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An expert explains Jerusalem's growing violence — and how it could get worse

A medic treats someone wounded in a stabbing attack.
A medic treats someone wounded in a stabbing attack.
Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images

Israel's wave of violence, which has mostly taken place in Jerusalem, got even worse on Tuesday. Palestinians have killed three Israelis and injured up to 22 in attacks using cars, knives, guns, and meat cleavers. A number of Palestinians have died as well. It's some of the worst Israeli-Palestinian violence outside of Gaza in years.

There are two questions hanging over this story: Why is it happening now, and how much worse will it get? I called Jeremy Pressman, a political scientist at the University of Connecticut, to ask his thoughts. Pressman's research focuses on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including the Palestinian intifadas: the violent uprisings against Israel that began, respectively, in the late '80s and early 2000s.

"I think it's very easy to see how this can spin further out of control," Pressman warned, and he did not get more optimistic from there: "Whether it totally gets out of control now or not, there's nothing that either side is going to do right now that can make this issue go away." What follows is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Zack Beauchamp: What, exactly, is happening on the ground?

Jeremy Pressman: On the Palestinian-on-Israel side, there's obviously the stabbings. I saw one commentator call it a "Crash and Stab" campaign.

In addition, there's the long tradition of regular Palestinian street protests in Gaza and the West Bank. Those confrontations have a regular form — Palestinian youth confronting Israelis soldiers or settlers. Almost always, the people who are injured and killed at those are Palestinians, by Israeli gunfire or rubber bullets. You also have Israeli settlers engaging in various forms of violence over the last couple of weeks.

So the violence is coming from multiple directions. At this point, it's clearly feeding on itself. The more people talk about this as a "third intifada," the more that concept has legs. The more people start to feel like they're in a third intifada, the more they feel like they have to act like they're in one — whether those people are Israeli or Palestinian.

Zack Beauchamp: I want to come back to the "third intifada" issue later. But first, why is all of this getting worse now? There have been stabbing attacks before, and, as you said, the Palestinian protests are a regular occurrence. What's happened recently to escalate the pace of violence so dramatically?

Jeremy Pressman: Well, as you've already written about, the dispute over the Temple Mount or Noble Sanctuary — the Jewish and Islamic holy site — is one thing.

The use of that dispute by leaders on both sides is a real problem. It's not like Palestinian leaders have tried to tamp down the idea that Israel is messing with the status quo [where only Muslims can pray on the site]. And while [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu has tried to make it clear he's not interested in changing the status quo, many of the members of his government have not been helpful in the past couple of weeks. So it's not only the dispute itself, but also the way that policy entrepreneurs have tried to use that dispute to stir things up.

I think a second thing is disaffected Palestinian youth. In the last few days and weeks, a lot of these attacks have been perpetrated by teenagers. There's clearly a sense of despair: I'm not sure this is always conscious, but part of that despair is driven by the inability of Palestinians to achieve their national goal of self-determination. The occupation continues, settlements continue to grow. There are also interrelated economic problems: high unemployment and underemployment on the Palestinian side, for example.

I'd also talk about social media. Netanyahu talks a lot about incitement — he's constantly pinning it on [Palestinian Authority] President Mahmoud Abbas. But that's not what I'm hearing people talk about. It's social media, at the grassroots level: I saw someone on Twitter today talking about snuff films. The fact that everyone has a camera in their pocket now — you can't get away from the role that social media is [playing in] helping feed the appetite for this on both sides, and certainly among Palestinian youth.

That makes it difficult for Israel: When you have these young kids without records perpetrating attacks, it's going to be really difficult to stop.

Zack Beauchamp: The Palestinian attacks appear to mostly be happening in Jerusalem; Israeli media has reported that 80 percent of the attackers are East Jerusalem Arabs. Is that because of the dispute over the city's holy sites, something about the politics of East Jerusalem, or both?

Jeremy Pressman: Clearly, the religious angle, as used by religious leaders and politicians, is an important reason why Jerusalem is playing a leading role. But political structure matters too. They're interrelated.

The Palestinian areas of East Jerusalem are not controlled by the Palestinian Authority. [Times of Israel reporter] Avi Issacharoff wrote a nice piece about how you have these spaces in Jerusalem that are kind of neither under Israeli control nor under the Palestinian Authority: mini ungoverned spaces that are on the wrong side of the wall that Israel has put up but are part of municipal Jerusalem. So you have tens of thousands of people living in areas with limited services, limited if any police attention — it fosters hopelessness, poverty, and other economic problems.

With the exception of these ungoverned areas, East Jerusalem is under Israeli rule. East Jerusalem Palestinians have traditionally had access to all of pre-1967 Israel, unlike Palestinians in Gaza or the West Bank. If you get radicalized and you're in the West Bank, it's more challenging to get into Jerusalem — and it's certainly more challenging to get into pre-1967 Israel. But if you're in East Jerusalem already, you have that kind of access because of the different relationship Israel has with Palestinians who are citizens of Israel, Palestinians who are residents of East Jerusalem, or Palestinians who are in the West Bank or Gaza.

[Tuesday] is a perfect example: We're not just seeing attacks in Jerusalem. That's the dominant area, and that's where most of the Palestinian attackers are coming from. But there were attacks elsewhere in Israel [on Tuesday]. While East Jerusalem is the epicenter, the extent to which it spreads is an important question.

Zack Beauchamp: So where do you see this going? Does it peter out, is there a major Israeli reaction — what?

Jeremy Pressman: I think it's very easy to see how this can spin further out of control. A quickening of the pace of the attacks, escalating rhetoric, increasing calls among Israeli officials and the Israeli public for a heavier hand. Sometimes a heavy hand works, but at the start of the second intifada the heavy use of force by Israel clearly escalated the situation rather than tamping it down.

This is not, as far as I can tell, an Israeli government that's interested in starting a political process that would address the underlying political issues of two peoples who both claim the same land. If you're not willing to engage in that process and make fundamental compromises, then you're kind of stuck in this situation.

Now, it could quiet down for a while. Remember, last year things got pretty bad in Jerusalem, and then it quieted down for a few months. That could happen again.

But the underlying issues are still here. The proximate issues are still here: ungoverned spaces, social media, the day-to-day feeling of occupation. And those won't go away, either. So whether it totally gets out of control now or not, there's nothing that either side is going to do right now that can make this issue go away.

Zack Beauchamp: As you mentioned earlier, some people are starting to call this a third intifada. How does what we're seeing now compare with the previous two Palestinian uprisings?

Jeremy Pressman: The first intifada was a very bottom-up process. The first year or two were very much driven by mass Palestinian protest; the [Palestinian Liberation Organization], the most prominent Palestinian organization at the time, was playing catch-up in the first months, trying to get on top of it and assert their leadership.

The major violence early in the first intifada was stone throwing and Molotov cocktails, and it was mostly in the West Bank and Gaza. Jerusalem was not silent during the first intifada, but it was not the epicenter.

The second intifada was far more militarized. As a result of the Oslo process, a lot more Palestinians were armed; you had a lot of Palestinian security personnel. It was much less of a bottom-up, mass-based protest movement — though there was some protest. It was a much more militia-driven intifada, and much more violent. Suicide bombings were a major part of the Palestinian attacks once it got underway.

But it also was mostly in the West Bank and Gaza. What's a little bit striking to me is that while Gaza and the West Bank are involved in this, it does really feel like it's being driven in Jerusalem. That's the symbolic center, that's where a lot of the violence and confrontations are happening.

One thing I think both of the previous intifadas shared is that, while clearly there were casualties on both sides, there were many more Palestinian casualties than Israeli ones. In whatever's going on today, we've seen that imbalance, and I would expect that to continue given Israel's significant firepower edge.

There's another major difference. In the first intifada, there was no Palestinian Authority. Israel had no security partner that it could work with. In the second intifada, a lot of the Palestinian security personnel were playing double and triple roles — Palestinian security personnel by day, and confronting the Israelis by night.

In this situation right now, we have continuing, very strong Israeli-Palestinian Authority security cooperation in the West Bank — specifically as a block against this spreading from Jerusalem.

If it gets more heated in Jerusalem, which it may not, it gets more difficult for the Palestinian Authority to play this role. I think part of what's going on with some of the youth perpetrating this is that they think, "The Palestinian Authority isn't doing anything for us, so we're taking matters into our own hands." They see the PA as collaborators with the Israelis.

There's a tension here among different segments of Palestinian society, and that speaks to the increasing difficulty the PA has with continuing that security cooperation with Israel. It's in their interests to continue it, but whether they can when pressure really builds from the bottom up [from Palestinians], and starts to spread from Jerusalem to the West Bank more intensely, is really an open question.

Zack Beauchamp: That would help explain why Abbas has used such sharp rhetoric about the Temple Mount, which arguably makes things worse, while simultaneously working with Israel to tamp down on the violence. He's trying to look like he's with the Palestinian population while also maintaining his relationship with Israel.

Jeremy Pressman: I think politicians face this dilemma all the time. They face great costs if they don't pursue certain policies, like security cooperation with Israel, but there's also popular opinion and popular will. Abbas is a politician caught between different demands and interests.