Israelis rallied in a show of defiance on Thursday following a terror attack by two Palestinian gunmen that led to four deaths in the heart of Tel Aviv. As politicians and locals gathered in mourning at Sarona Market, an upscale hot spot of eateries that was targeted Wednesday night, security forces deployed into the West Bank in a far-reaching crackdown. Tens of thousands of Palestinians have had their travel permits into Israel revoked.
“The IDF has been acting decisively and quickly from the moment it learned of the incident,” said Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, referring to Israel’s military. “We will take all the necessary steps. This is not the time to give statements. We do not intend to accept the situation.”
But critics of the country’s right-wing government, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, directed their ire not just at Islamist militants — authorities suggest Hamas was behind the attacks — but the prevailing political status quo.
Chief among them was Ron Huldai, the mayor of Tel Aviv, who in an interview with Army Radio pointed to what he saw was the underlying spark for terrorist violence: the continued Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories.
“We, as a state, are the only ones in the world with another people living among us under our occupation, denying them any civil rights,” he said. Huldai, 71, discussed the collapse of any meaningful process toward a two-state solution — the desired fix to a half-century of conflict that is still the stated goal of the United States and the bulk of the international community.
“The problem is that when there is no terrorism, no one talks about [the occupation],” Huldai said. “Nobody has the guts to take a step towards trying to make some kind of [final status] arrangement. We are 49 years into an occupation that I was a participant in, and I recognize the reality and know that leaders with courage just say things.”
His comments were echoed by Israeli Arab parliamentarian Ayman Odeh, who condemned the violence, but Odeh claimed the behavior of the current government, which has tremendous support from Israelis living in West Bank settlements, “only leads to a deepening hatred.”
“Remove all Palestinian and Israeli citizens from the cycle of terror and bloodshed,” said Odeh, according to the Jerusalem Post. “We must fight together to bring an end to the occupation, and do the right thing for justice and peace for both peoples.”
As my colleague William Booth reminded us just this week, leading officials in Netanyahu’s government have dismissed the prospect of a Palestinian state. On Wednesday, Israel’s agriculture minister, Uri Ariel, proposed the annexation of more than half of the West Bank’s territory.
Other government officials panned Huldai’s comments. Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben-Dahan said the mayor was “delusional” and ignoring the threat of terrorism.
“I heard the mayor of Tel Aviv saying the ‘occupation’ is to blame, or that it’s because we don’t have a peace treaty with the Palestinians, and that’s why we have terrorism,” Ben-Dahan told an audience at the Institute for National Security Studies. “I want to remind him that there was terrorism here 100 years ago, and in 1929 Jews were murdered [in a massacre in Hebron] and there was no State of Israel. There wasn’t even an ‘occupation.’”
With his remarks, Huldai is possibly pushing the envelope within Israel’s enfeebled opposition. He has been cast as a potential challenger to Isaac Herzog, current leader of the Labor Party, who opponents within the left think has too cravenly sought to toe Netanyahu’s hawkish line on issues of security and reconciliation with the Palestinians.
“Huldai’s comments come at a time when the occupation has all but disappeared from the Israeli public consciousness, and Palestinian violence is seen as senseless and random,” said leftist Israeli news site +972mag. “However, they also harken back to a time when Israeli leaders and public figures were able to speak more frankly about what drives Palestinians to terrorism and armed struggle.”
The mayor of Tel Aviv, a city seen as a liberal bastion within a country that’s otherwise shifted to the right, issued a sober statement Wednesday night in the wake of the terror attack.
“It was a hard night in Tel Aviv. There was another attack in which terrorists, who were apparently sitting at a coffee shop, hid their weapons and then started firing indiscriminately,” he said. “We ask the public to remain calm. We in Tel Aviv are a target of terrorism, and they are trying to disrupt our lives. We will continue to enjoy living in the city, and terrorism will not make us surrender. I ask everyone to return to their daily routine tomorrow.”