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Palestinian Violence Targets Israelis: Has Third Intifada Begun?

After a brief period of calm following this summer's war in Gaza, Israeli-Palestinian tensions have boiled over again.
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With news of each attack, the same question is being asked ever louder: Is the third intifada here?

After a brief period of calm following this summer's war in Gaza, Israeli-Palestinian tensions have boiled over again. Much of the discord involves access to a Jerusalem site holy to Islam and to Judaism known as the Al-Aqsa Mosque or Temple Mount.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday accused Israel of sparking a "religious war" by allowing Jews to visit the site —the same day a Palestinian protester was reportedly killed in clashes in the West Bank, according to The Associated Press. Previous intifadas — or Palestinian uprisings — erupted in December 1987 and September 2000 and claimed hundreds of lives

The harsh rhetoric and latest violence Tuesday comes amid a backdrop of mounting bloodshed. A Palestinian-American teen was shot dead in a confrontation with Israeli forces in the West Bank — shortly after a Palestinian man plowed his car into a crowd at a transit stop, killing two people including an Israeli-American baby. A similar vehicular attack was carried out in the days that followed. Hamas said one of the attacks was carried out by a militant from their group in order to protect the Temple Mount. A Palestinian shot and severely wounded an outspoken Israeli right-wing activist in an assassination attempt; that suspect was killed. And there were two attacks this Monday alone: a Palestinian stabbed three Israeli civilians in the West Bank, hours after an Israeli soldier was knifed in Tel Aviv.

When missiles pounded Gaza this summer, Hamas called for a "Day of Rage" to lead to the third intifada. For a time, it looked as if Palestinians in the West Bank were about to pour into the streets and rise up against Israel again but the protests fizzled.

Then anger mounted again over restrictions for the Temple Mount, igniting protests and violence with such fervor that many fear the third intifada has arrived — or at least that Israel is on the precipice.

"There’s a sense of free fall in Jerusalem, of events spinning out of control they are no longer isolated incidents," wrote David Brinn, managing editor of the Jerusalem Post. "Anyone who lived here through the first and second intifadas will recognize the same jittery, nervous spirit in the streets. It used to be unsafe to board a bus; now it’s unsafe to stand at a bus stop or light rail station."

President Benjamin Netanyahu has blamed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas for inciting the violence; Hamas has hailed the attacks as a response to Israeli "crimes."

Israel's move to restrict access to the Temple Mount triggered a call from Abbas for a "day of rage" in Jeusalem the same words used by Hamas this summer to urge a third intifada.

Nasser Laham, editor in chief of the Palestinian Ma'an News Agency, wrote an article headlined "This Is Not A Third Intifada, This Is A Volcano.”

"The intifada as a concept of popular anger started in Jerusalem, and did not stop at Jerusalem, but has spread," he wrote. "Far from the words of theorists on television, this reality is different and deeper."

Analysts warn that while it is too soon to say if this is in fact the third intifada, Israel is surely on the brink.

Cartoons have emerged on social media, calling for more vehicular attacks against Israelis in the form of a "car intifada."

"We're on the brink"

"I've never seen an atmosphere like this of such direct, acute incitement," said Daniel Nisman, president of The Levantine Group, a Tel Aviv-based risk analysis consultancy.

Both the first intifada, in December 1987, and the second, which began in September 2000, broke out almost spontaneously but the first was largely grassroots and the second was very organized.

The atmosphere in Israel today is reminiscent of the environment around the beginning of the second intifada, according to Nisman.

"We're on the brink," Nisman said. "We're at this crucial moment where there is a snowball and if we don’t stop the snowball we know what is going to happen."

He said that the only thing preventing an organized intifada is the security forces of the Palestinian Authority.

"If the Palestinian Authority's security forces collapse then Hamas will have a much more free hand to organize civil unrest and to carry out very large attacks," Nisman said.

Still, he noted, the Palestinian Authority is playing a double hand by carrying out "almost as much incitement" as Hamas while also cracking down on protests not out of affinity for Israel but in order to preserve its own survival.

While Abbas came out to condemn the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens in June, analyst say it is telling that he has not condemned the recent spate of violence.

"There's a viral nature to these attacks," Nisman said. "They see how easy it is and they see the instant glorification."

That creates a snowball effect on violence which if not stopped will "keep getting worse," Nisman said.

"The incitement has to stop," he added.

The Israeli government which is playing a delicate balancing act to control the situation without inflaming it further also needs to demonstrate a willingness to return to the political process.

"There needs to be a carrot and stick," Nisman explained. "There needs to be the promise that the diplomatic process will be restarted."

To some in Israel, though, it might already be too late.

"The third intifada is gaining momentum," wrote journalist Ron Ben-Yishai in a YNET opinion column. "The inferno leaps from place to place, and each new spot feeds and fuels the ones that came before. This is how it was during the first intifada, the intifada of stones, and this is how it was during second intifada, the intifada of suicide bombers."

The current unrest falls short of an intifada, according to Harel Chorev, an expert with Tel Aviv University's Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and Arab Studies.

"If you regard intifada in the traditional way — a broad popular uprising — that’s not what we see now," Chorev said. "I'm not saying it cannot evolve to intifada but for now it's not."

He said that's because much of the unrest is still domestic and largely local — focused on Jerusalem and the Shuafat refugee camp.

"It's still not a broad phenomena," he explained. "What we used to see in the first and second intifada was a fire which spread… This is not the case right now."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.