Israel, Palestinians play down talk of third intifada

Mourners carry the body of 13-year-old Palestinian boy Abdel-Rahman Abeidallah, who was shot by Israeli troops during clashes on Monday, during his funeral in the occupied West Bank city of Bethlehem on Tuesday.
Mourners carry the body of 13-year-old Palestinian boy Abdel-Rahman Abeidallah, who was shot by Israeli troops during clashes on Monday, during his funeral in the occupied West Bank city of Bethlehem on Tuesday. PHOTO: REUTERS

JERUSALEM (REUTERS) - The entrances to Jerusalem's walled Old City are sealed off by Israeli police and the streets of East Jerusalem are littered with barricades, burning trash and the detritus of battles between stone-throwing Palestinians and Israeli forces.

The scenes after 10 days of violence in which four Israelis and three Palestinians have been killed and 170 injured are evocative of the two Palestinian uprisings, or intifadas, against Israeli occupation in the late 1980s and early 2000s.

Officials on both sides are playing down the comparisons, and the violence now is on a much smaller scale than then, but Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth saw enough similarities to declare on Sunday that a third intifada had begun.

A new intifada would further complicate efforts by world leaders to resolve conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, and there is little appetite to re-engage in peace efforts between Israel and the Palestinians after many failures in the past.

As before, events around the al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem, which is sacred in both Islam and Judaism, have helped trigger violence fanned by a volatile mix of religion and politics.

In 2000, a visit by then-Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon to the area, revered by Jews as Temple Mount and Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, was seen by Palestinians as a deliberate provocation and was followed by a five-year uprising.

The current violence follows days of clashes at al-Aqsa between Palestinian stone-throwers and Israeli police.

Israel has responded by ratcheting up its military and security presence throughout East Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank in anticipation of further violence and Palestinian leaders have sought to calm the flames, worried that militant groups could see this as an opportunity for a confrontation.

"We are operating on all fronts," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said late on Monday, adding that four extra army battalions had been deployed to the West Bank.

"The police are going deeply into the Arab neighbourhoods, which has not been done in the past. We will demolish terrorists' homes. We are allowing our forces to take strong action against those who throw rocks and firebombs."

Mr Netanyahu has described the violence as a "wave of terror", a term suggesting the tensions will pass, and military officials with experience of the earlier uprisings were quick to dismiss the suggestion that a third uprising had started.

"That's exaggerated, it's far from being at that point yet,"said a senior officer in the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), explaining that dozens were killed on some days during the second intifada. "It's a totally different situation now."

In the first intifada, which began in December 1987 after four Palestinians were killed when an Israeli army truck collided with a car, the Palestinians threw stones and home-made petrol bombs at the Israeli forces.

The second intifada was characterised by suicide bombings, including on buses and cafes across Israel.

How a third intifada would look is not clear but it could be very different.

The IDF officer described the current situation as an intensification of violence by a limited number of people, similar to a surge in attacks in Jerusalem late last year, rather than a broad-based uprising against Israeli targets. "There are about two dozen hotspots in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, not more than that," the officer said.

But Israeli and Palestinian leaders alike see the situation as unpredictable and fear it could take a sudden and immediate turn for the worse.

European and US policymakers would be wary of getting sucked into a new peace drive, especially when they want to focus on other conflicts in the Middle East. The last peace negotiations with Israel and the Palestinians broke down in April 2014 with no progress. The chances of a resumption during the remainder of Barack Obama's presidency are slim.

Areas of East Jerusalem, which is predominantly Palestinian, have turned into battlegrounds in recent days, with the roads littered with smashed rocks, the tarmac blackened by exploded firebombs and residents nervously watching for unrest.

At Qalandiya, the main checkpoint between Jerusalem and the West Bank, near the Palestinian city of Ramallah, Palestinian boys, some with their faces masked by keffiyeh scarves, hurled stones at Israeli guardposts on Tuesday, almost taunting armed soldiers and border police to retaliate.

Palestinian websites have praised what they referred to the"martyrs" who carried out a roadside shooting in the West Bank last week, killing an Israeli husband and wife.

And amateur video posted on the Internet appeared to show Israelis celebrating and shouting "Death to Arabs" after Israeli police shot dead a Palestinian man in the street who was suspected by the crowd of having stabbed an Israeli boy.

The Palestinian Authority has threatened several times in recent months to end security coordination between the Palestinian police and Israeli forces. Doing so would be a sign that the situation is deteriorating, but there has been no sign yet that the threats will be carried out.

"We do not want either military or security escalation between ourselves and you," Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said after a security meeting with officials on Tuesday.