JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Monday that he will use a “strong hand” to quell violent Palestinian protests and deadly attacks, signalling that the current round of violence is bound to escalate at a time when a political solution to the conflict is increasingly distant.
Netanyahu said he has sent thousands more soldiers and police to the West Bank and Arab neighbourhoods of Jerusalem and that “we are allowing our forces to take strong action against those who throw rocks and firebombs.” He said restrictions limiting what security forces can do were being lifted, but did not elaborate.
Netanyahu’s warnings came after a rash of violence that began Thursday when Palestinian gunmen killed an Israeli couple in their car near a settlement in the West Bank as their four children watched. Two days later, a Palestinian stabbed an Israeli man to death and seriously wounded his wife as they walked in Jerusalem’s Old City, then attacked and killed another Israeli man.
Israeli forces, meanwhile, killed two suspected Palestinian assailants over the weekend and on Monday shot dead two teenage stone-throwers, one of them a 13-year-old boy, in West Bank clashes.
In all, eight Palestinians were wounded by live fire and 45 by rubber-coated steel pellets in the West Bank and Jerusalem on Monday, the Red Crescent said.
The spike in attacks and clashes comes at a time of mounting Palestinian frustration.
After years of diplomatic paralysis, many have lost hope in the chance of setting up a state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, lands Israel captured in 1967.
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has not offered an alternative to failed negotiations, except to urge the international community to intervene, so far to little avail. President Barack Obama made no mention of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in his speech to the U.N. General Assembly last week, an omission noted by the Palestinians.
Netanyahu has repeatedly accused Abbas of inciting the violence and of having no interest in negotiating a peace deal. Abbas has countered that Netanyahu is acting in bad faith by promoting continued settlement expansion on territory Palestinians claim for their future state.
Tensions have also risen over a major Jerusalem shrine that is sacred to Muslims and Jews and is key to the rival national narratives of the two sides. Many Palestinians believe that Israel is trying to expand a Jewish presence at the site, a claim Netanyahu has denied. The hilltop compound is revered by Muslims as the spot where Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven and by Jews as the site of the two Jewish biblical Temples.
There have been several days of clashes at the site over the past few weeks as Palestinians barricaded themselves inside the Al-Aqsa mosque while hurling stones, firebombs and fireworks at police. The unrest later spread to Arab neighbourhoods of east Jerusalem and to the West Bank.
Netanyahu convened his Security Cabinet, a group of key ministers, at the end of a two-day Jewish holiday Monday evening.
“We are acting with a strong hand against terrorism and against inciters,” he said before the meeting. “We are operating on all fronts. We have brought an additional four … battalions into Judea and Samaria (the West Bank), and thousands of police into Jerusalem.”
He pledged an unprecedented crackdown, saying police had moved deeper into Arab neighbourhoods of Jerusalem than in the past.
He again accused the Palestinian leadership of incitement, lumping Abbas with the Palestinian leader’s main domestic rival, the Islamic militant Hamas.
Despite Netanyahu’s warning about a lifting of restrictions on security forces, an Israeli army spokesman, Lt. Maj. Peter Lerner, said there was no change in troops’ open fire-rules.
Meanwhile, Abbas convened his security commanders late Monday, telling them they must try to prevent what he described as an Israeli attempt to drag the Palestinians into violence, according to an official statement.
The latest unrest has put Abbas in a difficult position, said Hanan Ashrawi, a senior member in the Palestine Liberation Organization.
“He does not condone violence and he will not allow violence, but at the same time, people are really pushed beyond endurance,” she said.
The military and the Shin Bet security service said Monday that Israeli forces arrested five Palestinian suspects in the killing of the settler couple last week. The U.S. State Department said Monday one of the victims, Eitam Henkin, held dual U.S.-Israeli citizenship. An army statement said the suspects were affiliated with Hamas in the West Bank city of Nablus.
The statement said one of the assailants was accidentally shot and wounded by his colleagues and dropped his pistol. The group fled to Nablus, leaving behind the weapon.
Israel TV’s Channel 10 said Israeli undercover forces later raided a Nablus hospital and seized the wounded man. The channel showed CCTV footage of the raid, including men in civilian clothes running along a hallway.
In Nablus, relatives of the man taken from the hospital said he was seized before dawn Sunday. They identified him as 23-year-old Karam al-Masri.
“We have no idea if he was or not in the attack but we are concerned about his health because his injury is serious, according to doctors,” said an uncle, Ayman al-Masri.
Earlier Monday, confrontations erupted in the biblical West Bank town of Bethlehem, just south of Jerusalem, and in the northern town of Tulkarem.
In Bethlehem, stone-throwers clashed with Israeli troops near Rachel’s Tomb, a frequent flashpoint near where Israel’s separation barrier juts into the city.
A doctor at a nearby hospital said 13-year-old, Abdel Rahman Shadi died after being hit by a live bullet to the chest while another Palestinian protester was wounded.
The Israeli military said dozens of Palestinians threw rocks at Israeli soldiers near the site. Troops initially fired tear gas and then responded with live rounds, the army said.
In Tulkarem, an 18-year-old Palestinian, Huthaifa Suleiman, was killed by live fire, according to the doctor there. Both doctors spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Hamas said Suleiman was a member of the group.
The military said hundreds of Palestinians threw firebombs and rocks at soldiers, and rolled burning tires toward them in the Tulkarem clash. The army said troops fired tear gas, stun grenades and then live rounds.