Weeks of violent exchanges increase Israeli-Palestinian tension in never-ending conflict

Li Jiayao

By Keren Setton

JERUSALEM, March 21 (Xinhua) -- Weeks of violent exchanges between Israelis and Palestinians have increased the tensions between the two sides in what appears to be yet another wave of violence in the never-ending conflict.

For now, the flames appear to be under control.

In the past weeks, several explosive devices have either exploded or been detonated on the Gaza border by the Israeli army.

In the beginning of this week, the Israeli military announced it had destroyed a Hamas cross-border attack tunnel. It was the fourth tunnel that has been destroyed by Israeli forces in the past for months.

In the West Bank and Jerusalem, different attacks have resulted in the deaths of three Israelis at the hands of Palestinian assailants.

Several Palestinians have been killed in clashes with Israeli forces both in Gaza and in the West Bank.

Hostility has been mounting since the United States announced it was recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital late last year.

It was a controversial move announced by U.S. President Donald Trump. Palestinians see the eastern part of the city as the capital of their future state, while the majority of Israelis see the unified city as their undivided capital. Israel captured the eastern part of Jerusalem during the 1967 Mideast War. It's sovereignty over the city has never been internationally recognized.

While there was an initial fear that the announcement would lead to an immediate flare-up in violence, that did not happen. But there is a steady trickle of incidents which could easily spiral into a full-blown conflict.

"We can see a beginning of a trend of deterioration towards a negative direction," is the cautious assessment of former senior Israeli officer Alon Eviatar, who is an expert on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"It is a dynamic of escalation," he believed.

The attacks carried out by Palestinian individuals since late 2015 and that have increased in recent months are considered "lone-wolf" attacks. While they have the support of the various Palestinian factions, they do not have their organizational or logistical backing.

"We are not going to see the Palestinian factions taking responsibility for violence, because they know the price the Palestinians will have to pay will be a high price," said Mkhaimar Abusada, an associate professor at Gaza's Al-Azhar University.

Memories of forceful Israeli crackdowns on previous intifadahs, or popular uprisings, are still fresh in Palestinian memories.

Abusada believed lone-wolf attacks will continue.

With a recent U.S. announcement that they will be moving their embassy from Tel Aviv, Israel's financial capital, to Jerusalem by May, to coincide with the country's independence day celebrations, the Palestinians have stepped up inflammatory rhetoric. They are also expected to conduct mass marches on Israel's borders, both in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip.

Israel's independence day is their Nakba day, or the day of the catastrophe.

The violence has all but replaced dialogue - which has been lacking for years. But now, in response to the American moves, the Palestinian leadership is refusing any contact with the White House since the Jerusalem announcement in December of last year.

In his most recent rant, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called the American ambassador to Israel a "son of a dog," a comment that was immediately condemned by the U.S. State Department as "outrageous and unhelpful."

Abbas, 83-year-old, is believed to be in the final stretch of his 13-year long tenure, but there is no obvious heir in sight and elections in the Palestinian Authority are not on the books. This, together with other factors are contributing to the uptick in violence.

"Palestinian feelings that have existed for years have intensified, together with no positive future on the horizon, no advancement in the political arena, continued friction with settlers and the settlements, with more Israeli activity on the ground, this all adds up," Eviatar told Xinhua.

In Gaza the situation is especially fragile.

The impoverished territory has been under a joint Israeli-Egyptian blockade since 2007 when the militant group Hamas violently took power from the more moderate Fatah party led by Abbas.

On the constant brink of a humanitarian crisis, Hamas may feel the need to deflect and initiate a larger conflict than the current tit-for-tat exchanges on the border.

Hamas, suffocated under the blockade, coupled with recent tightening of sanctions Abbas has imposed against Hamas, is increasingly cornered.

There is much blame to go around for the situation in Gaza. Be it Hamas itself, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority, for residents of the populous and crowded strip, Israel is the primary target of their hostilities.

"The Palestinians believe that Israel is the source of all their problems," said Abusada.

For Israel, which has enjoyed relative calm since the last military offensive in 2014, the decision to stage another massive offensive will be a difficult one.

"Israel will not want to initiate a wide-scale military operation," believed Eviatar, "It might undertake more massive attacks."

"The situation is very volatile," Abusada told Xinhua, "Hamas wants an out, an exit from the current situation. There are some voices within Hamas, the so-called hardliners, who believe that another war would be just an exit out of the current impasse, will bring humanitarian assistance, international awareness of what is happening in Gaza."

Ultimately, none of the sides can fully manage the intensity of the flames they themselves light up.

"There is a great interest not to break the rules of the game but we must remember not everything is under control," Eviatar told Xinhua.


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