Islamic State terrorist organization. Milhem later killed an Arab Israeli taxi driver as he made his escape.

However, Ben-Zur noted that the 2016 New Year’s Day shooting was carried out by a lone attacker — someone with a history of mental illness and drug use — whereas Friday’s attack was conducted by a cell of three Israeli citizens who had invested both time and money in preparing for the shooting.

The three terrorists would have had to purchase the two submachine guns and pistol they used in the attack, train with the weapons, and transport them to Jerusalem, noted Ben-Zur, who since getting out of public service has worked as an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.

The three attackers — Muhammad Ahmed Muhammad Jabarin, 29, Muhammad Hamad Abdel Latif Jabarin, 19, and Muhammad Ahmed Mafdal Jabarin, 19 — were all reportedly members of the now-illegal Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement, which is led by the firebrand Arab Israeli figure Raed Salah, who has served as mayor of Umm al-Fahm.

The Islamic Movement’s Northern Branch was deemed illegal by Israel in November 2015. The group has been tied to Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Following the attack, President Reuven Rivlin along with a number of Israeli politicians called for Arab Israeli Knesset members to condemn the attack. However, as of Friday afternoon, only one member of the Arab Joint List, its chairman Ayman Odeh, made a statement criticizing the attack to reporters or on social media.

Speaking in Arabic to an Arab Israeli radio station nearly 10 hours after the attack, Odeh said that he and the other Arab MKs “are against the use of weapons” but also accused Netanyahu of trying to make the conflict a religious one.

Ben-Zur said he believed the reason for the minimal response by Arab Israeli politicians was that they simply did not know what to say.

“I think they’re in shock,” he said.

Abbas, however, did issue a condemnation during a conversation with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Abbas also called for Israel to reopen the Temple Mount for prayers, a request the Israeli premier denied.

None of the Muhammad Jabarins had a history of terrorist activity, according to the Shin Bet.

In addition to addressing the critical question of how and why three Israeli citizens decided to commit a terror attack, security forces on Friday were also working to figure out some of the more practical aspects of the shooting, including how the men managed to sneak two submachine guns and a pistol into the Old City.

A police spokesperson said the attackers came from the Temple Mount to the Lions Gate with the weapons, leading police to believe they either brought them in on Friday or picked up guns that had previously been stashed at the holy site.

“These are all things that we are currently investigating,” spokesperson Micky Rosenfeld said.

While the Waqf is largely responsible for the management of the Temple Mount, Israel provides security for the holy site.

In recent years, there have been multiple cases of weapons being smuggled into the compound, everything from metal rods to Molotov cocktails and pipe bombs.

According to Ben-Zur, while there is not necessarily an easy way to sneak a gun into the Temple Mount, it is possible if the person is “determined.”

In addition to smuggling in a weapon past the security check at the entrance, there are also more imaginative ways to bring in the guns, he indicated. “You can lower a rope down the wall and then lift them up. There are a lot of ways to smuggle a gun,” Ben-Zur said. “The [Temple Mount] isn’t guarded from 360 degrees.”

While Friday’s shooting was an outlier for many reasons, it was also representative of a trend, not only in Israel but around the world, of individuals carrying out terrorist attacks without specific direction from established groups.

“This is a terrorism that is organized locally, by individuals or relatives,” Dangot said.

Fighting this type of terror has proven to be exceedingly difficult, as the independent nature of the assailants makes tracking and catching them before an attack a significant challenge for law enforcement.

Moreover, the crackdowns that are required in the aftermath have also been found to have the effect of inspiring more people to commit attacks. One of the characteristics of the ongoing terror wave has been that the assailants were sometimes related or connected to one another.

“We have to continue, on the one hand, to bring strong security and a strong way of fighting against this kind of terrorism, while on the other hand we have to continue the daily life of the majority,” Dangot said.

Temple Mount killers aimed to set the Middle East ablaze

By Avi Issacharoff               The Times of Israel

http://www.timesofisrael.com/temple-mount-killers-aimed-to-set-the-middle-east-ablaze/

Shafia Jabarin, uncle of Muhammad Hamad Abdel Latif Jabarin, one of Friday’s Temple Mount terrorists, said later Friday that nobody in the family knew anything about the planned attack. “It was a complete surprise.”

The problem is that the Israeli security establishment — the Shin Bet, the police — also knew nothing ahead of time about the murderous plans of the three Arabs Israelis from Umm al-Fahm who killed two Druze policeman at the Mount. The trio, aged 19, 20 and 30, managed to stay under the radar of Israeli intelligence. They were able to strike without warning, and once again to fatally jar the exposed nerves of Israelis as regards the country’s Arab citizens.

The attackers capitalized on their great advantage: As Israelis, they carried blue identity cards, and were able to gain free access to the Temple Mount, undisturbed by roadblocks and checkpoints.

Getting guns was no problem, either. In the Arab sector, emphatically including their local Wadi Ara region, weapons are readily available — either stolen from the IDF, or home produced.

They selected the most resonant site, on the most resonant day of the week: The Temple Mount complex, on the day of Friday prayers.

The trio were inside the complex — as their relatives later confirmed, and as their own selfies attested — before they ventured out to open fire, fatally, on a group of police officers.

They knew that a shooting attack at the most incendiary spot in the Middle East would be likely to prompt a major escalation.

They anticipated that a shooting spree at the Temple Mount compound, which would end with their deaths too, would gain massive media coverage — and knew that previous such incidents had set in motion a still more bloody chain of events.

And indeed, very soon after their attack, social media was flowing with footage from the scene, including of Israeli Border Police shooting one of the attackers, apparently injured, as he sprung up and lunged at cops with a knife.

It’s hard to establish at this stage whether the attack was organized by a specific terrorist group. All options are open — including an Islamic State-inspired attack, a locally organized strike, or a Hamas attack with or without the involvement of the Northern Branch of Israel’s Islamic Movement. Umm al-Fahm is a familiar stronghold of Raed Salah’s Northern Branch.

This group is now banned, and that has complicated its activities, but its activists have now gone underground, which makes it harder for Israeli intelligence to keep track of them.

The possibility of the involvement of an overseas entity such as Hezbollah — in orchestrating or encouraging the attack — also cannot be excluded. Hezbollah has utilized Arab Israelis in the past (including Qais Obeid). And its efforts to recruit among Israeli Arabs are relentless.

This plainly was not, however, an attack in the style of Nashat Milhem, who opened fire on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv on January 1, 2016. Milhem sought to survive that attack, and managed to flee before he was eventually tracked down.

Friday’s trio came to the Temple Mount ready to die. They were also apparently more religious than Milhem. And their intentions were wider: Not a self-contained shooting spree like Milhem’s, but an attack, at the incendiary Temple Mount, intended to set the Middle East ablaze.

Long road to Israeli-Palestinian peace littered with broken deals

by Brad Norington                   The Australian

http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/inquirer/road-to-israelipalestinian-peace-littered-with-broken-deals/news-story/bbd13db7d828668d2eab00442f5126b9

As a former top US diplomat who through the years has been accused of being too close to the Jewish cause in peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, Dennis Ross

does not seem one-sided. He readily accepts Israel has an “achilles heel”.

“I do agree with that,” Ross says, referring to Israel’s expansion of settlements into areas of the occupied West Bank not contemplated previously.

It disturbs this former Middle East co-ordinator for Bill Clinton and special adviser to Barack Obama that the Israeli government has pushed housing developments well beyond the main settlement blocs on land occupied since the 1967 Six-Day War.

According to Ross, the main settlement blocs that take up about 4 per cent of occupied West Bank territory could conceivably stay in Israeli hands as part of any future peace deal.

But the reach of newer settlements has fuelled angry claims among Palestinians and their supporters that Israel’s incumbent government is not interested in land handovers or swaps, and not serious about the proposed creation of a neighbouring Palestinian state with defined borders.

During the past fortnight Ross has visited Australia as a guest of two local Jewish community groups, the Melbourne-based Anti-Defamation Commission and Gandel Philanthropy, when debate over the Middle East conflict is fiercer than it has been for years.

Ill feeling about outlying Jewish settlements, poor living conditions for Palestinians and outright rejection of a two-state solution by some members of Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet have combined to fuel justifications within Australia and abroad for the immediate recognition of a state of Palestine.

On this last point, Ross dis­agrees; he says recognition now would be a mistake. Yes, Ross says, he knows about the trauma of forced evictions for 8500 Jewish settlers when Israel handed control of Gaza to the Palestinians in 2005. Israel’s Gaza disengagement is a lesson, he says, for just how difficult it would be to evict 100,000 Jewish settlers from the West Bank, many of them resisting all the way. And so a powerful reason, too, for not adding to the conundrum by sending more Jews beyond the main settlement blocs.

Ross believes maybe a quarter of West Bank settlers would agree to leave voluntarily in any eventual land swap deal. Perhaps another quarter would go with incentives. Moving the rest — many of them Russian Jews and other immigrants who believe Tel Aviv has settled them with guarantees of certainty about their future — could be impossible. Still, Ross says the intense focus on settlements ignores how the push for a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has sunk to its lowest ebb for other reasons.

“It diverts attention away from what I think are fundamental realities,” Ross tells Inquirer. When Donald Trump recently tweeted that a lot of interesting things were happening, Ross says the US President was “seeing some things that I don’t see”. Ross sees a possible path for a two-state solution but does not see it happening anytime soon. He asks how it is reasonable to expect peace when Hamas, regarded as a terrorist organisation, has controlled Gaza since 2007 yet will not recognise Israel’s right to exist and remains committed to its destruction.

Mahmoud Abbas’s seemingly more moderate Fatah party runs the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and is deeply split with Hamas in Gaza. Yet, asks the seasoned diplomat, how genuine is Abbas and his party about a resolution when they will not acknow­ledge any maps of what a Palestinian state may look like?

Even more telling, how is it that the West Bank leadership still funds the Martyrs Foundation? As Ross reminds, this organisation pays money to the families of terrorists who kill Israelis. Such rewards look like tacit approval — hardly the recipe for mutual acceptance.

Hamas is the biggest impediment. “You can’t wish away Hamas,” Ross says. “Israel is not going to go into Gaza and remove Hamas … Egypt is not going to get rid of Hamas. The Palestinian Authority is incapable of getting rid of Hamas. So the idea of a two-state outcome right now? Nobody can produce that.”

Neither does Ross see it feasible that a Palestinian state could be a two-step process, starting with the West Bank and Gaza joining later. The idea was put to me in the past fortnight by former Gillard foreign minister and ex-NSW Labor premier Bob Carr, once a champion of Israel but now leading the campaign inside his party for immediate recognition of Israel.

“I think it is a big mistake to try to produce it without Gaza,” Ross explains. “First, the Palestinians won’t go along because then they’re dividing themselves. They already see themselves as the weakest party. Even if you could, theoretically, you create an enormous incentive in Gaza to disrupt any deal.”

Yasser Arafat welcomes Dennis Ross to his office in Gaza City on December 30, 1996. Picture: AP

Rising support for Hamas in the West Bank could be lethal for Abbas’s Fatah party. When Hamas took control of Gaza, Abbas loyalists were thrown off high-rise buildings.

Ross suggests thinking about the creation of a Palestinian state from the Israeli public’s perspective. In 2000, Israel’s government was prepared to go further than ever in efforts to secure a peace deal.

“The Palestinian response was not only rejection but violence,” says Ross. “They (Israel) withdrew from Lebanon in May 2000. And what they got for it was a lot of Hezbollah rockets. They withdrew from Gaza in 2005, and what they got for it was three conflicts with thousands of rockets.

“They look at Syria and they see a humanitarian catastrophe. They see what’s gone on in Iraq. They see conflicts that look unlimited. They see if you’re weak you’re basically dead.”

Meanwhile, Iran is proposing a factory to make missiles in next-door Lebanon, where Hezbollah already has up to 150,000 rockets. “So that’s a pretty daunting landscape,” Ross says. “And then they say, ‘You want to add an uncertain state next to us? What if it becomes a failed state? What if it becomes a base for Hamas and ISIS (Islamic State)?’ I mean, looking at it from an Israeli standpoint … the idea that you would be surrendering security responsibility would seem irresponsible.”

The only countervailing point, as Ross sees it, is that if nothing changes then Israel is likely to become a binational Jewish and Arab state. Israelis do not want this outcome either. If Israel is the state of the Jewish people now, not counting Gaza, then Ross says the split is a Jewish majority of 61-39 per cent. But based on population growth trends, it will be 54-46 per cent in a decade.

Ross says: “It then looks less a state of the Jewish people and more like a binational state. The next generation of Palestinians are saying, ‘Let’s just leave Israel where it is. Let’s just have one person, one vote.’ That is also a threat to Israel. And so the debate in Israel is between those who say ‘We have to survive, and that means we stay where we are’ versus those who say ‘Yes, we have to survive, but it means we can’t lose our character in the process.’

Israel’s future, says Ross, is about balancing its fundamental need for security, which no credible leader can ignore. During his Australian visit, Ross has seen up close a campaign within the ALP to pass a resolution later this month at its NSW conference urging the next federal Labor government to recognise Palestine — without qualifications or conditions. If passed as expected with support from the ALP left and a majority of the NSW right, the vote would break with 40 years of full-throated support of Israel. It would build momentum for change at a national level next year. Bob Hawke, Kevin Rudd and Gareth Evans have spoken out in favour. But Ross argues recognition now is deeply flawed.

“The Palestinian national movement has always been a movement focused on symbols far more than substance,” he says. “They haven’t built institutions of statehood. You don’t see a rule of law. Getting a flag at the UN is more important than building an infrastructure of a state.

“One of the basic problems is if you mislead the Palestinians into thinking ‘The international community will solve the problem for us’, then ‘we don’t have to do a thing — we don’t have to deal with Israel, we don’t have to negotiate. If we just wait long enough the international community will come and resolve this.’ ” Ross commends former Palestinian Authority prime minister Salam Fayyad for his idea of taking responsibility and “building a state from the ground up so no one could deny it”. Fayyad was forced out in 2013.

Ross grew up in a non-religious Californian household, the son of a Catholic father and Jewish mother. At 19, inspired by the Six-Day War, he became religiously Jewish. After the September 2001 terrorist attacks on the US, Ross co-founded a synagogue at Rockville, Maryland, called Kol Shalom — “voice of peace”.

During an impressive career, Ross has worked for three Democrat and two Republican presidents. He has been instrumental in diplomatic breakthroughs from Syria’s Golan Heights withdrawal to Camp David accords. He helped facilitate the historic White House handshake between Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israel’s Yitzak Rabin.

Seven years later, in 2000, Ross saw the second intifada that left 4000 Palestinians and 1100 Israelis dead. A lasting peace cannot happen if it creates a platform for attacks on Israel, he says. Despite the present low point, he believes a two-state solution is possible but depends on the will of both the Israeli and Palestinian populations, which is sadly lacking.

Ross says the US can be an effective broker because of its unique relationship with Israel — but with the Palestinians as well. He explains: “Ultimately it is the ability to influence Israel that is going to move things — but at the same time being able to influence the Palestinians, because they need a relationship with the United States.”