Bethlehem is renowned for its festive atmosphere come Christmastime, but this year, the mood was decidedly melancholic. In the lead up to the 25th, usually bustling establishments were half empty, the streets were quiet, and the locals hardly in the mindset for celebration.
The recent swell in Israeli-Palestinian violence has dampened festivities. On Christmas Eve, three Israelis were stabbed outside Jerusalem’s Jaffa Gate. Police opened fire, killing both Palestinian attackers and one of the injured Israelis. This was only the latest in a spate of civilian attacks – stabbings, shootings, hit-and-runs – which have killed over 20 Israelis since September. The death toll on the Palestinian side is even higher: over a hundred have lost their lives in violent reprisals and border clashes over the same period. Some commentators are referring to this as the Third Intifada, although the conflict doesn't appear to be centrally coordinated in the style of the uprisings of the 80s and early 2000s.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is doing his best to link the violence to the rise of Islamic extremism elsewhere in the Middle East, thus absolving Israel of responsibility. Yet, a number of past and present Israeli officials have rejected the idea that Palestinian attackers and IS insurgents are brothers in arms. Rather, frustration with the stagnating peace process – namely, the aggressive Israeli settlement policies and the perceived Judaization of East Jerusalem – are driving Palestinian rebellion.
In September, rumours began circulating that Tel Aviv was planning to alter a decades old agreement governing East Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque in order to build a Jewish temple there. The Israeli government denied such claims, despite having recently imposed entry restrictions for Palestinian visitors. Simultaneously, right-wing Israeli religious organisations were offered security service protection to expand their activities in East Jerusalem. In October, a Palestinian family was evicted from their home and the land transferred to an ultra-conservative Israeli group.
Without concerted political action on both sides, the violence is likely to continue for some time and then peter out – at least until the next flashpoint. Israel's most-read newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, editorialised this month that both Netanyahu's government and the Palestinian Authority (PA) have “been offering Palestinian youths nothing but despair over the years.” Rather than engaging in dialogue, Netanyahu has simply escalated collective punishment; arguably a domestically directed tactic rather than a strategy he genuinely believes will put an end to Palestinian terrorism. On the other side, Palestinians are increasingly disillusioned with Abbas's PA. It has offered no alternative channel for political frustration and has exhibited little leadership in the resistance movement.
If the broken peace process is to be patched together, a number of things need to happen. Israel must abandon the settlement policy that places it so at odds with international opinion. Until it signals a real commitment to doing so, Palestinian youths will continue to live in fear and anger. Such an about-turn will require either crippling international pressure or the kind of domestic leadership unimaginable in contemporary Israel’s conservative political environment. The PA, too, has an important role to play. If Israel acts favourably, the PA has a duty to steer Palestinian youth away from the path of violence and into meaningful channels of political engagement.
This month, Palestinians in Bethlehem erected a resistance tree, claiming that all they wanted for Christmas was an end to the occupation. Unless the new year brings a new spirit to negotiations, they may yet be waiting in vain.
Isabella Borshoff is the June - December 2016 Middle East and North Africa Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.
Image Credit: hjl (cropped) (Flickr: Creative Commons)