Israeli-Palestinian violence: Killings and reprisals part of pattern in long-running conflict

The most recent clashes between Israelis and Palestinians are the latest uptick of unrest in the violence that has flared sporadically since Israel occupied the West Bank and East Jerusalem following a military victory over Jordan.

Most experts say unorganized nature of attacks does not signal new uprising

A rock thrown toward Israeli soldiers near Ramallah by this Palestinian woman fell well short of its target, but she says taking part in demonstrations against the Israeli occupation was important. (Samer Shalabi/CBC)

The Palestinian woman clutched a rock in one hand, and from the other fluttered the red, black, white and green Palestinian flag. Thick smoke billowed around her as clashes raged between people just as angry as she is and Israeli security forces.

"The dignity of the Palestinian people has been abused. And we will not stand for this anymore," said the woman who would not give her name, fearful, she said, of Israeli reprisals.

She threw the rock toward three Israeli soldiers across an open field near Ramallah, in the West Bank. It landed well short, but the woman said taking part in these demonstrations against the Israeli occupation was important.

"I am here to support the resistance against the occupation. It's our right to resist the occupation," she said.

Protests and violent clashes have become the daily normal in parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem over the past three weeks, as the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict has seen yet another uptick in unrest.

At least nine Israelis have been killed by Palestinians in this recent wave of violence. Knives have been the weapons of choice by most of the assailants, but Israelis have also been run over by vehicles and shot.

This pattern where violence has flared has become a reoccurring theme for nearly five decades since Israel occupied the West Bank and East Jerusalem following a military victory over Jordan.

Killings lead to reprisals. Demonstrations turn deadly. There are calls for calm and international figures race to the region to try to quell an outbreak of violence. It's a pattern seen over and over during this long-running conflict.

Disputed holy site

Palestinians say what's angered them now is worries over a disputed holy site in Jerusalem's Old City. While anyone can visit the site known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, since 1187 only Muslims can pray there. 

Rumours abound in Palestinian society that right-wing Israelis are agitating to change the rules, known as the status quo. Jewish religious extremists are pushing for prayer rights at the site, where the ancient second Jewish temple once stood. 

Mahdi Abdul Hadi, chairman of Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, argues that a deeper current of despair over the lives of Palestinians, especially those in East Jerusalem, is driving some to violence. (Samer Shalabi/CBC)

While Israel's chief rabbinate states that Jews should not visit the site, deeming it too holy, there has been a growing movement campaigning for open access to it.

Israel's leadership has been vehement in its denial that the status quo is changing.

"Israel is not the problem on the Temple Mount," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said recently. "Israel is the solution. We keep the status quo, we are the only ones who do so and we will continue doing so responsibly and seriously."

Many Palestinians, however, do not trust the Israelis.

As tensions have flared in recent weeks, the Israeli authorities, who control security at the site, have placed temporary restrictions that have often banned young and middle-aged men from praying there.

That has angered many Palestinians and spurred this latest round of unrest.

'Doors are closed'

"They are denied the right to pray. The doors are closed. There's provocation on a daily basis," said Mahdi Abdul Hadi, who runs the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, a think-tank in Jerusalem.

But Abdul Hadi argues that a deeper current of despair over the lives of Palestinians, especially those in East Jerusalem, is driving some to violence, even if they risk being killed in return.

An Israeli police officer fires tear gas during clashes with Palestinian demonstrators in the West Bank town of al-Ram, north of Jerusalem, on Oct. 22, 2015. (Majdi Mohammed/Associated Press)

Since the beginning of October, nine Israelis have been killed in Palestinian stabbings, shootings and vehicle attacks. Forty-eight Palestinians, including 24 attackers, among them children, have been killed by Israeli security forces in response, Reuters reported Thursday.

Some young Palestinians, according to Abdul Hadi, are so destitute that they think "[an Israeli] is going to kill me anyway. He's killing me already. I'm in the culture of a prison. I want to get out of this prison culture and my message to him [is that] my life and your life, too." 

There has been much debate whether the rise of attacks against Israelis constitutes a third Palestinian uprising, or intifada. The first uprising that began in the late 1980s was characterized by stone throwing. Bus bombings became the hallmark of the second intifada, which began in 2000.

While some have referred to what's happening now as the intifada of knives, most experts agree that the unorganized nature of the random attacks does not signal a new uprising.

Online inspiration

Most of the attackers appear to be acting on their own, without the support of any of the Palestinian political factions.

Rafael Green, a researcher with MEMRI, the Middle East Media Research Institution in Jerusalem, says social media is playing a 'major role' in getting Palestinians to attack. (Samer Shalabi/CBC)

Many seem to be finding inspiration online.

"Social media is playing a major role in, getting people to go out and getting people to attack," said Rafael Green, a researcher with MEMRI, the Middle East Media Research Institution in Jerusalem.

Green said there are thousands of postings on Facebook and Twitter, spurring Palestinians to violence. The #SlaughterTheJews hashtag has been retweeted at least 35,000 times, he said.

"We've seen people post videos, banners, guides that instruct people, with diagrams, showing people where to stab, all kinds of advice about how to make weapons more lethal."

International diplomacy has ramped up to try to tamp down the tensions.

UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, on a visit to the region this week, urged calm. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to travel to the Middle East on the weekend.


Derek Stoffel

World News Editor

Derek Stoffel is a former Middle East correspondent, who covered the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and reported from Syria during the ongoing civil war. Based in Jerusalem for many years, he covered the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. He has also worked throughout Europe and the U.S., and reported on Canada's military mission in Afghanistan.


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