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Israel's Shabak pulls the rug from under Netanyahu's feet

While the Israeli premier depicts all Palestinian violence as anti-Semitic, his security apparatus has expressed opposite views

When Israel appointed Yorm Cohen in 2011 as the head of Israel's General Security Service (GSS, better known in its Hebrew name Shabak, also as Shin Bet), his nomination was received with apprehension by some parts of the population. Orthodox Jews widely identified politically with the settler movement support Cohen. Appointing an alleged settlement supporter as the head of Shabak could be considered as letting the cat keep an eye on the milk.

Four years later, it is hard to know whether Cohen has changed his political affiliation while in office. Yet he has definitely became a constant party spoiler for Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, disputing allegations made by Netanyahu against Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his Palestinian Authority.

In November 2014, after two Palestinians killed four civilian Israelis and an Israeli policeman in a synagogue in Jerusalem, Netanyahu rushed to claim that incitement by Abbas was at the core of this attack. Cohen, appearing before the Knesset's foreign and security committee, flatly rejected these claims.

"Abu Mazen [Abbas] is not encouraging terror," he told Israeli parliamentarians, "is not interested in terror and doesn't lead to terror, even under the table."

It was not the first time that Cohen had openly contradicted Netanyahu. It happened during the war on Gaza earlier last year and on other occasions. But now, two months after the beginning of the current round of violence in which at least 102 Palestinians and 23 Israelis have been killed, these disputes are even more felt.

While Netanyahu puts great effort into convincing the Israeli and international public that the roots of Palestinian violence are not to be found in the occupation but in a profound hate for Zionism and Jews, enlisting even the Mufti Haj Amin el-Husseini and his alleged and imagined part in convincing Nazi Germany to exterminate the Jews in order to make a point, Shabak was not impressed.

In an analysis published on its official website last week, Shabak maintained that the young Palestinians active in the current escalation do not have "a clear political framework or an organised leadership" and that their motivation is based on "feelings of national, economic and personal deprivation… They try to run away from a frustrating reality which according to them cannot be changed." That is an almost opposite picture from the one portrayed by Netanyahu.

For many years, Shabak has played an ambiguous role in Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories. On the one hand, it is one of the main tools, if not the main one, of Israeli control over the West Bank and Gaza Strip, infiltrating into every fabric of Palestinian society - extorting people, arresting them and torturing them during investigations and lying to Israeli courts. On the other hand, its heads seemed better equipped to understand the effects of Israeli occupation on the Palestinian population.

This was quite evident in the documentary film The Gatekeepers, containing interviews with six former heads of Shabak. While only some of them doubted the morality of the Shabak activity in the West Bank and Gaza, almost all of them admitted that it was totally ineffective. Shabak, according to them, was no more than the "sewer cleaner" of the occupation.

Not many welcomed the film’s point of view when it came out two years ago. It is even less welcomed now, under Israel's most right-wing government in its history. Netanyahu, with his constant blaming of Abbas, is mild compared with other ministers who suggest arresting or “eliminating” the Palestinian leader.

Israel's official version, accepted by most of its popular media, is that Israelis are attacked only because they are Jews, and that occupation or the poor conditions of the Palestinians are only an excuse for this "anti-Semite" violence. In such an atmosphere, Shabak's rather obvious analysis of the roots of the current uprising is perceived as an open challenge to the hegemonic discourse.

Yet not only Shabak is going against the dominant mood in the Israeli right-wing government. While some politicians, such as Education Minister Naftaly Bennet, head of the Jewish Home party, are calling for tougher measures against the Palestinians, including prohibiting them from travelling on "Israeli only" roads in the West Bank and even reoccupying the Palestinian cities, the Israeli army put a set of recommendations before the government which ran contrary to these gung-ho statements.

Israel, according to these recommendation, should issue more permits for Palestinians wishing to work in Israel, allow more goods from the West Bank to enter Israel, release Palestinian prisoners, and even supply more arms to the PA. Almost following Shabak's analysis, an unnamed senior army official was quoted on 25 November by YNetNews.com as saying that the Palestinians involved in the attacks against Israeli soldiers and civilians "are desperate, frustrated young people".

The army, according to this officer, is trying to minimize Palestinian casualties as it has learnt from previous intifadas, or uprisings, that more deaths create more violence. He even indirectly criticised the cases in which Palestinians alleged attackers were killed after being neutralised, which is considered by many human rights activists as unlawful execution.

"When you have a trembling girl with scissors in her hands, you don't need to riddle her with 10 bullets. You could kick her or shoot her in the leg," he said, referring to the killing of two Palestinian girls from East Jerusalem after they attacked a passer-by last week.

This is not to say that the Israeli army and Shabak have become Palestinian lovers.

The answer is far from that: they continue to lay siege on villages in the West Bank that are considered "hostile" and works to separate Palestinian vehicles from traveling through a major crossroad between Hebron and Bethlehem have begun.

But it does tell about the growing gap between the ever more extreme Israeli government and the military/security apparatus. While some ministers see the Palestinian Authority as the source of all evil and want it to be dismantled, the Israeli army and Shabak still look to the PA as the only organ able to prevent an all-out third intifada.

Despite the fact that the violence has been going on for two months and there is no end in sight, Palestinian commentators and senior Israeli military officials are united in refraining from framing it as a new intifada because this unrest has no clear leadership. Mainstream Palestinian society has not yet joined in, and the Israeli army does not want an escalation.

The military establishment, which enjoys high prestige within the Israeli public, can still fend off pressure from the political class. But if the violence continues, and the army and Shabak will continue to be described by right-wing politicians as "impotent" to stop it, things could change.

Bennet, as well as other politicians, do not hide their wish to annex some of the so-called Area C in the West Bank. Such a move will be the end of the status quo - and the army, even Netanyahu himself, want to keep the status quo.

- Meron Rapoport is an Israeli journalist and writer, winner of the Napoli International Prize for Journalism for a inquiry about the stealing of olive trees from their Palestinian owners. He is ex-head of the News Department in Haaertz, and now an independent journalist.

​The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Israeli soldiers (AFP)