Mohamad Torokman / Reuters

As Jerusalem tensions mount, diplomacy’s absence is felt

Analysis: Voices on both sides advocate hard-line responses after violence rises over Al-Aqsa restrictions

The escalating violence in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank — described by one expert as a pressure cooker on the boil — comes amid signs that both Israelis and Palestinians have abandoned hope that diplomatic negotiations will end the occupation and its attendant conflicts. And the absence of a peace process whose failure was finally acknowledged last week by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has weakened a long-standing mechanism for managing tensions on the ground.

In the past week, Israeli forces shot and killed two Palestinian teenagers and wounded more than 200 others during clashes and other operations across the West Bank. Attacks by individual Palestinians killed two Israelis in East Jerusalem and two Israeli settlers in the West Bank.

Israeli settlers rioted across the West Bank after those killings, clashing with Palestinian Red Crescent medics and Palestinian protesters near Ramallah and other cities. About 500,000 Israelis live in the occupied Palestinian territories in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, in settlements deemed illegal under international law and condemned by the United States. Once the hope was that negotiating a two-state solution to the conflict would resolve the question of the occupation and the settlements, but the collapse of any pretense of a continuing peace process has left both sides to formulate their strategies on the basis of a long-term occupation. 

The recent violence came after Israel restricted entry for many Palestinians to East Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque during Jewish holy days last month, anticipating clashes over hard-line nationalist Israeli groups’ plans visit to the site, considered holy by Muslims and Jews. The last major Palestinian uprising, which began in 2000, was sparked by a right-wing Israeli politician, then–Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, visiting the site.

Each side blames the other for the violence, which some experts saw in the context of Israel’s efforts to deepen and expand its grip on Palestinian territories. 

Zeina Azzam, the executive director of the Jerusalem Fund, a think tank in Washington, D.C., said it was important to remember that Israel’s occupation was at the root of current tensions. She said the onus was on Israel to change its policies before negotiations to end the occupation — which broke down in spring 2014 over Israel’s refusal to stop settlement construction — could restart. 

“The onus is always put on the Palestinians in terms of regulating the peace, regulating how things are going in the West Bank, but people often forget it’s Israel who is the military occupying force and is putting so much pressure on the population,” she told Al Jazeera, likening the situation in the occupied territories to a “pressure cooker.”

In Israel, the latest attacks have drawn calls for a military crackdown on Palestinians.

Israeli politicians accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of not using enough force to quell the violence. He was “tying the soldiers’ hands” Education Minister Naftali Bennet and Justice Ayelet Shaked said, according to left-of-center Israeli newspaper Haaretz. Transport Minister Yisrael Katz called for a full military offensive in the West Bank, akin to Israel’s 2002 Operation Defensive Shield — which left about 500 Palestinians and 30 Israeli soldiers dead.

Just as some Israeli politicians saw escalating force as the answer to rising tensions, many Palestinians also said they increasingly saw armed struggle — rather than negotiations — as the best way to end the occupation, according to the results of a recent survey by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Research, a Ramallah-based nonpartisan think tank.

Some 42 percent of respondents advocated for armed struggle, up from 36 percent in a survey three months earlier. The center added that there was a rise in pessimism about a diplomatic solution for ending the Israeli occupation — and its director, Khalil Shikaki, said the recent turmoil reminded him of the days leading up to the second intifada.

“At the beginning of 2000, polls showed there was not much support for violence [among Palestinians]. There was support by June 2000. Now we see again a rise in support of violence. It is clear we are on the edge of a new development,” he told Haaretz last month. “The support reflects a clear situation of frustration and a very pessimistic outlook. It only needs a spark, for the situation is fertile for a major explosion.” 

A recent survey by Panels Politics for the Knesset Channel found that 71 percent of Israelis were dissatisfied with Netanyahu’s handling of recent attacks and would prefer to have hard-liner Avigdor Liberman in charge, The Jerusalem Post reported.

Liberman, a former foreign minister and the current leader of right-wing Yisrael Beytenu party, has advocated for beheading Palestinian residents of Israel who show disloyalty. His peace plan would involve paying Israeli Arabs to move into areas planned to be included in a future Palestinian state in order to maintain Israel’s Jewish character.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee — a pro-Israel lobbying group in the U.S. — did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication.

Speaking at the United Nations General Assembly in New York last week, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said the Palestinian Authority was no longer bound by the Oslo Accord peace process under which it was established, arguing that Israel has failed to hold up its end of the obligations. But thus far there has been no change in the Palestinian Authority’s extensive security cooperation with Israel. 

Azzam said that after more than two decades of the failed peace process — in which, she argued, Palestinians largely kept their commitments, while Israel failed on its security and economic obligations and increased settlement construction in the occupied territories — getting Palestinians back to the negotiating table would require Israel to change its policies.

“It’s hard to see where the peace process is going to go, unless Israel starts to rethink its policies on the military occupation, settlements, land confiscation, imprisonment of Palestinians, especially young people under 18, building the wall. They need to work on changing these policies before anything can happen,” she said.

And absent a shared political horizon between the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships, it’s not clear how the rising tensions on the ground will be mediated. 

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