Jerusalem, Israeli settlements and why a third intifada could be about to kick off

Does this month’s escalation in violence in Jerusalem and the West Bank mean that a third intifada – a Palestinian uprising against the Israel’s occupation, following those of 1987 and 2000 – is imminent?

The latest events in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict prove that the next round could kick off at any moment.

On 19 October, a five-year-old Palestinian girl in the West Bank died when she was hit by a Jewish settler’s car. Three days later, a 20-year old Palestinian from East Jerusalem’s Silwan neighbourhood drove onto a light rail station platform in the city centre, killing a 20-year old Ecuadorian tourist and a three-month-old baby, and injuring seven other passengers.

He was shot by Israeli police as he tried to flee from the scene of the incident – and his funeral was accompanied by more violence across East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

These are not isolated incidents: they are the overspill from the tension over the rehousing of Israeli Jews in largely Arab districts in East Jerusalem, which has been under Israeli occupation since the June 1967 war.

Silwan, in particular, has seen outbreaks of violence between local Palestinian residents and Israeli settlers, who have started moving into houses there in recent weeks.

Back and forth

In the wake of the latest violence, the Israeli Defence Ministry has announced that for security reasons, Palestinian labourers who are permitted to work inside Israel will no longer be allowed to board Israeli-run buses to and from their homes in the West Bank.

In response to questions from the country’s attorney-general, the military acknowledged that it saw no security threat in Palestinians riding West Bank buses. Then the real reason for the restriction emerged: defence minister Moshe Ya’alon had issued the order in response to pressure from the settler lobby.

With charges of apartheid being levelled at Israel, the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, did his best not to be outflanked by his right-wing cabinet ministers and the powerful settler movement, announcing fast-track planning for more than 1,000 new apartments in several Jewish neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem.

The latest tit-for-tat took place on 29 October, when Israel closed the Al-Aqsa mosque in the Old City of Jerusalem, Islam’s third holiest site, following the murder of a right-wing Jewish activist by a 32-year old Palestinian from the Abu-Tor neighbourhood of East Jerusalem. It is the first time the mosque has been closed off since the June 1967 war, prompting the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, to denounce it as an act of war, while Netanyahu blamed Abbas himself for the shooting incident. The re-opening of the mosque was announced on 31 October.

Each of these stories is disturbing enough on its own. Taken together, they add to the simmering tension and unilateralism on both sides.

US relations at a low

In recent years, Israel’s settlement activity has been met with several Palestinian moves at the United Nations; earlier in October, the Palestinian Authority announced that it would push for a UN vote on a 2016 deadline for Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank.

US-Israeli relations, meanwhile, are sinking to a historic low. Ya’alon remains persona non grata in Washington ever since he dismissed the efforts of the US secretary of state, John Kerry, to mediate a two-state solution as “messianic” and “obsessive”.

The failure of Kerry’s recent mission in spring 2014 all but confirmed that after 20 years of continuous engagement, the US mediation strategy had finally run its course. Patience is also running out in Washington: senior State Department officials have gone so far as to call Netanyahu recalcitrant, pompous, “Aspergery”, and even “chickenshit”.

This reciprocal verbal abuse is unprecedented in the history of US-Israel relations and raises serious questions over whether the Obama and Netanyahu administrations will ever put such matters behind them to revive the stalled negotiations.

Ignition point

With no diplomatic solution on the horizon and with no evidence that either party is willing, or able, to break the psychological barriers to reconciliation, both sides are resorting to increased unilateralism and kowtowing to their own domestic pressures. Netanyahu is shackled by his right-wing coalition partners, while Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas is determined not to go down in history as a Palestinian quisling.

And on the ground in Jerusalem, both Arabs and Jews are openly talking about a burgeoning third intifada. There are daily clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli police, especially in East Jerusalem, and warnings and threats from both sides are ratcheting ever upwards.

So far, this new cycle of violence more resembles the first intifada than the second; it is spontaneous and decentralised – and characterised more by Molotov cocktails and riot police than by suicide bombs and military crackdowns.

But as the recent war in Gaza and the second intifada reminded us, it won’t take much of an additional spark to set this tragic conflict alight once again.

This article has been updated to reflect the re-opening of the Al-Aqsa mosque.

Dr Asaf Siniver is Senior Lecturer in International Security at the University Birmingham. This article was originally published on The Conversation.