INTERNATIONAL efforts are under way to try to stop the escalating violence between Israelis and Palestinians in Jerusalem and the West Bank. Up to ten Israelis and close to 40 Palestinians have died — mostly from isolated stabbings, shootings, and revenge killings, several of them involving Jewish settlers. In a separate incident, Palestinians set fire to part of an ancient Jewish shrine in the West Bank town of Nablus.
Palestinian anger was aroused in September by rumours that Israel planned to ease restrictions on its citizens visiting the al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem (Islam’s third holiest site), which is also the site of the Jewish Temple Mount. The Israeli authorities deny that any such plan is being considered, and accuse the Palestinian leadership of inciting the violence.
The UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, arrived in Israel on Tuesday for talks with government leaders there, and Palestinian officials in the West Bank, and the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, met the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, later in the week.
Earlier, in a video statement to the two communities, Mr Ban said that violence would “only undermine the legitimate Palestinian aspirations for statehood and the longing of Israelis for security”. He said that he understood the frustration felt by young Palestinians, but said that they should turn it into a “strong, but peaceful, voice for change”.
Speaking of Israelis’ concern about peace and security, Mr Ban said that “walls, checkpoints, harsh responses by the security forces, and house demolitions cannot sustain the peace and safety that you need and must have.”
Hundreds of extra Israeli police and security forces have been deployed in Jerusalem and areas of the West Bank. They have erected barricades in streets in and around Jerusalem to separate Arab and Jewish neighbourhoods, and Palestinians from outside the city are being prevented from reaching the al-Aqsa mosque. The homes of Palestinians accused of committing acts of terrorism are being demolished.
In Nablus, in the West Bank north of Jerusalem, a group of Palestinians set fire to part of Joseph’s Tomb, a sacred site for Jews. The act of desecration was widely condemned by people of different faiths. The tomb is supposed to be protected by Palestinian police; and the President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, announced an investigation into what he called “a deplorable act”.
An Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman condemned “in no uncertain terms the harm to Joseph’s Tomb committed for the sole reason that it is a place where Jews pray. The torching of Joseph’s Tomb clearly demonstrates what would happen to the holy places in Jerusalem if they were placed in the hands of the Palestinian leadership.”
The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem described the desecration of the shrine as “an intolerable offence. The sanctity of all holy places, be it Christian, Muslim, or Jewish, must be respected unconditionally. This vicious cycle of violence and revenge, which seems to become the norm, must stop immediately, or else horrendous consequences will continue to follow”.
Absent so far is any idea how either Israeli or Palestinian leaders can prevent the violence escalating into another full-scale intifada, or uprising. The Israeli security forces are finding it hard to protect civilians against random acts of violence carried out by individuals; equally, the Palestinian authorities seem powerless to restrain citizens who are bent on venting their anger and frustration in this way.
From the Palestinians’ perspective, that anger and frustration is directed as much against their own leadership as the Israeli government. Years of peace talks with Israel have achieved little to meet Palestinians’ aspirations for self-determination and statehood, and, at the UN last month, Mr Abbas himself acknowledged that the 20 years of negotiations to establish a state through the Oslo peace accords had failed.
The Palestinian movement as a whole is demoralised, and its leadership widely regarded as incompetent and corrupt. The movement also lacks unity, being split between the predominantly Fatah-governed West Bank and Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
Israel, on the other hand, accuses Palestinian leaders of inciting the violence. Mr Netanyahu, who is being sharply criticised by far-right politicians for failing to deal decisively with the outbreak of violence, said that “What has been going on is due to the combination of the internet and Islamist extremism.”
Referring to the sacred sites in Jerusalem, he said: “We maintain the status quo. We are the only ones doing so, and we will keep doing it in a responsible and serious manner. There hasn’t been any change in the status quo, except for an attempt by some people — organised by Islamic groups in Israel, as well as extremist elements — to place explosives in mosques and attack Jews from within the mosques.”
With the level of trust between Israelis and Palestinians as low as it has ever been, and with the leaders of both sides struggling to prevent acts of violence, international statesmen will be hard pressed to suggest practical ways of easing tension.