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Jerusalem's wave of stabbing attacks, explained

A bloody tissue lies next to a bus in Jerusalem after a stabbing attack on the vehicle.
A bloody tissue lies next to a bus in Jerusalem after a stabbing attack on the vehicle.
(Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

On Monday morning, near Jerusalem's Old City, a Palestinian man stabbed an Israeli police officer, and was shortly after gunned down. That same day, elsewhere in the city, a Palestinian woman stabbed a border police office, and was shot by police. About an hour later, in East Jerusalem, two Palestinian boys ages 13 and 17 stabbed a 13-year-old Israeli boy nearly a dozen times. The 17-year-old Palestinian was shot dead by police; the Israeli boy is in critical condition.

At least five Israelis and 25 Palestinians have died in a recent wave of violence, including deadly clashes between Israeli security forces and Palestinians, as well as what's widely described as a "wave" of stabbing attacks by Palestinians. Reuters reports that stabbing attacks are coming at a "near-daily" rate, mostly in Jerusalem.

It's some of the worst street violence in years. Some analysts are worrying that this could be the beginning of a third Palestinian "intifada," or uprising, against Israel — which would mean wider and much more deadly violence.

The wave of October violence

jerusalem stabbing

Israeli authorities cover the body of a Palestinian man shot during a stabbing attack in Jerusalem. (Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)

There's been a steady drumbeat of low-level violence: principally Palestinians stabbing Israelis in Jerusalem and Israeli police firing on Palestinians during demonstrations and violent clashes. Here are a few of the events, to show what this looks like:

  • October 1: An Israeli couple is shot dead in the West Bank.
  • October 3: Two Israeli men are killed and two others are wounded in a stabbing attack in East Jerusalem. The Palestinian killer is gunned down by Israeli police; the militant group Islamic Jihad claims responsibility.
  • October 8: Four Israelis are wounded in a stabbing attack in Tel Aviv; the Palestinian attacker is shot and killed. After the attack, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declares that "we are in a midst of a wave of terror."
  • October 9: Al Jazeera, citing the Palestinian Red Crescent, reports that 1,600 Palestinians have been wounded in clashes with Israeli security forces since October 3.
  • October 10: A Palestinian man is shot by Israeli police during a clash in the West Bank town of Beit Ummar, near Hebron. Fourteen of the 21 Palestinians who have been killed at this point died in clashes with Israeli police, per the Palestinian Ma'an News.
  • October 11: A 13-year-old Palestinian boy is shot and killed by Israeli police during a protest near Ramallah.

The persistent nature of the violence explains why both Israelis and Palestinians are so worried — the longer it goes on like this, the more people are going to die, and the greater the chances are that things might get worse.

Why this is happening

palestinians rock throwing (Anna Ferensowicz/Pacific Press/LightRocket/Getty Images)

Rock-wielding Palestinians clash with Israeli soldiers in Hebron. (Anna Ferensowicz/Pacific Press/LightRocket/Getty Images)

In mid-September, clashes broke out over Jerusalem's most controversial religious site: what Jews call the Temple Mount and Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary.

Currently, only Muslims are allowed to pray atop the hill, part of a political arrangement (called "the Status Quo") designed to keep the peace. However, a group of Jewish radicals are attempting to assert Jewish rights to pray there — which Palestinians see as a threat.

"Since the Jewish 'high holidays' began in mid-September, Palestinian youth have been throwing stones and firecrackers at the Israeli police to prevent the entry of groups of religious Jews, who have been ascending the [Temple Mount] with the intention of changing the current arrangements at the site," Ofer Zalzberg, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, writes. "Palestinians, who have suffered the desecration of many mosques and holy sites since 1948, feel like they have seen this movie before and fear where it ends."

Israeli police responded with stun grenades and tear gas, and even stormed the al-Aqsa mosque itself when Palestinians holed up there. The Temple Mount is such an important religious and national site for Palestinians that the clashes there set off wider unrest, including a series of stabbings in Jerusalem this month.

While some stabbing attacks appear to have been coordinated by terrorist groups, most appear to be planned by individuals — Netanyahu has called them "lone wolf" attacks.

According to Israel's Shin Bet security service, the Palestinian Authority's security forces are actually working to prevent further attacks on Israelis. But with Israeli-Palestinian peace talks on hold and Palestinian frustration growing, low-level tensions can more easily boil over.

"This, unfortunately, nicely illustrates the challenge of not having an actual political process," Jeremy Pressman, a professor at the University of Connecticut, told me when the first clashes began on the Temple Mount in September. "You have these situations like Jerusalem, or this situation in Gaza, that are just waiting there, festering — and are ripe for violence and blowing out of control."

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