Will Israel heritage sites spark next Palestinian intifada?

The declaration of two biblical tombs in the West Bank as Israel heritage sites last week sparked clashes. Though Monday was quiet, some fear a new Palestinian intifada in response.

Menahem Kahana/AFP/Newscom/File
One of the Israel heritage sites recently put under the spotlight, Rachel's tomb, Could this cause a Palestinian intifada?

Amid spreading Palestinian protests against Israel's decision to declare shrines in two West Bank cities as Israel heritage sites, the Palestinian cabinet held a solidarity meeting Monday in the city of Hebron near one of the sites while some here worried about a new Palestinian intifada.

Clashes on the Temple Mount plaza in Jerusalem's Old City Sunday capped a week of violence since the declaration of Hebron's Tomb of the Patriarchs and Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem as official Israel heritage locations.

Critics of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu say the decision recalls controversial acts by Israel a decade ago near holy sites that helped spark waves of violence – most notably the violent demonstrations in 2000 after Ariel Sharon toured the Temple Mount, which deteriorated into the second Palestinian uprising, or intifada.

But will the dispute spark fresh conflict?

Experts say that the current controversy isn't incendiary enough to incite a widespread conflict and the leadership of the Palestinian Authority prefers to keep the violence under control.

Despite rhetoric on the Palestinian side about the need to protect the shrines against Israeli encroachment, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza aren't being whipped up into a religious fervor.

"People here don't believe that this is a religious issue. They realize that this a political issue,'' says Mohammed Dajani, a professor of political science at Al Quds University in Jerusalem.

Netanyahu bows to the right

Mr. Netanyahu included the sites at the last minute under pressure from far right-wing and religious political parties in his coalition.

At the Palestinian cabinet meeting on Monday, Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh declared, "we will not allow Israel to steal our history. We will take measures to force Israel to retreat from its decision,'' according to the Maan News agency. There were no reports of clashes for the first time in a week.

On Sunday more than a dozen Palestinians were injured and four Israeli police were injured in clashes on the Temple Mount and in a nearby neighborhood in predominantly Arab east Jerusalem. A four-hour standoff between security forces and demonstrators who took refuge in the Al Aqsa mosque ended peacefully.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas continues to favor negotiations over mass demonstrations and violence – in contrast to his predecessor Yasser Arafat, Mr. Dajani said.

"Abbas doesn't think like Arafat," he said. "Arafat could not move from being a revolutionary to being a diplomat, Abbas' background is that he is a diplomat."

Palestinians and Israeli experts caution that outbreaks of violence are difficult to predict and almost always defy expectations.

The absence of peace negotiations counts as the most compelling parallel suggesting the potential for another flare-up. The 2000 riots followed the collapse of a summit at Camp David, Md. while, today, talks haven't been held in a year.

"A vacuum won't endure with no negotiations and nothing else," said Kadoura Fares, a Fatah member and former cabinet member. "No one can tell when the explosion will come, but it will come."

Then and now

A key difference from 2000: the Palestinian leadership is divided between Abbas in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza, which has called for a new uprising.

The Tomb of the Patriarchs is the site where three Old Testament forefathers are believed to be buried. There are mosques and synagogues on the site and it has been an inspiration for violence going back to the early part of the last century. Control over Jerusalem's Old City is at the heart of the Israeli-Arab conflict and has inspired conflict between Jews, Muslims, and Christians for more that a millennium.

Israel's government insists that its declaration is just about renovating the site and that it has always kept access to shrines open to pilgrims of all religions. Palestinian officials accused the Israeli government yesterday of provoking a confrontation by allowing religious extremists into the Temple Mount complex.

Yossi Alpher, a co-editor of the online Israeli-Palestinian journal Bitter Lemons, agreed that the source of the conflict was Israeli coalition politics and that Abbas wants to control the level of the fire. He noted that the Palestinian Authority is capitalizing on the issue to ratchet up diplomatic pressure on Israel.

The new risk factor from the Israeli side, he said, is the growth in vigilantism among a fringe of the Jewish settlers – who have embarked on a retaliation "price tag" campaign in response to militant attacks and government settler evacuations.

Over the summer, a settler group torched a mosque in a West Bank village. The response then was subdued, but if that sort of activity escalates, there is potential for a Palestinian-Israeli flare up.

"At some point there's a critical mass, if Palestinians pay with lives, if the vandalism goes on, if there's the impression that Palestinian security forces are emasculated, you might see a return to acts of terror by Palestinian groups,'' Alpher said.

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