JERUSALEM – For nearly a month, Israel has been dealing with a wave of Palestinian unrest that shows no signs of stopping. Beginning with clashes at a sensitive Jerusalem holy site, the violence has spread throughout the city, across Israel and into the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Since the Jewish New Year last month, five Israelis have been killed in a shooting, a stoning and a series of stabbings. At least 26 Palestinians been killed by Israeli fire, including 10 identified by Israel as attackers and the rest in clashes between stone-throwers and Israeli troops. Hundreds of Palestinians have been wounded in such confrontations.
The violence comes at a time when prospects for negotiating an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict appear nil.
While Israelis are on edge over the random nature of the current wave of attacks, many Palestinians feel hopeless because all paths to statehood and ending nearly half a century of Israeli occupation appear blocked.
The long-running diplomatic deadlock coupled with the current violence has raised fears that the region is on the cusp of a major new round of Israeli-Palestinian fighting.
HOW DID THIS START?
Clashes broke out at Jerusalem's most sensitive holy site over the Jewish New Year, fueled by rumors that Israel was secretly plotting to take over the spot.
The compound is revered by Jews as the Temple Mount, home to the biblical Jewish Temples. Today it houses the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam's third-holiest site.
Israel captured the site from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast war, but it remained under Muslim administration. Under a decades-old arrangement, non-Muslims are allowed to visit, but not pray there.
A growing number of Jewish visitors in recent years, coupled with calls by religious Jewish activists for a greater presence at the site, have stoked Palestinian fears that Israel is planning to change this arrangement.
Palestinians fiercely defend the site as both a religious and national symbol. Growing Palestinian fears that the shrine is in danger triggered unrest across the region.
Israel has repeatedly said it is committed to the status quo and has accused Palestinian and Muslim religious leaders of inciting violence.
IS THIS A NEW PALESTINIAN UPRISING?
While some Israeli commentators have begun to call the unrest a new intifada, or uprising, it is premature to say so.
The violence has some things in common with the second Palestinian uprising. In 2000, a visit to the hilltop religious site by Israel's then opposition leader, Ariel Sharon, helped trigger what turned into an uprising.
Some argue that Palestinian anger over living under Israeli military occupation for nearly 50 years, the collapse of peace efforts and the lack of hope for gaining independence has made the region ripe for a new bout of violence.
Still, there are key differences. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has been an outspoken opponent of violence and has maintained security coordination with Israel to prevent the clashes from spinning out of control.
During the previous intifada, organized Palestinian militant groups were behind much of the violence, often with tacit support from their leaders. Most of those groups have been disbanded or their members jailed. The recent stabbings have been carried out by individuals with no known political affiliation acting on their own.
These "lone-wolf" attacks have made it hard for Israel to find a military solution to the unrest, or to predict how long it will continue.
HOW HAS ISRAEL RESPONDED?
The stabbings have caused widespread panic in Israel, prompting Jerusalem's mayor and other politicians to encourage licensed gun owners to carry their weapons.
Israeli leaders say the country's large number of well-trained military veterans provides an extra layer of security. And after several stabbings, assailants have been quickly shot by either police or armed civilians. But critics say such talk only increases tensions, raising the risk that over-eager gun owners or troops will shoot to kill, even when unnecessary.
In one case caught on video, a young Palestinian man wanted in a stabbing was gunned down by a police officer as an angry crowd screamed for him to be shot. In the video, it is not clear whether the youth was armed, and the police car was far away from him, raising the question of whether the youth could have been subdued without being killed.
WHAT ABOUT POLITICAL LEADERS ON BOTH SIDES?
Both Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could play key roles in ending the unrest, though both have been limited by external pressure.
Netanyahu is under heavy pressure from the public, and hard-liners in his coalition, to take even tougher action. In addition to his tough rhetoric, the Israeli leader has already beefed up the level of forces in Jerusalem and the West Bank, and loosened the rules on when troops can open fire at protesters.
Yet a severe crackdown risks triggering even more violence and international condemnation. For this reason, he has also taken steps to ease tensions, such as banning lawmakers from visiting the Jerusalem holy site.
Abbas is also interested in restoring quiet. But after years of stalled statehood negotiations — paralysis he blames on Netanyahu's hard-line approach — he is deeply unpopular. Containing the violence and openly continuing the security cooperation with Israel risks promoting the image that he is weak and ineffective.
In any case, it remains unclear how much control either man has when the violence is emanating from the ground up, carried out by angry teenagers who have little hope for the future.