On September 30, for the first time ever, the Palestinian flag was raised at the United Nations. While this represented a significant and symbolic victory, events on the ground in Palestine could be about to cause this progress to violently unravel. Rarely a month goes by without violent clashes between Palestinian activists or militants and Israeli Security Forces. This being said, over the last month in the region, and the last week in particular, there has been an alarming escalation in the level of violence as well as the number of casualties on both sides.
The tensions leading to this current flare-up have been ongoing for some time. Palestinians have been angered by the continuing expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, while at the same time have been frustrated by stalled political talks. As well, repeated incursions by Israeli police on the Temple Mount (known in Arabic as Al-Aqsa) have incited religious tensions.
Concurrently, on the Israeli side, civilians have come under attack by a new group of radicalised 'lone wolf' attackers, using opportunistic weapons like knives or vehicles. Due to the nature of these attacks, there is little Israeli security forces can do to prevent them, leading to a greater feeling of insecurity. It should be noted as well that retaliatory violence on the behalf of Jewish extremists has also taken the lives of several Palestinian civilians, in attacks widely condemned by the international community.
Within this atmosphere of frustration and distrust, a series of actions over the last week have taken Israeli-Palestinian relations back to a crisis point. On October 1, a Palestinian militant shot dead two Israeli civilians in front of their four children as they drove along a road in the West Bank. This was then followed by an attack in the Old City of Jerusalem where a Palestinian man attacked Jewish civilians on the way to the Wailing Wall, stabbing two to death, and injuring others, before himself being shot dead by Israeli security forces.
Following this attack, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) claimed responsibility. In a statement they claimed that the stabbing marked the beginning of a ‘Third Intifada’, saying that attacks on worshipers at the Al-Aqsa mosque were the cause.
"We are at the start of a true intifada […] The situation is at the breaking point - this isn't a storm in a teacup. Today Netanyahu is reaping what he sowed. The Palestinian people have spoken - harming Al-Aqsa is a red line."
Intifada (Arabic for ‘shaking off’), in this case refers to previous uprisings in Palestinian areas against Israeli occupation. The First Intifada occurred between 1987 and 1993, while the Second Intifada occurred between 2000 and 2005 and was triggered by similar clashes around the Al-Aqsa mosque. Both of these Intifadas resulted in thousands of deaths and were only stopped through intense diplomatic efforts.
While it is too early to tell if indeed this latest upsurge in violence or the declaration by PIJ represents a beginning of a true ‘Third Intifada’, the current situation continues to deteriorate. For the last two nights, there have been large-scale riots across almost all major population centres in the West Bank, as well as a number of smaller-scale attacks on Israeli civilians. At the same time, the police response to these riots has left at least two Palestinians dead, and more than 100 injured.
It is worth noting however that outbreaks of violence and rioting are not uncommon in the West Bank, and have previously stopped short of developing beyond this.
“There have been eruptions of violence and riots several times the last year, and every time it just calmed down again,” said Anna Krijger, a freelance journalist based in Israel.
“There are a lot of Palestinians who know that the price for a third Intifada would be extremely high.[…] Every single Palestinian wants to end the occupation today. But I don't think they are all willing to pay the same price: loss of lives and land, like with the other two Intifadas,” she continued.
On the other hand, pro-Israeli groups and Jewish extremists, incensed by the deaths of innocent Israeli civilians, have demanded a greater response to the Palestinian attacks by the Israeli government, something which if it occurs, will likely irreparably harm the situation. One such measure, the demolition of houses belonging to families of suspected terrorists, is already being expedited, as part of new ‘aggressive measures’ announced by Israeli PM Netanyahu.
In the face of this situation there have been some promising moves by the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who stated that Palestine does not want “military or security escalation”. Nonetheless, the level of control which his government has over the situation at a grassroots level is questionable at best.
All things considered, it is not yet time to conclude one way or another if a Third Intifada has begun, but one thing is for sure, the time for de-escalation and dialogue is rapidly running out.