Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories have been convulsed by a wave of escalating violence in recent days. The lethal tensions ratcheted up sharply last Thursday when a married couple, Jewish settlers from Neria in the northern West Bank, were shot and killed in a car in front of their four children near Beit Furik, allegedly by members of a five-man Hamas cell who were subsequently arrested. Two more Israelis were stabbed and killed in Jerusalem’s Old City on Saturday by a Palestinian youth, who was shot dead at the scene. On Sunday, an 18-year-old Palestinian was shot dead by Israeli forces in clashes near the West Bank town of Tulkarem.
On Wednesday a Palestinian woman stabbed an Israeli man who then shot and seriously wounded her in Jerusalem’s Old City, a Palestinian man allegedly stabbed a soldier in central Israel and stole his gun before being shot dead by police, while in the West Bank settlers shot and seriously wounded a Palestinian after a stone-throwing incident.
The mounting friction has seen attacks by settlers on Palestinians, clashes between Palestinians and Israeli security forces and attempted attacks continue. On Wednesday. there were incidents in Jerusalem, where a Palestinian woman stabbed an Israeli man who then shot and seriously wounded her in the Old City, the southern Israeli city of Kiryat Gat, where a Palestinian was killed after reportedly trying to seize a gun from a soldier and stabbing him, and when a female Israeli settler’s car was stoned near Beit Sahour, which adjoins Bethlehem, in an incident in which it appears other settlers fired on Palestinians, seriously injuring a youth.
Lethal incidents in Israel and the West Bank
On the Palestinian side, anger escalated earlier this week after a 13-year-old boy in Bethlehem’s Aida refugee camp was shot and killed by an Israeli sniper in an incident the Israeli military has claimed was “unintentional” as soldiers were aiming at another individual.
Jerusalem has remained tense now for almost a year. Most analysts blame the recent heightened tension on several factors. Key among them has been the issue of the religious site in Jerusalem known to Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif, or the Noble Sanctuary, and Jews as the Temple Mount.
A long-running campaign by some fundamentalist Jews and their supporters for expanding their rights to worship in the Al-Aqsa mosque compound on the Temple Mount, supported by rightwing members of Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s own cabinet, has raised the suspicion – despite repeated Israeli denials – that Israel intends to change the precarious status quo for the site, which has been governed under the auspices of the Jordanian monarchy since 1967.
Jerusalem at boiling point of polarisation and violence – EU report
Recent Israeli police actions at the site scandalised the Muslim world and raised tensions. Israel has also banned two volunteer Islamic watch groups – male and female – accusing them of harassing Jews during the hours they are allowed to visit.
That has combined with the lack of a peace process and growing resentment and frustration in Palestinian society aimed at both Israel and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, and the Palestinian Authority.
Israel has complained in recent weeks of an increase in stone throwing and molotov cocktail attacks on West Bank roads and in areas adjoining mainly Palestinian areas of Jerusalem, where an elderly motorist died after crashing his car during an alleged stoning attack.
In response, Netanyahu and his cabinet have loosened live-fire regulations over the use of .22 calibre bullets on Palestinian demonstrators. Although described by Israel as “less lethal”, it is this type of ammunition that killed 13-year-old Abdul Rahman Shadi on Monday.
What are the leaders doing?
Part of the problem is the leadership on both sides. Netanyahu leads a rightwing/far-right coalition with the smallest of majorities. Several cabinet ministers support the settler movement and have publicly criticised him for not cracking down harder on Palestinian protest. Netanyahu’s weakness is reflected on the Palestinian side, where the ageing Abbas is seen as isolated, frustrated and increasingly out of step with other members of the Palestinian leadership, who would like a tougher line against Israel over continued settlement building and the absence of any peace process.
The Dome of the Rock compound, known to the Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif, or the Noble Sanctuary, and to the Jews as Temple Mount, in Jerusalem’s Old City. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
The Dome of the Rock compound, known to the Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif, or the Noble Sanctuary, and to the Jews as Temple Mount, in Jerusalem’s Old City. Photograph: Oded Balilty/AP
In his recent speech to the UN general assembly, Abbas went further than he had ever done before in threatening to end what he claims is Palestine’s unilateral adherence to the Oslo accords, which he said Israel refuses to honour. “We cannot continue to be bound by these signed agreements with Israel and Israel must assume fully its responsibilities of an occupying power,” he said.
Abbas, however, stopped short of ending security cooperation between Israel and Palestinian security forces – mainly aimed at Hamas on the West Bank – and asked the UN for international protection.
His speech at the United Nations has been seen as a move to placate growing discontents in Palestinian society. Both Abbas and Netanyahu are now both engaged in a delicate balancing act, trying to avoid further escalation that would be detrimental to both while trying not to lose the support of key constituencies. On Abbas’s side, that has meant ordering Palestinian factions and security forces to desist from joining the conflict, while on Netanyahu’s side it has seen numerous warnings of harsh measures – many of which have been repeatedly announced.
Will it escalate further?
Nentanyahu does not want to risk a position where Abbas ends security cooperation and in the local jargon “hands back the keys” – in other words revokes the Oslo accords and insists on Israel once again taking full responsibility for administering the occupied territories.
For his part, Abbas is said to see a limited popular uprising as useful because of the message it delivers to both Israel and the international community of the mounting risks of a moribund peace process and how serious things could become if security cooperation were to end.
Mahmoud Abbas: Palestinians ‘no longer bound’ by Oslo accords with Israel
What about the international community?
At the end of the last round of the peace process last year, US diplomats warned about this potential outcome and Washington has largely withdrawn from a guiding role, exhausted by the lack of progress and frustrated with Netanyahu. Despite the Palestinian desire for a new multilateral international approach, it has failed to materialise as have any US guarantees to Abbas that they intend to advance the peace process.
While Syria, migration and Russia are preoccupying western governments, Israel and Palestine have been largely left to their own devices.
Flare-ups of violence have a habit of coming and going but hopes that this one is coming to an end appear premature for now. However, the likelihood of the current violence fading away still remains the strongest bet. The biggest risk is a miscalculation by either side, which is out of the hands of either leader, that would alter the dynamics.
Individuals on both sides have led some of the worst attacks: Jewish extremists in the summer burning three members of a Palestinian family to death, and “lone wolf attacks” launched by Palestinians angry about al-Aqsa and other issues. With neither side having a clear exit strategy, there is a risk is that Netanyahu and Abbas are being led by events rather than leading.