With tensions and violence soaring to their highest points in nearly a year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says Israel’s security forces will “extract the full price” from Palestinians who have carried out attacks on innocent Israelis.
Syria’s 4-year-old civil war next door may be dominating headlines around the world, but fears are mounting that the grinding Israeli-Palestinian conflict is on the verge of escalating to a level not seen since the summer 2014 Gaza Strip war that followed the collapse of U.S.-led talks between the two sides — with unpredictable consequences for an already unsettled region.
The friction that has smoldered for months around Jerusalem’s Temple Mount — a site deemed holy by both Jews and Muslims — flared up again Tuesday when a pair of Palestinian men boarded a bus in Jerusalem and began shooting and stabbing passengers, while another assailant rammed a car into a bus station before stabbing several bystanders.
Three Israeli Jews and one assailant were killed during the near-simultaneous attacks, just as two other stabbings were taking place some 40 miles away in the central Israeli city of Ra’anana. By day’s end, more than 15 people had been wounded in the incidents, Israeli officials said.
The Obama administration said it was “deeply concerned” about the escalating tensions and condemned “in the strongest terms today’s terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians.”
But the violence capped a two-week period in which Palestinians, the majority of whom were teenagers, carried out roughly two dozen other stabbings against Jews. Israeli security forces responded by shooting dead at least 11 suspected assailants.
Last week, the Israeli military moved in and demolished the homes of two Palestinian militants in East Jerusalem.
The military has long maintained a heavy security footprint in areas of East Jerusalem that stretch into the Palestinian West Bank territory. But patrols, house demolitions and other operations have increased in the past year since a spate of violence broke out over access to the Temple Mount in East Jerusalem’s Old City.
Palestinians carried out a grisly attack on a synagogue in November that killed five, including three U.S.-Israeli citizens.
Leaders of various Palestinian factions — both moderate and hard-line — have accused Israel of fomenting the violence by blocking Muslim worshippers and sending a surge of Jewish pilgrims to the Temple Mount, which Jews revere as the home of the ancient Hebrew temples. Muslims hold the site as the Noble Sanctuary, home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the gold-topped Dome of the Rock.
The violence has surged at a time when prospects for an Israeli-Palestinian political settlement are virtually dead, leading to mounting popular frustration in the Palestinian enclaves in Gaza and the West Bank. Israel also finds itself diplomatically isolated as a U.S.-backed deal to curb Iran’s nuclear programs is being implemented despite the best efforts of Mr. Netanyahu to torpedo the agreement.
On Tuesday, Palestine Liberation Organization Secretary-General Saeb Erekat blamed Mr. Netanyahu for the latest bloodshed. He called it a natural consequence of the Israeli military occupation in the West Bank along with “humiliation, oppression and racist policies” that Israel has inflicted on Palestinians.
“The occupation has spread a culture of hate and racism that justifies all kinds of atrocities, including collective punishment and cold-blooded executions,” Mr. Erekat told reporters, according to the Ma’an News Agency, an organization based in the Palestinian territories.
The Israeli military’s killings of Palestinians accused of attacking Israelis amounts to “extrajudicial executions.”
Having served as a chief negotiator for the Palestinians before peace talks broke down last year, Mr. Erekat also called on the U.S. and others in the so-called diplomatic Quartet on the Middle East — which oversaw the failed peace process — to “immediately come to Palestine amidst the Israeli attack and assume its responsibilities.”
His comments are likely only to enrage Israeli leaders, many of whom — including Mr. Netanyahu — contend that such statements from top Palestinian officials have only encouraged more attacks on Israeli Jews.
Mr. Netanyahu has come under heavy criticism in Israel for failing to stop the escalation of violence. The Associated Press cited an opinion poll Tuesday that showed more than 70 percent of Israelis are dissatisfied with the prime minister’s handling of the crisis.
Mr. Netanyahu appeared to have the poll in mind Tuesday as he addressed a special session of the Israeli parliament.
He seemed eager to launch a fresh Israeli military campaign to crack down on Palestinian militants by vowing to come down hard on “murderers and those who want to kill, and anyone who helps them.”
“Not only won’t they have any rights, but we will extract the full price from them,” the Israeli prime minister said, according to The Jerusalem Post.
At the same time, he appeared eager to appeal to Palestinian leaders in the audience to head off a larger conflict and perhaps a new intifada.
“We live together. We believe in coexistence,” he said. “It is very easy to unravel the cords that tie us together. Don’t go there. I know that a large part of the [Arab] population — and leaders among the Israeli Arabs know exactly what I am saying — the leaders need to find the courage to say these things and stand up against the fanatics and extremists.”
At one point, according to The Jerusalem Post, Mr. Netanyahu turned to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and accused him and other Palestinian leaders of spreading lies about the Temple Mount. “Stop lying, stop inciting,” the Israeli Prime Minister said.
But he also urged Israeli Jews not to engage in reprisal attacks against Palestinians, asserting that “anyone who takes the law into their own hands will pay the price.”
Mr. Netanyahu said Israeli forces would act quickly to implement more security measures on the ground.
Israeli police had closed major highways leading in and out of Jerusalem on Tuesday night. The AP reported that a number of other steps under consideration included sealing off Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, where many of the perpetrators of the recent attacks are believed to have come from.