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WASHINGTON — A new US State Department report says a myriad of Israeli policies — such as continued settlement building and aggressive military operations in the West Bank — are driving Palestinian terrorism, while the Palestinian Authority is making substantial efforts to halt such violence.
The report, an annual assessment of worldwide terrorism published this month, detailed a number Palestinian attacks against Israelis in 2016, including through rockets launched from Gaza, gunmen opening fire on civilians in Tel Aviv and numerous stabbing attacks.
“Israel again faced terrorist threats from Palestinian terrorists from Gaza and the West Bank,” said the report, titled Country Reports on Terrorism 2016. “Since 2015, a series of lone-offender attacks by Palestinians in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank has increased tensions between Israel and the Palestinians.”
But it also said that Israel was, in part, spurring these attacks through actions that create a “lack of hope” for Palestinians and motivates them to carry out acts of terror.
“Continued drivers of violence included a lack of hope in achieving Palestinian statehood, Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank, settler violence against Palestinians in the West Bank, the perception that the Israeli government was changing the status quo on the Haram Al Sharif/Temple Mount, and IDF tactics that the Palestinians considered overly aggressive,” the report said.
That kind of diagnosis is unusual for US President Donald Trump’s administration, which has been reluctant to criticize Israel, let alone suggest it is partly responsible for Palestinian terror.
Trump has, however, spoken out against settlements as problematic toward reaching an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. He told the Sheldon Adelson-owned Hebrew-language daily Israel Hayom in February that settlements “don’t help the process … every time you take land for settlements, there is less land left.”
And at a joint press conference with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House the next day, he said he wanted Israel to “hold back on settlements for a little bit.”
The State Department’s report also gave PA President Mahmoud Abbas high credit for alleviating tensions in the West Bank, cooperating with Israeli security forces and tamping down on incitement. It did not cast blame on Palestinian leadership for terror attacks.
The PA, it said, “has taken significant steps during President Abbas’ tenure (2005 to date) to ensure that official institutions in the West Bank under its control do not create or disseminate content that incites violence.”
“While some PA leaders have made provocative and inflammatory comments, the PA has made progress in reducing official rhetoric that could be considered incitement to violence,” the report continued. “Explicit calls for violence against Israelis, direct exhortations against Jews, and categorical denials by the PA of the possibility of peace with Israel are rare and the leadership does not generally tolerate it.”
That description flies in the face of Capitol Hill Republicans who have been urging the administration to take a harder stance on Palestinian incitement, particularly its practice of providing social welfare payments to the families of terrorists who kill Israelis.
Working its way through the Senate now is the Taylor Force Act, which would cut US funding to the Palestinians over salaries paid to terrorists and their families. On Wednesday, the White House took its first public position on the bill, saying it supports its objective but stopped short of full-out endorsing it.
“While the administration agrees with the high-level goals of the Taylor Force Act, it is currently in Congress’s hands and we will continue to closely monitor the specifics of the legislation,” a senior administration official told The Times of Israel.
Trump himself confronted the Palestinian leader over this practice during their meetings in Washington and Bethlehem. In the latter meeting, he supposedly yelled at Abbas. “You tricked me in DC! You talked there about your commitment to peace, but the Israelis showed me your involvement in incitement,” he reportedly said.
(Trump was referring to remarks Abbas made standing alongside him in Washington two weeks earlier. “We are raising our youth on a culture of peace,” he said.)
The day before that exchange, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu showed Trump in Jerusalem a video montage of Abbas, in which he made comments that encouraged violence against Israel, according to The Washington Post.
In the State Department report, Abbas was recognized for ensuring West Bank religious leaders do not urge or support terrorism.
“The PA maintains control over the content of Friday sermons delivered in approximately 1,800 West Bank mosques to ensure that they do not endorse incitement to violence,” it said. “Weekly, the PA Minister of Awqaf and Religious Affairs distributes approved themes and prohibits incitement to violence.”
At least one Jewish organization criticized the Department’s assessment of the situation. B’nai Brith International said it was “deeply concerned at the pro-Palestinian bias” it saw reflected in the document.
“Israel is not driving the violence committed by the Palestinians. It’s Palestinian leadership — Fatah and Hamas — that incites violence against Israelis on a daily basis,” it said in a statement Thursday. “The Palestinian leadership even compensates terrorists and their families with cash as a reward for carrying out an attack on Israelis.”
The group urged the State Department to correct what it described as an “imbalanced narrative.”