GAZA — On a bright, cool morning at the Palestinian Authority checkpoint on the way out of Gaza, a mother sat with her son and discussed the news she saw from Jerusalem earlier in the day.
“For once, it is calmer here in Gaza,” said Miriam Mansour, holding her son, whose heart was in dire need of surgery. She was trying to take him to East Jerusalem to be operated on by Palestinian doctors, but she needed a permit to enter Israel.
A few days earlier, a Salafist group aligned with the so-called Islamic State had launched rockets at Israel, which were quickly intercepted by Iron Dome, Israel’s U.S.-funded missile defense system.
Israel responded by bombing several major Hamas training sites. It was a snapshot of the three major conflicts between Israel and Hamas over the past six years, with 2014’s Operation Protective Edge being by far the most deadly.
“Normal,” Mansour said, making the same point again. For her, and other residents of the besieged Gaza Strip, rockets and retaliations have become a way of life. What’s hard for them to imagine is the news they see coming out of Jerusalem and the West Bank: attacks—largely stabbings—on Jewish Israelis, many of whom are settlers, and deadly response by Israeli security forces. “I’m worried about going to Israel,” she continued, “They are attacking us everywhere.”
The powder keg has detonated. It kicked off on October 1, when two Israeli settlers, a husband and wife, were shot dead in their car. It continued ramping up and on October 9, stabbing attacks and deadly action by Israeli security forces against alleged Palestinian terrorists spiked. Protests erupted across the occupied territories. According to a tweet by Al Jazeera reporter Rania Zabaneh, there were “272 wounded in the West Bank—24 by live fire, another 64 wounded in Gaza— 32 by live fire.”
Some, including the head of the opposition in the Israeli Knesset, Isaac Herzog, are heralding the surge of violence in Jerusalem and the West Bank as the “Third Intifada,” or Palestinian uprising. But we’ve heard this before. Less than a year ago, there were many more knife attacks, tit-for-tat vehicular murders, plots to kill Israeli ministers, a particularly gruesome synagogue attack in November, and impending housing demolitions.
So what makes this year’s round of violence different? Perhaps the relative calm that came before the newest storm.
On the whole, 2014 was a bad year for Palestinians: first came June’s Operation Brother’s Keeper, the sweeping month-long Israeli military maneuver to rescue teenage settlers in the occupied West Bank who were kidnapped and killed; then came the vicious kidnapping and immolation of 16-year-old East Jerusalem resident Mohammed Abu Khdeir, and then the massive onslaught of Operation Protective Edge in Gaza.
This year hasn’t been particularly good, but there hasn’t been anything like that.
Where there are glaring similarities with the countdown to past intifadas, however, is around the al-Aqsa compound and the Dome of the Rock in the heart of old Jerusalem.
Islam’s third holiest site has become a potent symbol of Palestinian identity and potential statehood, regardless of creed. But al-Aqsa also sits on the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism. The winding route to the Western Wall of the ancient Temple, where Jews come to pray, goes through the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem’s labyrinthine Old City.
The same route leads to many Jewish-only settlements that form a barrier between East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
So, when things are tense, there are attacks here. Israel’s authorities took notice of the mounting tensions after two Israelis were killed and two more wounded in a knife attack. In a move that signaled a desire to avoid confrontations similar to last year, but also showed a certain obliviousness about the core tensions, the Israelis, for the first time since taking control of East Jerusalem in 1967, banned Palestinians from entering the Old City for 48 hours.
“The closure is quite serious,” says Rima Awad of the Coalition for Jerusalem, a grassroots collective of Palestinian organizations. “We are worried about what future closures could be imposed on Palestinians in Jerusalem.”
In another evident effort to avert a new intifada, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu banned Jewish Israeli politicians from entering the al-Aqsa compound. Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel, who supports the right of Jews to pray in the al-Aqsa compound, had visited the site in a move that looked like a flashback to the visit there by Ariel Sharon, who visited the site in September 2000 while building his campaign to be prime minister, and in the process which kicked off the Second, a.k.a al-Aqsa Intifada.
While Netanyahu takes such precaution, he’s also fanning the flames with a round of incendiary rhetoric. So far, he’s said that Israel is in a “fight to the death against Palestinian terror” and promised a “harsh offensive” to defeat Palestinian violence.
As the Palestinians see things, these comments show the Israeli government’s deep double standard. They come after a series of settler attacks this past summer, including the firebombing of a Palestinian home in Duma that killed most of the Dawabsheh family, including 18-month-old Ali.
“I don’t think he could change his policy even if wanted to, which he doesn’t,” says Awad. “He was elected on security issues, and the majority of his cabinet is pro-settler.”
Meanwhile Palestinian groups have taken their turn fanning the flames. Hamas released a Hebrew-language music video entitled “Kill the Zionists”, displaying seemingly new footage of several Palestinian armed groups in Gaza showing how reinvigorated they are after a year of rest. Islamic Jihad posted a well-produced video promising suicide bombs if things continue at the current status quo.
But the videos that are doing the most to incite Palestinians are those showing how Israelis have been dealing with Palestinian stone-throwers and suspects.
Fadi Alloun was shot dead after he allegedly tried to stab a 16-year-old Israeli boy near the Old City of Jerusalem. The fatal incident was caught on video, and appears to show the 19-year-old running for his life as a group of Israeli settlers egged on Israeli security forces to fire. After his death, settlers appear to kick his lifeless body.
Then, on October 7, an Agence France-Presse correspondent filmed a protest near Ramallah in which 14 or so Palestinian students were throwing stones at IDF troops. Suddenly, nearly half of the protestors revealed themselves as “mustarabeen”, the Palestinian word for Israelis who disguise themselves as Arabs to infiltrate demonstrations and attack or arrest Palestinians. It’s a common Israeli tactic.
What bothered Palestinians most was the amount of mustarabeen—nearly half of the protestors—and the pistols they were carrying. Moments after revealing themselves, they began shooting live ammunition at point-blank range. A Palestinian was pounced on by the kaffiyeh-clad men, seemingly shot, beaten to unconsciousness, and then carried away.
There is talk of a fatality, but as of this writing, it remains unconfirmed.
On October 9, a Palestinian woman allegedly attempted to stab an Israeli security guard, and was fatally shot. A video of the incident is is making the rounds on Facebook and Twitter, and Palestinians do not believe that the attack was justified.
When Netanyahu told UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon that he was maintaining the “status quo” on the Temple Mount, he revealed how little he’s willing to change the status quo across the region. PA President Mahmoud Abbas, back from his fizzle of a speech at the UN, expressed the same sentiment: he told liberal Zionist Israeli daily Haaretz that he wants to “restore calm”.
The fact that so few Palestinians can travel to the Dome of the Rock, or the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, or to hospitals and universities in East Jerusalem, along with many other aspects of the 48-year Israeli occupation of Palestine, will continue to cause clashes and death—maybe a Third, and Fourth, and Fifth Intifada. “It’s normal,” as Miriam Mansour would say.
Back at the Palestinian Authority checkpoint, Mansour was told by officials that her permit hadn’t been arranged and her son wouldn’t be receiving his needed surgery. Crushed, but not surprised, she made her way back into Gaza.