Sporadic incidents of violence, both by Israeli settlers in the West Bank and by Palestinians, have been a constant of the Israel-Palestinian conflict in recent years. However, since 1 October the level and frequency of violence has spiked dramatically. Why now?
Those who attribute the latest upsurge in violence mainly to Israel point to Palestinian frustration with the failure to make any headway towards statehood and end Israel's occupation of the West Bank; a continuation of settlement construction; Israel's halt to the release of a fourth group of Palestinian prisoners whom it had previously agreed to free; and egregious acts of Israeli settler violence against Palestinians, such as the murderous arson attack on a Palestinian family in July.
Those who hold the Palestinians principally responsible point to the recent escalation by Palestinian religious and political leaders in inciting their people to kill Jews. A prominent example was the Palestinian cleric, Muhammad Salah, who urged Palestinians from his pulpit in a Gaza mosque to take up arms by forming 'stabbing squads': 'We don't want just a single stabber. Attack in threes and fours. Some should restrain the victim, while the others attack him with axes and butcher knives. Cut them into body parts.' Salah named Afula, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem as targets. Within hours of his sermon, stabbing attacks occurred in all three cities. There are innumerable other examples.
Whilst there is validity to each side's attribution of blame to the other, this does not tell the whole story. [fold]
If Israelis and Palestinians are to reach an agreement to end the conflict between the two peoples, the leadership on both sides will need to make compromises that will surely not be accepted by all of their respective constituents. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would lose the support of much of the religious and political right if he was to agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas faces opposition to any kind of end-of-conflict deal with Israel from the Hamas leadership based in Gaza and the more radical elements within his own Fatah-led Palestinian National Authority based in the West Bank.
In circumventing direct negotiations with the Netanyahu Government, Abbas and the Palestinian Authority have instead pursued unilateral recognition via the UN General Assembly and other international agencies.
On 30 September Abbas delivered a much anticipated speech to the UN General Assembly. The address had been widely foreshadowed to be a 'bombshell', formally abrogating the Oslo Accords of 1993 and subsequent agreements. But the bomb failed to explode. Although Abbas directly referred to the Oslo Accords, he stopped short of saying that they had been annulled. Nor did he clearly announce the dissolution of the Palestinian Authority or cancel security cooperation with Israel, as some speculated he would. The lack of impact of Abbas' speech and the failure to present a convincing strategy to launch the Palestinians on the road to statehood only served to fuel the already deep-seated frustration and sense of hopelessness among his people.
Instead of eschewing the path of rejectionism and unilateralism, the Palestinian response has been to default to alternative rejectionist strategies. The day after Abbas' UN speech, Palestinian gunmen ambushed an Israeli couple driving their car in the West Bank and shot and killed them in front of their four children, who were in the back seat. The incident was the first in the current escalation of violent attacks against Israelis.
Whilst these attacks are apparently unplanned, uncoordinated and opportunistic, they are fueled by social media, providing the platform for the higher-than-usual levels of incitement by Palestinian religious and political leaders. Much of the incitement has focused on false allegations of a supposed Jewish plot to destroy the al-Aqsa Mosque and replace it with a Jewish Temple. Anti-Jewish incitement also draws on Palestinian nationalist and religious claims to exclusive ownership of the entire Holy Land, denying the long Jewish national and religious history in the land.
The mirror opposite of these views can be found among many of the Jewish settlers in the West Bank who deny Palestinian history in the land, claiming that the entire land is the rightful God-given inheritance of the Jewish people. Between these absolutes there can be no peace, only continuing bloodshed.
The emergence of religious motifs in the Israel-Palestinian conflict is very much a part of what is happening in the wider region. The conflicts in Syria and Iraq are no longer over the legitimacy of governments, as they once were. The contests now are over the legitimacy of states — Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen — and, if the Palestinians ever succeed, Israel.
The assertion by religious leaders, some of them self-appointed, that their religious authority over-rides the sovereignty of states is reminiscent of the Thirty Years War of the seventeenth century, one of the longest, most destructive conflicts in European history. Much of the Middle East, it seems, is now following the same path.