Israel struggles to contain wave of stabbing attacks
FARES AKRAM & IAN DEITCH
Oct. 09, 2015
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Unrest that erupted several weeks ago at Jerusalem's most sensitive holy site spread Friday to Gaza in the form of deadly border clashes with Palestinian protesters, as Israeli security forces struggled to contain a wave of Palestinian stabbing attacks against civilians and soldiers.
For the first time since the current violence began, clashes broke out along the Gaza border after Palestinians in the territory ruled by the Islamic militant group Hamas rolled burning tires and threw rocks at Israeli troops on the frontier. Six Palestinians were killed and a dozen were wounded, the Palestinian Health Ministry said.
The Israeli military said "More than a thousand rioters infiltrated the buffer zone engaging the forces at the security fence. Rioters reached the security fence- hurled a grenade, rocks and rolled burning tires at Israeli forces ... threatening to breach the fence and storm the adjacent communities." It said troops fired warning shots and then fired at main instigators to prevent their advance.
Recent days have seen a series of attacks by young Palestinians wielding household items like kitchen knives, screwdrivers and even a vegetable peeler. The youths had no known links to armed groups who have targeted Israeli soldiers and civilians at random, complicating security efforts.
The violence, including the first apparent revenge attack by an Israeli, raised fears of the unrest spiraling further out of control.
The unpredictability and brutality of the assaults, coupled with the young age of some of the attackers, have shocked Israelis and raised fears a new Palestinian intifada — or uprising — could be underway.
In Jerusalem, a Palestinian stabbed and wounded a 14-year-old Israeli with a vegetable peeler Friday before being arrested. In another attack near the entrance of Kiryat Arba, a West Bank settlement, a Palestinian was shot dead by a police officer after he attacked him with a knife and tried to seize his weapon, police said.
In northern Israel, a 29-year-old Arab-Israeli woman was shot and wounded while trying to stab people at a bus station in the town of Afula, where another stabbing had taken place the day before, police said.
Gaza-based Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh applauded the recent Palestinian stabbing attacks across Israel at a speech at Friday prayers, labeling it as an intifada.
Israeli officials have said the violence is not on that scale for now, but rather is of the kind unleashed periodically over the decades.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called it a "terror wave." He and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas have tried to lower tensions in recent days but both appear unable to contain the unrest.
Veteran commentator Ben Caspit told Channel 10 that Israel is on the "seam line" between the violence spreading and containment. One of the challenges is that there is no clear identifiable enemy, with about half of "the lone-wolf" attackers coming from east Jerusalem and the rest from the West Bank.
The acts are independent, spontaneous moments of rage, he said, noting the stabbings with the vegetable peeler and one involving a screwdriver the day before.
Household items are used as weapons because guns can be harder to get for Palestinians unaffiliated with militant groups.
Not much can be done from an intelligence agency point of view to prevent spontaneous attacks by an individual who "decides to take a screwdriver and stab the first Jew that passes by," said Yuval Diskin, Israel's former internal security chief, in an interview with Channel 2 TV.
Video on social media Friday showed the moments when Israeli security forces shot and wounded an Arab woman at the Afula bus station. Police said the woman, who wore a long robe and Islamic headscarf, had pulled a knife to stab a soldier and posed an "immediate threat."
The video showed the woman surrounded by several members of the security forces with their guns drawn. Israeli media said security personnel called to her in Arabic and Hebrew multiple times to put the weapon down and that she had waved it while yelling, "Death to police." The police later released video of a long-bladed kitchen knife they said she had used.
The woman was shot in her lower body and treated at a hospital.
A Palestinian stabbing attack had occurred in the same city a day before.
Protests spread late Friday to northern Israel where scores of people from the country's Arab minority clashed with officers in protests linked to the unrest with the Palestinians.
Arab citizens make up some 20 percent of Israel's population. They enjoy full citizenship rights but have long complained of discrimination in housing, jobs and other areas of society. They often identify with Palestinian nationalism.
The latest unrest began about three weeks ago, when Palestinians repeatedly barricaded themselves inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem's Old City, hurling stones, firebombs and fireworks at police.
It was fueled by Palestinian allegations that Israel plans to change the delicate arrangement at the hilltop compound, sacred to both Muslims and Jews. Israel has adamantly denied the allegations and accused Palestinian leaders of inciting the violence and spreading lies over the shrines in east Jerusalem. Abbas gave a hard-line speech at the U.N. last month, saying Israelis desecrate the holy site with their "dirty feet."
Non-Muslim visitors are only allowed to enter the site at specific hours and are banned by police from praying there. Many Muslims view these visits as a provocation and accuse Jewish extremists of plotting to take over the site. Israel has promised to ensure the delicate arrangement at the site and insists it will not allow the status quo to be changed.
The fate of the hilltop site is at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is revered to Jews as the Temple Mount, site of the two biblical Jewish temples, and by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, where they believe the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.
The attacks initially were confined to east Jerusalem and the West Bank — both territories captured by Israel from Jordan in the 1967 war and claimed by the Palestinians for a future state — but spread to Tel Aviv and other Israeli cities this week.
What began as Palestinians throwing rocks and firebombs at passing cars and police has morphed into a deadly shooting and knife attacks by Palestinians on Israeli civilians and soldiers.
In what appeared to be the first revenge attack amid the violence, an Israeli man stabbed and wounded four Arabs in the southern Israeli city of Dimona, police spokeswoman Luba Samri said. After his arrest, the assailant said he acted in retaliation for the numerous Palestinian attacks, Israeli media reported.
The attacker is a "mentally ill man," said Dimona Mayor Beni Bitton, telling Channel 10 that two of the victims worked for City Hall, and that passers-by quickly provided first aid to the wounded Arabs.
Netanyahu "strongly condemned the harming of innocent Arabs," saying that anyone who resorts to violence will be brought to justice.
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby referred to the Palestinian attacks on Israelis as "acts of terror." Kirby said he had no details on the Israeli attack when asked.
It was mostly quiet Friday at the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Israeli police banned men under 45 from the compound while women of all ages entered freely. The age limit has been imposed intermittently because authorities believe that younger Palestinians are mostly involved in the violence.
Five Palestinians have been killed while carrying out attacks against Israelis over the past week, while another three Palestinians were killed in protests and clashes in the West Bank. The Red Crescent medical service says over 500 Palestinians have been wounded in violent protests in the West Bank since the weekend, including about 100 from live fire.
Last week, Palestinians shot two Israelis to death in front of their children in the West Bank. In a separate incident, Palestinians killed two Israeli men and wounded a mother and toddler in Jerusalem.
Associated Press writer Mathew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.