Jeremy Bowen
BBC News
August 27, 2011 - 12:00am

The extraordinary developments in the Middle East and North Africa this year have not been entirely welcomed by the authorities in Israel, who now have a range of new problems to add to some more familiar ones.

My passports say it all. Like most foreign correspondents in the Middle East I have two - one for Israel, the other for Arab countries.

That's because some Arab states will not let you in if you have an Israeli visa.

My passport with the Israeli stamps shows that for almost six years until last December, I was in Jerusalem about once a month. Then nothing - until a quick visit last week.

This year, the Arab-Israeli conflict has been side-lined.

As for the other passport - since January, when the revolutions began, I have almost filled a new one, jumbo size, with Arab stamps.

The overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi in Libya makes the essential point about this remarkable year even clearer.

The Arab world is in a time of seismic and irreversible change. The 60% or so of Arabs who are under 30 want a different way to live.
We have had an extraordinary nine months - and the drama is not over yet.

So it was strange to be back in Jerusalem, surrounded once again by the hatreds that never seem to change.

Israeli police with clubs and automatic weapons were still on guard at the gates to the walled old city. Plenty of Israelis believe that Palestinians have no interest in peace.

Palestinians feel the same about Israelis and were still simmering with anger and resentment about the expansion of Jewish settlements - and about the way that the Israelis sometimes strip Palestinians born in the city of residence rights if they spend time abroad.

There is nothing new in any of that.

Deadly flare-up

For so many years, the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians has dominated the Middle East.

This year, the two sides have been as immersed as ever in their struggle. But most of the time, the world has not been watching. The main event has been elsewhere.

But that does not mean it is all over.

In fact - and I am shuddering a little as I write these words, as I have written them so often before - the signs are not good.

Unless you follow the Middle East closely, you can be forgiven this week for not paying much attention to the bloodshed in and around Gaza.

Another serious and deadly flare-up is happening between Israel and Hamas, Gaza's radical Palestinian rulers.

What makes this one even more significant than usual is that it is coming during this time of change.

The latest round was ignited by the deaths of eight Israelis, killed by gunmen who crossed the border from Egypt.

Israel's Defence Minister, Ehud Barak, believes that since the revolution, Cairo has been losing control of the Sinai desert, making it an attractive place for jihadists and Palestinian radicals.

Palestinian independence

And there might be political change coming to the conflict too.
Hamas's rivals for Palestinian leadership, the group around President Mahmoud Abbas, are preparing to take their case for independence to the United Nations in New York next month.

Israel is against, and in the Security Council the Americans are expected to use their veto.

But Palestinians want the General Assembly, where there are no vetoes, to recognise not just their independence - that is clearly a symbolic matter at the moment - but also the route of their future borders.

That is not symbolic because the General Assembly is likely to support the Palestinian view of how much land they should get, and not the Israeli one.

The Palestinians, who so far are resisting pressure from the Americans to drop the plan, believe they can change the game by getting the world more directly behind them.

And they think the reaction so far of Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, shows that they have got him worried.

His government is suffering from an overdose of new challenges this year.

Over the summer a new protest movement has sprouted in Israel, demanding a fairer society, disgusted by the power of a handful of billionaire tycoons in a country that used to regard itself as egalitarian.

It has adopted some of the techniques of Arab protesters - setting up tented camps, starting in one of Tel Aviv's richest boulevards.

They have even come up with Hebrew versions of some of the Arabic chants for change that they have been watching on TV.

The old Middle East suited the Israelis. But it is disappearing.

A top Israeli journalist told me a few years ago that every morning the foreign ministry in Jerusalem offered a prayer for the health of President Mubarak.

What he meant was that Israel believed the best way to manage the threats it saw in the old Middle East was to make sure that nothing changed.

But this year, change is everywhere.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017