With Israel vowing to use “a heavy hand” in response to Tuesday’s attack on a synagogue by two Palestinians that left four Israelis dead and six wounded, the violence has taken on renewed and dangerous dimensions, analysts say.
For weeks now, simmering tensions between Israelis and Palestinians have boiled over into a rash of attacks against Israelis, clashes between Palestinians and police, and attacks at mosques and synagogues.
Israeli and Palestinian leaders have reacted strongly to the violence, in which more than one dozen Israelis and Palestinians have been killed and dozens more have been injured.
Among the incidents were clashes between Palestinians and Israeli police sparked by visits by right-wing Israeli politicians and their supporters to the al-Aqsa Mosque compound, or Temple Mount, a site revered by both religions.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused the head of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, of inciting the violence. “Instead of calming tempers he [Abbas] is inflaming them. Instead of telling the truth he is disseminating lies,” he said.
Abbas said rather it was Netanyahu who was inciting violence by allowing the visits to the disputed site. “What they are doing now, they are leading the region and the world to a religious war, a devastating one,” said Abbas.
Holy site tension
The most recent violence has embroiled holy sites for both Israelis and Palestinians. Tuesday’s attack was called by Israeli media as “the first in recent memory at a local synagogue.”
The Temple Mount continues to be a flashpoint, though last Friday’s prayers at the site were calm for the first time in weeks. Police lifted restrictions on Muslims praying there and the visits by right-wing Israelis were curtailed.
Following the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Israel kept an existing arrangement that allowed non-Muslims to visit the site but not to pray there.
Jewish activists want to end this restriction saying all religions should be allowed to pray there. Many Muslims believe this is an effort to establish Jewish sovereignty over the holy site.
One of the Israeli activists was severely wounded on October 29 in an assassination attempt. His attacker, a Palestinian from East Jerusalem, was later killed in a shootout with police.
A political columnist for several Israeli publications and self-proclaimed nationalist, Amiel Ungar, said for a century this issue has been used by Palestinians to, in his words, internationalize the holy site.
“Nobody is threatening the Temple Mount but this has always been a useful thing,” he said. “And I must say from the Jewish side the effort to increase the Jewish presence is a Jewish reaction to Arab encroachment on the site and it’s also a reaction to the lax attitude taken by Israeli governments.”
He accuses the Jordanian Waqf, or Religious Affairs ministry, of unilaterally excavating on the historical grounds in order to build in 1999.
But Israeli society is deeply divided on such issues. Many Israelis criticize the right-wing activists for fomenting unrest.
Retired Hebrew University Professor Matti Steinberg said they are taking advantage of their influence within the Netanyahu government. “We have to refer to the effort of the rightists to seize the moment, or the fact that they are ‘on the horse’ in Israel (politics),” he said. “And to implement fait-accompli’s in Jerusalem and the West Bank.”
Many experts say the violence is also due to rising tensions over social issues.
Rioting broke out in East Jerusalem and the West Bank after Israeli police shot to death a Palestinian youth who appeared to threaten one of their vehicles. Police said a warning shot was fired first. But amateur video showed that the youth was shot after he turned away from police.
Police also killed the drivers of vehicles who on two occasions ran over pedestrians at public transportation stops. Two Israelis have also been killed and half-a-dozen wounded in various knife attacks by Palestinians.
The head of East Jerusalem's International Peace and Cooperation Institute, Rami Nasrallah, said there is a growing frustration among Palestinians, especially the young. "It has all to do with the failure of the Israeli system to provide proper services and housing solutions and education,” he said. “So it is mainly an urban conflict. And the issue of al-Aqsa mosque turned it into a religious conflict rather than an ethno-national one.”
He said police have arrested more than 2,000 Arab youths in the past six months, some arbitrarily, because of almost daily demonstrations in which several Palestinians have been killed and many police officers wounded.
The Palestinian Authority’s Minister for Jerusalem, Adnan al-Husseini said the situation is very dangerous. “All this talk about calm is nonsense,” he said. “The Palestinian street in Jerusalem is boiling over. The youth are very angry and this anger is a sign of danger. So, we are heading for a very difficult time.”
The violence has fomented what appear to be revenge attacks on mosques and synagogues, including the attack Tuesday.
On Sunday, a Palestinian bus driver was found hanged in his bus. Israeli authorities said it was a suicide, but Palestinians believe he was attacked.
Analysts say tensions already were heightened after of the 50-day conflict in July and August over Gaza in which 2,200 Palestinians and 72 Israelis died.
The conflict followed the collapse of a nine-month U.S.-led effort to revive the stalled Middle East peace talks. These foundered after each side posed conditions that the other found unacceptable.
Analyst Ungar believes the Israeli government should put more pressure on the Palestinians. “The solution will be -- but I’m not optimistic -- that people will finally see that the only way to end the conflict is to convince the other side that it has something tangible to lose,” he said.
Other Israelis disagree. They say the only way out is to revive the peace negotiations and efforts to reach a two-state solution that calls for an Israeli and a Palestinian state existing side by side.
Analysts weigh in
Analyst Steinberg said the only alternative is a single state controlled by Israelis, but with a Palestinian majority population. "It will be one space, one state, which for me will be the end of Zionism because Zionism is based on the Jewish majority and on democracy,” he said.
But he acknowledged this would require tough compromises that are becoming ever-harder to reach. “Every option entails a heavy price but we have to decide which is the higher price,” Steinberg said. “I think that the end of democracy, democratic spirit, democratic procedures, and the end of the Jewish character of the state of Israel is the heaviest price,” he says.
Ungar agreed that continuing violence is bad but is preferable to what he sees as the alternative. “On the other hand this has been our fate through history since the Zionist enterprise,” he said. “And if we have to sustain this violence as opposed to committing suicide in a, quote, peace arrangement, then we’ll have to sustain this violence.”
Prospects for a peaceful resolution do not appear good in the near-future.
Analysts say Netanyahu is under pressure to adopt a hard line against the Palestinians by right-wing members of his governing coalition and his own Likud party. Some predict this could lead to the collapse of the coalition and new elections in the coming year.
Abbas also is under pressure from Palestinians who have despaired of seeing a peace accord and so have thrown their support behind civil disobedience, a Hamas-led resistance or the diplomatic efforts for international recognition of a Palestinian state.