The Latest Conflagration in the Middle East

24.11.2014

The sudden appearance on the Arab political stage of a sinister new figure, the Islamic State (ISIS) and its self-proclaimed Caliphate – which is not as a myth or a shadow of the past, but a real and frightening force that’s ruling the regions of Iraq and Syria it has captured – keeps regional governments in a state of torpor.

Like a bad omen, when tensions or internecine strife escalate anywhere in the Middle East, its nerve center – the Palestinian-Israeli conflict – gets inflamed as well. The sudden appearance on the Arab political stage of a sinister new figure, the Islamic State (ISIS) and its self-proclaimed Caliphate – which is not as a myth or a shadow of the past, but a real and frightening force that’s ruling the regions of Iraq and Syria it has captured – keeps regional governments in a state of torpor. The actions by ISIS, or Daesh as it’s called in Arabic, and the lack of effective ways to combat it have wreaked havoc in a region that has already been buffeted by tragic events, such as the ongoing, bloody war in Syria, the chaotic disintegration of Libya and a string of clashes in Yemen. 

High tensions have fanned the flames of the smoldering Palestinian conflict, in particular, its most flammable spot, Jerusalem. The root cause is the support and encouragement the Israeli authorities give to Jewish extremist groups. The decision to open contested holy sites in Jerusalem for Orthodox Jews to visit (without the right to pray there) was an outright provocation. The sharp increase in the numbers of Orthodox Jews on the Temple Mount outraged Palestinians and caused fears of a plot to capture holy places. 

The result has been violent clashes between Palestinians and Israeli security forces in Jerusalem and a number of towns and settlements in the West Bank and Arab villages in Israel in recent days. There have been casualties on both sides. 

Israelis are perfectly aware of the pain that any careless remark about Al-Aqsa can cause to the entire Islamic world, and the fact of any change in the status quo for the holy places of Jerusalem may lead to serious clashes between Muslims and Jews not only in Jerusalem but elsewhere in the world. 

The Al-Aqsa Mosque is the third holiest place in Islam. The Charter of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation has a provision stating that its headquarters must be located in Jerusalem. 

Head of the Palestinian National Authority Mahmoud Abbas vowed that all Palestinians, regardless of religion, will defend the Al-Aqsa Mosque and other shrines against extremists. He confirmed that he intends to submit to the UN Security Council a draft resolution calling for an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories by November 2016. If the resolution is blocked by the United States, the Palestinians will ask for a full UN membership (the PNA has an observer status). 

The current situation is also dangerous because it provides an opening to Islamic radicals.

Notably, on November 13, leader of the Islamic State Abubakr al-Baghdadi called for "jihad volcanoes erupting around the world." He refers to his Islamist opponents as "Jews, crusaders, renegades and devils."

Now, more than ever, the international community must unite. Above all, the five great powers that sit on the UN Security Council must come together to prevent the situation from passing a dangerous point.

Following a meeting in Amman on November 13 with King Abdullah of Jordan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as a conversation with Mahmoud Abbas, US State Secretary John Kerry claimed that he had secured a commitment from Israel to maintaining the status quo and that all the stakeholders agreed to make efforts to de-escalate tensions. Nevertheless, Palestinians continue to clash with Israeli security forces. On November 17, the Beirut newspaper Daily Star said Kerry’s initiative "failed miserably." On November 18, all the media were talking about a new incident in which two Palestinians shot and killed five Jews and wounded four in a synagogue. People in Israel and Arab countries immediately started asking if a third Palestinian intifada was beginning.

This episode clearly shows that the United States is not able to single-handedly deal with emerging crises, and that collective efforts are required.

Today, more and more international observers are calling for joint action by the United States, Russia, China and other leading states to prevent a major international conflict. They remind us that the cooperation of Moscow and Washington to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons spared the region from a bloody, large-scale war. This is an example to follow.

Veniamin Popov, Director of the Center for Partnership of Civilizations, Institute for International Studies at MGIMO University.

This article was originally published in Russian on www.ng.ru

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