A wave of violence is spreading across Israel — and a leadership vacuum on both sides is allowing it to spiral out of control.
- By Gregg CarlstromGregg Carlstrom is a journalist based in Cairo.
JERUSALEM — A pair of bodies on the pavement, covered in blood-spattered white sheets. Dozens of police officers sweeping through Jabal al-Mukaber, a rough neighborhood in East Jerusalem, searching cars and clashing with local youth. An emergency cabinet meeting to discuss home demolitions and closing the Palestinian parts of Israel’s “eternally reunited” capital to traffic.
It all feels grimly familiar. Last year, these same measures followed an assault on a Jerusalem synagogue that killed five people, the apex of a month of violence. On Tuesday, two attacks — one Palestinian man attacked pedestrians with an axe after driving his car into a bus stop; two others shot and stabbed passengers aboard a municipal bus — once again sent Israel into a state of panic. Three Israelis were killed, raising the death toll this month to seven, after more than 20 attacks. On Wednesday evening, an elderly woman was injured in a stabbing at Jerusalem’s central bus station, and a separate attack was foiled near the Old City.
Unlike last year, however, the violence has spread far beyond Jerusalem. Israelis have been stabbed on the street in Raanana, Hadera, and Afula — quiet cities, away from Israel’s contested borders, and hardly hotbeds of tension. The West Bank and Gaza have also seen sustained unrest, with 18 Palestinians killed in a week of protests, mostly by live fire from Israeli troops. The number of wounded now tops 1,400 people, according to medics. The entrances to several East Jerusalem neighborhoods have been blocked with checkpoints; hundreds of new security guards are being hired to protect buses in the capital.
Once again, politicians and pundits debate what to call it. On this matter, there is rare agreement between Ismail Haniyeh, the Gaza-based leader of Hamas, and Isaac Herzog, the Israeli opposition leader: Both say that we are witnessing the beginning of the Third Intifada.
Yet it is not like the previous two revolts, led respectively by civil society and militant groups. Palestinians are more geographically and politically divided than ever; there is nobody left to lead an uprising. Young people are driving the new wave of violence, most of them without criminal records or political affiliations. The attacks are random, almost spur of the moment, many inspired by videos of past incidents that are shared widely on social media.
“Whatever we’re calling it, it’s different than what we experienced in the past,” said Michael Herzog, a retired head of the Israeli army’s strategic division. “It’s carried by young people … it’s protracted, it’s not really organized, and it’s difficult to stop.”
Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, lately seems to exist in a parallel universe. He spent a recent afternoon at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new commercial tower. On Monday, he welcomed the Indian president for a state visit, inking an agreement for cultural cooperation and accepting a big donation to something called the Palestinian Institute of Diplomacy.
But a few miles away from Abbas’s presidential palace, his Palestinian Authority risks losing control of the angry young men in the West Bank. Protesters have been fighting almost daily skirmishes with Israeli troops at the “DCO,” a checkpoint reserved for Palestinian officials and foreign dignitaries. It is normally well-protected by the PA’s security forces because it guards the entrance to Beit El, an Israeli settlement that houses the military office in charge of the occupied territories. Last week, however, the security forces vanished, leading to large clashes at which dozens of protesters have been hurt.
One masked teenager marveled that Abbas had stopped protecting his own checkpoint. “Ten years in his chair, and now he can barely control Ramallah,” he observed.
Indeed, while Abbas opposes violence and has turned down the rhetoric on official media, his voice carries little weight.
“The PA is more dysfunctional and unpopular than we’ve seen it in a long time,” Herzog said. “They’re trying to avoid a bigger explosion, but on the ground, there’s not much effect … young people definitely aren’t listening.”
Given the leadership vacuum in Ramallah, the crisis threatens to spin out of control. On Monday, a 13-year-old Palestinian stabbed a 13-year-old Israeli in East Jerusalem. A motorist quickly ran down the attacker. A video from the scene shows his body, sprawled on the bloodstained tracks of the city’s light rail; an angry crowd surrounds him, calling him a “son of a whore” and urging police to finish him off.
The video was widely shared on social media, sometimes with captions that omitted the stabbing and said wrongly that he had been “shot by settlers.” (Ironically, this clip, which did so much to inflame passions, was filmed by an Israeli.) Tuesday’s attacks followed hours later. One of the attackers, Bahaa Allyan, tweeted over the weekend, “Tell the PA, calm is in the hands of the people, and not the hands of any one of their leaders.”
Hamas has tried to ride the wave — but without jeopardizing its own position in Gaza. Hours after Haniyeh announced the start of the intifada on Friday, hundreds of Palestinian protesters converged on the heavily fortified border. Seven of them were shot dead by Israeli troops. Militants fired two rockets at Israel later that evening, and Israel’s retaliatory bombing killed a pregnant woman and her young daughter.
It was the deadliest escalation since the war between Israel and Hamas in the summer of 2014. Sami Abu Zuhri, a spokesman for Hamas, quickly warned Israel against “continuing this foolishness.” Hamas also declared the border a closed military zone to keep protesters away. By urging calm and not vowing retaliation, the group sent a clear message — we support the Third Intifada, just not here in Gaza.
The Israeli government has responded by deploying thousands of additional police and hundreds of soldiers in Jerusalem, installing checkpoints around Palestinian neighborhoods and accelerating the demolition of attackers’ homes. The lack of more sweeping measures, however, has been a major disappointment for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s supporters. He was reelected in March largely on his security credentials: In a dangerous region, he was supposed to be the responsible adult, the shepherd capable of protecting his flock.
Yet there has been no major military offensive in the West Bank, no closure of East Jerusalem, and — perhaps most disappointing to his right-wing supporters — no binge of settlement construction. Rather than expanding Jewish access to the Temple Mount, a center of religious tensions in Jerusalem, he barred lawmakers from visiting.
“After 26 years living in the Muslim Quarter [of Jerusalem’s Old City], I have no doubt that they, the Arabs, interpret Jews not praying at Temple Mount as meaning that we are weak,” said Danny Robbins, 64, sitting at a memorial service for the victims of one attack in Jerusalem’s Old City. “When we stop building new homes in Jerusalem, that also encourages them. That has to change.”
A poll broadcast Saturday on Channel 2 found 73 percent of Jewish Israelis dissatisfied with the prime minister. Asked to name the most capable leader, a plurality, 22 percent, picked Avigdor Lieberman, the hawkish former foreign minister whose election slogan was “death penalty for terrorists.”
Applications for gun permits have surged; the deputy defense minister last week urged citizens to carry their weapons everywhere. Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat was photographed on the street last week brandishing his own. He showed up at the scene of a stabbing on Friday — sans carbine, this time — and made the case for a heavily armed public.
“Unlike in the West, Israel has well-trained citizens,” he said at an impromptu press conference. “They’re very mature.”
A few feet away from where Barkat was speaking, a group of neighborhood youth angrily stopped a beaten silver sedan. They thought the olive-skinned driver looked suspicious: “Arab? Are you an Arab?” Alarmed, he quickly reassured them that he was, in fact, Jewish, and they waved him off with a chorus of “Arabs are sons of whores!”
There have already been reprisal attacks, from angry mobs attacking Palestinian workers in Jerusalem to stones thrown at Red Crescent ambulances in the West Bank. A Jewish man who stabbed four Palestinians in Dimona last week justified himself by saying, “All Arabs are terrorists.” Residents of Afula assaulted Furat Nasser, an Arab correspondent for Israel’s Channel 2, while he was covering a stabbing; one of his crew was taken to the hospital. On Tuesday, a Jew even stabbed another Jew outside of Haifa, mistaking him for an Arab.
As the mood darkens, world leaders are nowhere to be found. Secretary of State John Kerry and Jordan’s King Abdullah helped to lower tensions last winter in personal meetings with Netanyahu and Abbas. This time, the White House has shown little interest in the situation, despite Kerry’s perfunctory phone calls over the weekend and his vague plans for a future visit.
In a sign of just how far this conflict has fallen from the world agenda, President Barack Obama did not mention Israel or Palestine once in his address to the United Nations last month. Admittedly, he spoke before the recent spike in violence, but his omission was widely noticed in both Jerusalem and Ramallah. With major powers fighting a proxy war in neighboring Syria, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict no longer looks so important.
Call it the Third Intifada, a “wave of terror,” or the “Jerusalem Awakening” — perhaps the best way to describe the violence is, simply, “the future.” Netanyahu has ruled the land for six years and seems to have no aspirations beyond indefinitely prolonging the status quo. Abbas is exhausted and isolated, and while he succeeded in raising the Palestinian flag outside the United Nations, that symbolic gesture brings Palestinians no closer to raising it over a capital in East Jerusalem.
The two men can seem like mirror images: unpopular, uninspired leaders who allowed the ailing two-state solution to die a slow death on their watch. A poll conducted last month found that 51 percent of Palestinians no longer believe in it, the highest number ever recorded. It also found, for the first time, that a majority want to dissolve the PA.
“The first intifada gave us the [Palestinian] Authority,” one young man in Jabal al-Mukaber said on Tuesday, dragging on a cigarette and glaring at the hastily erected Israeli checkpoint down the road. “The Third Intifada, maybe we’ll give it back.”
Photo credit: MUSA AL-SHAER/AFP/Getty Images