Jerusalem Has Erupted In Violence. Here's Why It's Happening Now.

The Al-Aqsa mosque is just one part of a much more complicated problem.

Forty-seven Palestinians and 10 Israelis have been killed in the most recent wave of violence to rock the region. Since the beginning of the month, an uncoordinated series of stabbings, shootings and vehicular attacks by young Palestinians has made violence a near-daily occurrence in East Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank.

In response, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised a “harsh offensive against Palestinian Islamic terrorism.” Of the 47 Palestinians killed by Israeli security forces, only 26 have been identified by Israel as suspected attackers.

Why now?

The most immediate trigger for the violence is Palestinian fears that the Israeli government intends to unravel an unwritten status quo agreement that allows Jews to visit but not pray atop the Temple Mount -- a site of sacred importance to both Jews and Muslims.

A group of religious Jews escorted by Israeli police at Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem. July 28, 2015
A group of religious Jews escorted by Israeli police at Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem. July 28, 2015

In the past several weeks, Netanyahu has repeated his commitment to the status quo and dismissed Palestinian concerns as efforts to incite violence. But Palestinian fears are not completely unfounded.

Members of Netanyahu’s coalition government have openly lobbied for an increased Jewish presence on the Temple Mount. Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel, who belongs to a pro-settler party in Israel, has called for the construction of the Third Temple at the site.

When President Barack Obama joined Twitter in May, Ariel sent him a welcome tweet, vowing to “build all over the city” -- essentially mocking the American president’s efforts to halt settlement expansion in East Jerusalem.

In September, just before the Jewish New Year, which usually marks a spike in the number of Jewish visitors to the holy site, Israeli police forces raided the Al-Aqsa mosque compound on the Temple Mount and found a cache of weapons and pipe bombs.

The raid was followed by a series of clashes between Israeli security forces and Palestinians, and Israel restricted access to the mosque for Arab men under 40 years old. The episode heightened long-held Palestinian fears that the Israeli government is planning to change the rules at the Temple Mount.  

The Bigger Picture

Although the controversy over the Temple Mount is the most obvious and immediate catalyst for the current instability, the violent attacks are part of broader discontent with the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, now in its 48th year.

Speaking at the Israeli American Council's conference on Saturday, Israeli opposition leader Isaac Herzog described the current violence as inexcusable but not surprising. He recounted a meeting he had with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in August, shortly after an arson attack in the West Bank city of Duma that killed three Palestinians, including a baby boy.

“[Abbas] said to me that he is fearful of a third intifada ... he is fearful of losing control over his youngsters,” recalled Herzog. 

A young Palestinian raises a knife during clashes with Israeli security forces (not pictured) in the West Bank city of Tulkar
A young Palestinian raises a knife during clashes with Israeli security forces (not pictured) in the West Bank city of Tulkarem on Sunday. Four Palestinians were shot dead and a fifth wounded in attacks on Israelis in east Jerusalem and the West Bank the previous day.

Since the collapse of last year’s U.S.-led peace talks, prospects for a two-state solution have dimmed. In a July survey conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, 65 percent of Palestinians said they believed a two-state solution is no longer practical due to continued settlement construction in the occupied territories -- a 10 percent increase from three months prior.

Eighty-five percent of Palestinians polled said they believe that Israel’s long-term plan is to annex the territory it has occupied since 1967 and either kick out the Palestinians or limit their rights within the territories. 

Netanyahu officially supports a return to two-state solution negotiations, and last month during a speech at the United Nations offered to resume talks without preconditions. But at the same time, the prime minister has allowed for continued settlement construction in the occupied West Bank and filled his cabinet with hardliner pro-settlement politicians who openly oppose a two-state solution.   

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who also spoke at the IAC conference on Saturday, dismissed the notion that the absence of a political peace process is fueling the violence. “There were waves of terrorism in Israel since the Zionist movement began and it will continue. … This specific wave, we know how to deal with it,” she said, adding that the Israeli government had taken actions to make “young Arabs think twice” about attacking Jews.

These actions include revoking the residency status of accused attackers, relaxing restrictions on the Israeli security forces’ use of live fire, and demolishing the homes belonging to families of Palestinians accused of violence. 

In a statement last week, Israeli human rights group B’Tselem criticized police officers and soldiers as being “quick to shoot to kill” instead of using non-lethal force when the situation allows for it.

To Palestinians, there is a blatant disparity between the punishment for Arab and Israeli acts of violence. More than three months have passed since the Duma arson attack, but no one has been charged with a crime. The Israeli defense ministry says it knows who is responsible for the attack, but has delayed filing charges and is keeping the suspects’ identities confidential.  

The failure to hold anyone responsible for the Duma terrorist attack “is making Palestinians believe that settler violence is state violence,” Khalil Shikaki, the director of the PCPSR, said in a conference call on Tuesday. “That the Palestinians need to take matters into their own hands if they want to defend themselves.”

Israeli crime scene investigation after the Duma arson attack that killed a Palestinian baby and his parents. &nbsp
Israeli crime scene investigation after the Duma arson attack that killed a Palestinian baby and his parents.  

What Can Be Done?

It’s not clear what the best solution is.

In an effort to diffuse the immediate turmoil over the Temple Mount, the French pushed for a United Nations Security Council resolution to send international observers to the holy site to enforce the status quo. The suggestion was immediately rejected by the U.S., Israel and Jordan -- which governs the current arrangement over access to the Temple Mount.  

Instead, Secretary of State John Kerry says there is a need to “upgrade and clarify” the unofficial status quo by cementing an agreement into writing. Kerry is scheduled to meet with Netanyahu in Berlin on Thursday, and with Abbas and Jordanian King Abdullah in Amman on Saturday. This trip marks his first meeting with the Israeli and Palestinian leaders since the outbreak of violence.  

Abbas, who has called for international protection since the early days of this conflict, is expected to reiterate the request on Wednesday during his first speech at the U.N. Human Rights Council.

Netanyahu is likely to oppose any international presence in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, and maintains that incitement by Abbas and other Palestinian leaders is to blame for the violence.

While Abbas has been slow to condemn Palestinian attacks, it is unlikely that doing so would have any effect other than costing him political support. Most of the violence is centered in East Jerusalem, where Israel, not the Palestinian Authority, exercises control. The perpetrators are young and unorganized, motivated by a sense of hopelessness rather than orders from a high authority. “They’re not going to be told to stop it,” Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s executive committee, said Tuesday. “People have to deal with the grievances, both internally and in terms of their aspirations for freedom and dignity.”