Ammar Awad / Reuters

Jerusalem attacks likely do not portend a third Palestinian intifada

Analysis: Violence is increasing but is not being directed as part of a strategy by Palestinian organizations

RAMALLAH, West Bank—A deadly attack by two Palestinian men armed with axes and guns on a Jerusalem synagogue on Tuesday has quashed Israeli and Palestinian political leaders’ hopes for a restoration of calm in the city. Tamping down confrontation was the goal of the emergency summit in Jordan late last week, which produced a restrained Israeli approach to policing Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque compound and a lull in weeks of clashes there between Israeli forces and Palestinian protesters.

But unrest continued elsewhere in the West Bank through the weekend. At the Hizma checkpoint — mainly used by Israeli settlers entering Jerusalem from the northern West Bank — a few dozen Palestinian protesters were met on Friday with a significant police and army presence. Forces lobbed stun grenades at the Palestinians, who gathered to demand what they called their “right to get to Jerusalem” and attempted to stop settlers from entering the city’s occupied east.

Earlier, the same group used makeshift ladders and ramps to scale a section of Israel’s separation wall made of large concrete slabs, close to the Qalandiya airport, which has not been used for more than a decade. Once across, they managed to cut the razor wire around the deserted tarmac. A few hours later, a second group of Palestinians was confronted with tear gas at the Qalandiya checkpoint as a demonstration erupted following prayers.

Two days later, Jerusalem ignited again over the suspected lynching of a Palestinian bus driver.

For months, scenes like these have unfolded across the West Bank. Since July at least 17 Palestinians have been killed — several of them young unarmed teens shot in clashes with Israeli forces. In Jerusalem a series of deadly knife attacks and hit-and-run car attacks have killed at least 11 Israelis, including a baby, a border policeman and a soldier.

The car attacks and stabbings occurred at an alarmingly high frequency, prompting media speculation about a new intifada, or uprising against Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip and West Bank, including East Jerusalem. Some have already labeled it the third intifada. Others have called the latest wave of attacks a car intifada, with viral memes — portraying a steering wheel as a rifle and a gas pedal as a magazine — spreading on social media.

The attacks were also the subject of a song, “Run Over the Settler,” written and performed by two local Palestinian musicians and posted on YouTube. The song, set to Arabic pop music, starts off with a reference to a 5-year-old Palestinian girl, Inas Shawkat, who was killed in a hit-and-run incident by an Israeli settler in the West Bank on Oct. 19.

“We took revenge for her death, and for your sake, Aqsa, we will run over settlers,” goes the song by Anas Jaradat and Mohammad Abu al-Kayed. “People don’t need weapons anymore. They are fighting with their cars.”

Most of the men carrying out the car and knife attacks were said to be politically affiliated, and various Palestinian armed groups have praised their actions, but none have explicitly claimed responsibility for what have been widely termed lone-wolf acts, which are difficult for Israeli authorities to control or curb.

These sporadic actions are measures taken by people who have nothing left to lose, said Jibril al-Rajoub, a former security chief in the West Bank and now head of the Palestinian National Soccer Federation. “Frustration, disappointment, losing hope in the future is a syndrome of what’s [happening] on the ground,” he said. “Wherever you move, you face settlements, checkpoints, humiliation, and living conditions in East Jerusalem are different from the western part.”

Unlike the second intifada from 2000 to 2005, these attacks do not seem to be led by anyone or orchestrated by any group, said Hanan Ashrawi, a PLO member. “Acts taking place in response [to the Israeli occupation] are individual actions. There is no policy. There is no body coming out and saying, ‘Let’s react.’ Israel has succeeded in provoking every single Palestinian.”

Talk of another intifada is deeply troubling to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who — since assuming Yasser Arafat’s mantle as leader of the PLO a decade ago — has pursued a strategy of negotiations to end Israel’s military occupation of Palestinian territories. So far he has limited his response to the recent escalation in violence to calls for maintaining the status quo on the Aqsa compound, upon which Israel has placed heavy restrictions. Israel currently bars Jews from worshipping at the mosque compound, which many contend is built on the site of an ancient Jewish temple.

“Israel’s leaders are making a huge mistake if they think they can now establish facts on the ground and divide prayer times at Al-Aqsa mosque as they did at Al-Ibrahimi Mosque [in Hebron],” Abbas told Palestinians gathered at the presidential compound in Ramallah on Nov. 11 for the 10-year commemoration of Arafat’s passing. “By doing these things, they are leading the region and the world into a devastating religious war.”

But Abbas is facing increasing pressure to address the occupation more directly, not only from the disgruntled Palestinian street but also from within his Fatah party. Last week Marwan Barghouti, a senior Fatah leader who has been in an Israeli prison for more than 10 years after being convicted on multiple murder charges arising from his role in the second intifada, released a message calling “resistance” the “shortest path to freedom, ending occupation.” Barghouti suggested the Palestinian Authority (PA) reconsider its role and support activists’ efforts to promote a boycott of Israel — a tactic that, despite gaining widespread international support, the PA has largely ignored.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded to Abbas’ remarks about a “religious war” by accusing him of “incitement.” But Israeli security officials have acknowledged that close coordination with Abbas’ government was key to maintaining stability in the occupied territories. In fact, the principle role of the PA’s security force, formed after the Oslo Accord in 1993, has been to quell anti-occupation protests.

Palestinian forces have frequently quashed protests that erupted for economic reasons or over mounting frustration with the political stalemate and disgruntlement over the security coordination with Israel — which continued unabated even during the height of the Gaza war in July and August .

That coordination continues despite some of the worst unrest in years and no prospect of an end to the occupation for the foreseeable future.

For example, the PA routinely apprehends Palestinian militants in the West Bank at Israel’s request and transfers them to Israel for prosecution. Such practices have led many Palestinians to characterize the PA’s coordination with Israel as collaboration.

But not even the PA’s policing role — whether in the form of physical force or intelligence gathering — has been able to shield Israel from the recent spate of attacks in Jerusalem. Because of their spontaneous nature, acts by Palestinians from the West Bank (the stabbing of an Israeli soldier in Tel Aviv on Nov. 10 was, for example, carried out by a man from Nablus’ Askar refugee camp) have proved difficult to anticipate by Palestinian intelligence officials, who often share information on imminent threats with their Israeli counterparts.

Under mounting pressure from Palestinians, PA officials have threatened on a number of occasions to end security coordination with Israel.

“We need to redefine our bilateral relations with the Israeli occupying power,” Rajoub said. “As long as he continues bullying [us], Netanyahu will not deserve to behave with him as a partner or as a neighbor. Which means that all bilateral relations and channels will be closed in all fields. He [cannot] enjoy both security and settlements at the same time.”

Fear of a domestic political backlash has so far restrained the PA from deploying its forces to stop youngsters from hurling stones and fireworks at Israeli soldiers. Instead, the PA has focused its rhetoric on plans to head to the United Nations Security Council to submit a draft resolution on an end-of-occupation deadline.

If the United States uses its veto in the Security Council or if the council’s nine votes are not secured, Palestinian officials said they would join more international organizations, including the International Criminal Court — which could bring unwelcome scrutiny of Israel.

“[There] are [many] ways of resisting the occupation,” Ashrawi said. “Popular nonviolent resistance or civil disobedience or even going to the U.N. and having recourse to international law. Going to U.N. is not a threat ... This is part of our strategy. It’s not something negative. It’s a way to try and rescue any chance for peace.”

But some argue that Abbas’ security coordination with the Israelis will not disappear, no matter how strained bilateral relations get.

“The security coordination with Israel is sacred, and that’s unacceptable for most Palestinians,” said Mazin Qumsiyeh, a Bethlehem-based activist and university professor. “The PA is trying to squeeze through a tough time back to where it started — back to the path of Oslo, which most people realize is a dead end.”

He said a “crystal ball” would be needed to know whether tensions will eventually give way to a full-fledged intifada, but he acknowledged that it may prove difficult for one to arise because of the intra-Palestinian political divide and a lack of a supportive political leadership.

“The pressure is building as a pressure cooker builds steam,” Qumsiyeh said. “Acts of individual violence that we see are merely a symptom of this unsustainable system.”

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