Dispatch

The Teenagers’ Revolt

Angry Israeli and Palestinian youths are steering the course of events in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

SHUAFAT, East Jerusalem — The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine dropped hundreds of incendiary leaflets on Shuafat Road on Friday, July 4, calling for renewed conflict with Israel. The hard-line Palestinian organization's fliers were scattered amid the rocks, rubble, and spent tear-gas canisters from the clashes that have occurred daily with Israeli border guards since the gruesome murder of 16-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir on July 2.

The Palestinian teenager was reportedly burned alive, and Israeli police were scrambling to determine the culprits responsible for the crime. Jerusalem municipality officials with close contacts to the police told me on Friday that authorities thought that the killing might have been the result of an internecine feud or other foul play within the Shuafat community. But on Sunday, the news broke that six Jewish extremists had been arrested for the crime.

The accused are, of course, innocent until proven guilty in Israel's judicial system. But the murder appears to be a crime of vengeance in response to the abduction and murder of three Jewish teens in the West Bank in June -- an act Israel says was carried out by the terrorist group Hamas.

The news of the triple murder enraged Israelis of all stripes, but it was the settler community in the West Bank that was particularly infuriated. The killings, in fact, had triggered acts of vandalism (even before Abu Khdeir's murder) from a shadowy network of clandestine cells known as Price Tag, whose actions are guided by the notion that a price must be exacted from the Palestinians for any attack against settlers' interests.

Price Tag is more a network than a group, because its cadres -- religious, teenage Jews living in the settlements and in Israel alike -- operate informally, leave no electronic trail of their activities, and seem to know how to elude detection from authorities. They are so elusive, in fact, that Israel's vaunted internal security services has made only a handful of arrests since the acts of vandalism, usually marked by graffiti bearing the words "price tag" in Hebrew, began in 2008.

Some, including Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, have called Price Tag a terrorist movement. This is debatable, because its activities have been limited to acts of vandalism and destruction of property. But Israeli officials I spoke to this week began to speculate that if the network was responsible for the murder of Abu Khdeir, it would have graduated into the realm of terrorism.

Price Tag, at least so far, has not been linked to the murder. But amid the unrest that is now spreading across East Jerusalem, the Arab areas in Israel's northern "triangle," and parts of the West Bank, it is clear that the network poses dangers to Israeli security. Future acts of vandalism against Palestinians could escalate tensions beyond their current, already dangerous levels. At the very least, they could create additional challenges for Israeli diplomacy and public relations, which is unquestionably at a low point.

In a sense, the security situation may now be in the hands of the youth on both extremes: the No'ar HaGva'ot (Hilltop Youth) of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank, on the one hand, and the shabaab of Arab-Israeli and Palestinian towns now throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails at Israeli soldiers who have been deployed to contain this crisis. The rise of these angry Palestinian youths was almost inevitable. They were young children when the Second Intifada erupted, and now having come of age, they are ready to fulfill what is perceived as their "duty to resist," as one protest onlooker told me in Shuafat.

It also doesn't help that this unrest comes in the wake of another failed, if not misguided, American attempt to broker peace between the Palestinians and Israelis. The failure to achieve a final status agreement in 2000, during another bout of U.S.-brokered negotiations, was one of the contributing factors to the eruption of the Second Intifada. It's quite possible that the recent heightened expectations followed by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's failed attempt at peacemaking have once again opened old wounds.

What's particularly striking about this most recent round of clashes, however, is that the epicenter has been in East Jerusalem. The Israelis have made significant efforts in recent years to ensure further coexistence with this disenfranchised segment of Israeli society. Jerusalem's new light-rail line, for example, serviced Shuafat. Protesters from this neighborhood, however, destroyed the stations during the clashes last week, making the commute to other parts of Jerusalem more difficult for Israeli Arabs. At one of the stations, just outside the mosque where Abu Khdeir's body was prepared for burial, the burned-out station bears graffiti in Hebrew reading, "Death to Israel."

Other Israeli Arab towns across the "triangle" have taken their cue from Shuafat and other Jerusalem neighborhoods that have erupted violently in recent days. So have towns across the West Bank. And, of course, Hamas is once again firing rockets from the Gaza Strip. More than 80 rockets hit southern Israel on Monday, and Israel responded with airstrikes against Hamas positions in Gaza. Senior Israeli officials said Monday that the Gaza-based terrorist group is clearly trying to goad Israel into a full-blown conflict.

Among the figures preventing the region from heading into the abyss may be Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Having recently signed a reconciliation agreement and then presiding over a unity government that included Hamas, it appeared that Abbas was flirting with disaster. But since the kidnapping of the three Israeli teens in June, the aging Palestinian leader has maintained security cooperation with the Israelis, kept largely silent in response to Israeli arrests of Palestinians, and refused to embrace calls for a new uprising. As a result, figures from within his own power structures are challenging him rather openly.

Abbas (through a rather incendiary press release) has, however, placed the blame for Abu Khdeir's murder squarely on the shoulders of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But the Israeli premier should also get credit for so far helping to prevent total crisis: Following the discovery of the bodies of the Israeli teens in the West Bank, the right-wing ministers in his coalition -- Economy Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman -- were calling for a robust reprisal on Hamas in Gaza.

Netanyahu has wisely stopped short of this -- even amid an escalation of Hamas rockets out of Gaza -- conducting what Jordanian officials described as "surgical strikes against Hamas assets." The Israeli military has also arrested a number of Hamas operatives, seized weapons caches, and shut down a handful of Hamas charities.

Hamas, meanwhile, is threatening a third intifada. A multitude of other Palestinian factions are doing the same. Some pundits are openly musing whether a new uprising has already started. It certainly doesn't help that the hashtag in Arabic al-intifada al-thalitha -- "the third intifada" -- is growing on Twitter, thanks to the concerted efforts of Palestinian activists both in the territories and beyond.

Israelis were hoping that the arrests of Abu Khdeir's murderers, as painful as they were to acknowledge, might help restore calm. But, judging from the spreading unrest across this embattled corner of the Middle East, it clearly doesn't matter. The teenager from Shuafat has become a battle cry for the Palestinian cause. It's just too soon to know whether this battle will become a war.

Photo by JAAFAR ASHTIYEH/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

Kenya on the Brink

Somali terrorists, tribal divisions, and political opportunists are conspiring to put the east African nation in a dangerous spot.

NAIROBI, Kenya — On a chilly Saturday 24 years ago, political leaders angered by the dictatorial rule of Kenya's President Daniel arap Moi led 6,000 protestors to a rally at a dusty sports field north of Nairobi's city center. Speaker after speaker demanded political reforms, democracy, and transparent government, driving the crowd into a frenzy. Then security forces moved in and pushed people back with batons and tear gas. Riots followed, first across Nairobi and then nationwide. After a four-day crackdown, 20 people were dead and most of the opposition leaders were under arrest.

That day, July 7, 1990, became known as Saba Saba -- "seven seven" in Kiswahili. In Kenya, it is still synonymous with violent suppression of popular protest against political despotism. This year, Saba Saba and all of its connotations are on Kenyans' lips again. Opposition leaders once more called their supporters to a rally this July 7 in central Nairobi, where grievances ranging from soaring costs of living to rising insecurity were vented under the watchful eye of 15,000 armed police summoned to keep the peace. Fears the rally would turn into a riot were so deep that people fled flashpoint towns, diplomatic staff and private sector workers were encouraged to work from home, and shops stayed shuttered.

In a democracy like Kenya there should be room for protests and dissent. But six years after post-election violence here killed 1,200 Kenyans, the country is once again girding itself for violence as dangerous political divisions in what is supposed to be East Africa's most stable country are widening again. A recent spate of terror attacks is only fueling the political fire. In a country where partisan affiliations are driven by tribe, political conflict pushed by self-serving politicians could result in deadly ethnic conflict. While the July 7 rally passed peacefully, hostility between supporters of rival leaders remains high. 

Mistrust between two groups stretches back to the birth of independent Kenya in 1963. On the one side are President Uhuru Kenyatta's supporters, drawn from his Kikuyu tribe, the country's largest ethnic group and the most politically and economically powerful. On the other, the Luo, a tribe from the country's west, are massed behind Raila Odinga, one of the original Saba Saba firebrands and now leader of the opposition Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (CORD). The Luo complain that they and other tribes have been marginalized since the Kikuyu took power in the 1960s. Luo leaders have since played second fiddle to presidents from other tribes, never quite reaching the top spot. The ill-feeling between the Kikuyu and the Luo, with allied tribes, erupted into violence following the 2007 elections.

The worry was that Monday's Saba Saba rally could have sparked the fire again, that politically-driven scuffles could swiftly morph into deadly intertribal attacks. Church leaders, business groups, foreign envoys, and newspaper columnists called for calm. Kenya can ill afford to stumble into unrest. If the situation really explodes the biggest beneficiary would be al-Shabab, the Somalia-based al Qaeda affiliate.

Kenyatta's 15-month-old administration faces criticism over its handling of myriad internal and external crises. The most egregious, many Kenyans say, is the inadequate response to a burgeoning threat from terrorism. In September 2013, 71 people died when al-Shabab militants attacked the Westgate mall. But violence has picked up recently. On May 16, 10 people were killed in blasts at a Nairobi market. Seven people died two weeks before that in explosions on buses in Mombasa and Nairobi. Iin June and the first week of July alone, more than 100 people died in five attacks on three towns along Kenya's coast. At least 29 died in two assaults against Hindi and Gamba, two towns on Kenya's northern coastline on July 5. Similar raids killed 69 people over eight days in June in and around Mpeketoni town, in Kenya's coastal northeast close to the Lamu archipelago. In Mpeketoni, Hindi and Gamba, non-Muslims were singled out and executed. Businesses including hotels, banks, and gas stations were torched. Al-Shabab claimed responsibility for all these attacks, and says they will halt their offensives only when Kenyan troops leave the African Union force fighting Islamists in Somalia.

Kenyatta, however, has insisted the gunmen were not Islamist terrorists, but local political networks opposed to his government.

Many analysts -- and average Kenyans -- say that intertribal clashes and political violence would be a deadly distraction for a government that should be focused on stopping al Qaeda's east African proxy. But the political elite in Nairobi may not have their priorities in line with what is best for the country.

"First; that there is simply no genuine political will to respond to the increasing insecurity threats," wrote Peter Aling'o of the Institute for Security Studies in Nairobi, in a recent op-ed. "And secondly; that insecurity has become a tool for political manipulation by the government, state security agencies and opposition groups." 

This politicking was most obviously on display when Kenyatta went on live television on June 17, two days after the Mpeketoni raids -- which al-Shabab had already claimed as their own. The attack, Kenyatta said, was the work of "local political networks," not the Islamists. Regional police made similar pronouncements after the Hindi and Gamba assaults on July 5.

In the president's interpretation, the attack on Mpeketoni, a Kikuyu enclave, was aimed at terrorizing his tribesmen to leave the coastal region where the indigenous tribes, allies of the Luo, claim they were given land illegally. Those coastal groups largely side with Odinga's party. To many Kikuyus, Odinga is hell-bent on igniting an ethnic war so that he can get into power either in some sort of national unity government, or simply through a revolution that overthrows Kenyatta. Mpeketoni was the first salvo of that war, they say. (Odinga has denied this).

The blame game over Mpeketoni brought otherwise latent anger between each side of Kenya's political-ethnic divide into the open. Following Kenyatta's television address, comments on Kenyan media websites erupted into bald stereotyping of tribe and ethnicity. Facebook and Twitter feeds took dark turns. Threat and counter-threat flowed. A leaflet circulated in some areas demanding all Luo leave within seven days.

"The potential for violence is very much present," says Gladwell Otieno, head of the Africa Centre for Open Governance and a former chair of Transparency International Kenya. "The ethnic rivalry and hostility card feeds into Kenyatta's narrative and keeps his base heated up and supporting him. But it's a very dangerous game to play. At what point do things spill into violence that probably cannot then be controlled?" 

There is little evidence that political militias have been readied for mass violence as they were around the 2007 elections. But sporadic violence could persist over months, spreading security forces thinly when they should be focused on tackling al-Shabab. Ethnic divisions would become even more deeply entrenched. Rumbling domestic political violence, with further Islamist terror attacks, could chill the confidence of foreign investors, who have so far largely ignored rising insecurity. Tourism, which drives 10 percent of Kenya's economy, is struggling, with visitor numbers down 12 percent following the Westgate attack and hoteliers reporting mass cancellations as terror strikes increased in 2014. A shaky economy and high unemployment are fertile ground for political agitators and radicalizing imams alike. Al-Shabab could find its ranks swelled, and will certainly celebrate the Kenyan government's insistence that the country's greatest threat is not global terror, but political enemies within.

Whether violent skirmishes break out or not, Kenya is again starkly divided, at a time when it needs unity to cope with the difficulties it faces. Without that solidarity, the only ones who benefit are al-Shabab and, arguably, Kenya's political elite. Strange bedfellows indeed.

Christena Dowsett/Getty Images