Israeli leader calls for calm amid spiraling attacks
JERUSALEM (AP) — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to calm Israelis Thursday as a wave of Palestinian stabbing attacks spread deeper into Israel and clashes erupted across the West Bank, vowing to combat the growing violence without alienating international allies.
Netanyahu has come under fire from hard-liners within his own governing coalition as well as opposition lawmakers for not putting an end to the surging violence, which erupted weeks ago over tensions surrounding a Jerusalem site revered by Muslims and Jews.
The unrest began with clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli police within the Jerusalem hilltop compound. But in recent days the violence has intensified and a series of attacks by Palestinians, carried out mainly by young people with no known links to armed groups, has shocked Israelis and raised fears of a new uprising.
“Israelis are acting with bravery, courage, restraint and determination to neutralize and kill the terrorists in the act,” Netanyahu told reporters at a press conference with top defense officials. “With persistence, systematically and with determination, we will prove that terror doesn’t pay.”
Israelis around the country have watched warily in recent days as the violence spread away from Jerusalem and the West Bank and deep into Israel. The violence continued Thursday, with four separate stabbing attacks in Jerusalem, the West Bank, Tel Aviv and northern Israel that wounded several Israelis.
In the Tel Aviv incident, a Palestinian stabbed four Israelis with a screwdriver before a soldier shot and killed him.
Palestinian protesters meanwhile clashed with Israeli forces in a number of locations in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, where a 20-year-old protester was killed by live fire, according to a Palestinian hospital official and witnesses.
Four Israelis have been killed in attacks over the past week. Seven Palestinians, including four alleged attackers, have been killed in the unrest. More than 130 Palestinians have been wounded in demonstrations and clashes across the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
In a measure meant to ease tensions, Netanyahu banned Cabinet ministers and lawmakers from the sensitive Jerusalem holy site, fearing any high-profile spectacle could further enflame tensions.
The move appeared to put him on a collision course with hard-liners in his government who have been pressing for a harsh crackdown and settlement expansion in the West Bank in response to the violence. Netanyahu said Thursday he was focusing on combating the violence and didn’t want to anger international allies, who oppose settlement construction, at a time when Israel needed support for security measures.
He also likely fears that a tougher response could anger the U.S. administration and lead to increased casualties on both sides, risking the outbreak of a full-fledged uprising like those in the 1980s and 2000s.
The Jerusalem hilltop compound lies at the heart of recent tensions. It is home to the Al-Aqsa mosque and is revered by Muslims as the spot where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven and by Jews as the site of the two Jewish biblical Temples.
Many Palestinians believe Israel is trying to expand the Jewish presence at the site, a claim Israel adamantly denies. Under a longstanding arrangement administered by Islamic authorities, Jews are allowed to visit the site during certain hours but not pray there.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Thursday he would not allow his people to be “dragged” into more violence with Israel. Speaking to business leaders in the West Bank city of Ramallah, he said he was committed to “peaceful popular resistance,” though he backs the protesters who have clashed with Israeli police at Al-Aqsa.
He insisted the Palestinians are not interested in a further escalation but that his “hands are with those who are protecting Al-Aqsa mosque.”
The attacks were initially confined to east Jerusalem and the West Bank, territory seized by Israel in the 1967 war and claimed by the Palestinians for their future state.
But on Wednesday, new stabbings occurred outside a crowded mall in central Israel and in a southern Israeli town. With the attacks spilling into the Israeli heartland, Netanyahu has warned rattled Israelis to be on guard.
Israel has beefed up security in response to the violence in Jerusalem, and on Thursday police set up metal detectors at the entrance to Israel’s Old City.
In Jerusalem’s Old City, dozens of groups of police officers manned the narrow, cobblestoned alleyways, the scene of attacks in recent days. In a reflection of the tense atmosphere, police were seen searching the shoes of some Palestinian passengers at a Jerusalem light rail station.
Appeals for calm came from abroad as well, and in a statement from Geneva on Thursday, the U.N. human rights chief warned that “more bloodshed will only lead to more hatred on both sides.”
Zeid Raad al-Hussein said he was “deeply concerned at the increasing number of reported attacks” by both Israeli settlers and Palestinians. “The high number of casualties, in particular those resulting from the use of live ammunition by Israeli security forces, raise concerns of excessive use of force,” he said.
Dozens of Palestinian protesters threw stones at Israeli troops near the West Bank city of Ramallah and elsewhere on Thursday. Israeli forces responded with tear gas and stun grenades.
In another sign of tensions, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat — a former military officer and licensed gun owner — defended his decision to carry a weapon during a visit this week to an Arab neighborhood. On Thursday, he encouraged other licensed gun owners to also carry their weapons.
“One of the advantages Israel has is that there are many veterans of military units with operational combat experience,” he said. “Having a weapon increases the resident’s confidence.”
Associated Press writer Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.