What is causing the deadly flare-up between Israelis and Palestinians?
A rash of near-daily stabbings and other attacks has been sowing panic in Israel and raising fear of another deadly Palestinian uprising.
In a sign of how fraught the atmosphere has become, a Jewish man was shot dead in Jerusalem late Wednesday in a scuffle with Israeli soldiers who suspected that he was a Palestinian assailant. An Eritrean asylum-seeker died in similar circumstances Sunday.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Germany on Thursday in a bid to help quell the violence that has claimed the lives of at least nine other Israelis and nearly 50 Palestinians in recent weeks. They include more than 20 people who Israeli authorities say were carrying out attacks or were about to do so.
The bloodshed started to escalate after Israeli police clashed with Palestinian youth at Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa mosque compound Sept. 13. Authorities said they raided the site to head off attempts by Palestinians to disrupt visits by Jewish residents and foreign tourists before the start of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashana.
Such clashes are an all-too-familiar occurrence on the eve of Jewish holidays. But this time, the violence quickly spread to Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and elsewhere.
There is a growing suspicion among Palestinians that Israel intends to interfere with the privileges accorded to Muslims at the holy site in Jerusalem’s Old City, which also is revered by Jews.
Analysts also point to the despair among Palestinians about the fruitless peace talks with Israel, which broke down over a year ago; frustration with their own leaders; and the galvanizing effect of social media.
Tension over the holy site
The site known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary is among the holiest of both faiths. It is located in territory that Israel seized from Jordan during the 1967 Middle East War but continues to be administered by an Islamic trust, under the kingdom’s custodianship.
Jews have access to the hilltop plaza that houses Al Aqsa mosque and another Muslim landmark, the Dome of the Rock. But they are not allowed to pray there. Instead, they gather at the nearby Western Wall, the last standing remnant of a temple that was the center of Jewish life for centuries before it was destroyed by the Romans in 70.
Netanyahu has said repeatedly that there will be no change to the status quo. He has accused Palestinian leaders, including Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, of inciting the violence by making unfounded accusations against Israel.
But an increase in the number of visits by Jews, including groups agitating for greater access and prayer rights, has fanned rumors that Israel is secretly seeking to alter the arrangements.
“Israel is touching a very critical point, and that is Al Aqsa mosque,” said Nashat Aqtash, a communications professor at Birzeit University in the West Bank. “It has a plan to control part or all of Al Aqsa. That’s why Palestinians are reacting this way.”
The violence is happening against a backdrop of widespread disillusionment among Palestinians with Abbas, whose strategy of cooperating with Israel has not delivered an end to Israeli military occupation and settlement building in territory claimed for an independent Palestinian state. Some two-thirds of Palestinian respondents wanted Abbas to resign in a poll conducted last month by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
“This is as much a protest against the Palestinian Authority and Abu Mazen as it is against the Israeli occupation,” said Elie Podeh, a professor of Middle East studies at Hebrew University, using a popular nickname for Abbas.
Is this the start of a third intifada?
Many experts have resisted affixing the label of “intifada” to the current wave of violence and protests, which have not yet reached the level of intensity or organization of previous Palestinian uprisings.
The intifadas that began in 1987 and 2000, although very different in character, were both driven by Palestinian factions with battlefield weapons and suicide bombers at their command. And both were confronted with the full might of the Israeli military.
The latest attacks have been primarily of the “lone wolf” variety, using everyday objects such as knives and cars driven into crowds. Some observers note, however, that there were ebbs and flows to the previous uprisings.
Leaders of the militant group Hamas and other prominent Palestinians already are calling this the Jerusalem intifada.
In Aqtash’s opinion, it began more than a year ago, after the torture and killing of a Palestinian teenager from East Jerusalem by Jewish extremists in reprisal for the abduction and fatal shootings of three Israeli yeshiva students in the West Bank.
“What makes this intifada different from previous ones is that it has no leaders, no funding, and it is [driven] by personal decisions,” Aqtash said. “That makes it tough for Israel to deal with ... because there is no leader they can pin the blame on or talk to.”
What has been the response from Israel’s government?
Netanyahu’s government has sought to snuff out the violence by deploying police and soldiers across Jerusalem, closing off some Palestinian areas and restricting access to Al Aqsa mosque during periods of heightened tension.
Israel’s security cabinet also has approved measures instituting stiffer penalties for stone-throwing, blamed in several fatal car crashes, and has given police greater latitude to fire live ammunition when they believe lives are in danger.
Israeli civilians who are licensed to carry weapons have been encouraged to do so.
How are Palestinian leaders responding?
Despite some heated rhetoric, Abbas has not stopped security cooperation with Israel and has repeatedly called for calm, warning against an intifada “which we don’t want.”
Such appeals may resonate in the West Bank. But that does not appear to be the case with many young Palestinians in Jerusalem, where the Palestinian Authority has no control. Most of those taking part in attacks and protests there are too young to remember the death and destruction of the last intifada.
Other Palestinian leaders, including from Hamas, have been encouraging Palestinians to resist Israel.
How is this likely to play out?
Few are willing to hazard a guess at how long the flare-up might last.
Diplomatic efforts to end to the violence began this week with a visit to the region by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Kerry plans to meet with Abbas and Jordan’s King Abdullah II over the weekend.
But even if calm is restored, experts warn it is only a matter of time before another wave of unrest.
“We haven’t even begun solving the real problems,” Podeh said. “So long as these remain ... these waves will keep coming.”
Times staff writer Zavis reported from Los Angeles and special correspondent Sobelman from Jerusalem. Special correspondent Maher Abukhater in Ramallah, West Bank contributed to this report.
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