Violent confrontations between Palestinians and Israel Defense Forces soldiers in East Jerusalem and several West Bank cities are becoming a risky routine. The phrases are familiar - "disturbances," "stone-throwing," "tear gas," "breaching the Temple Mount" - and dredge up from our memories a reality that is waiting to be clarified: Is this the beginning of a third intifada or are these "merely" a series of local incidents that can be controlled by tear gas and rubber bullets?
The most recent confrontations have an immediate catalyst: the hunger strike by four Palestinian security prisoners, led by Samar Issawi, who was released in the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange, but arrested again, for allegedly returning to terror, according to security officials. The clashes in Hebron have their own "cause," with tomorrow being the anniversary of Baruch Goldstein's massacre of 29 Palestinian civilians at the Cave of the Patriarchs in 1994.
But it would be a mistake to attribute the violence in the territories solely to an anniversary or to a hunger strike that has already garnered international attention. Rather, these are sparks that are liable to cause a conflagration if Israel continues to ignore the source of the anger and relies, as usual, on military solutions.
The formula for reducing the tension in the territories is no secret. It requires the launching of substantive talks with the Palestinians, conditioned on freezing construction in the settlements and a readiness to give up territory. In other words, "two states for two peoples" needs to be translated immediately into action in the field. But when Israel has no government that can make decisions, the negotiations are conducted in the street, with stones, rubber bullets and gas canisters.
Israel and the Palestinians find themselves once again on the edge of the abyss, in a situation that must be dealt with carefully and thoughtfully, before the events push both sides over the edge and into a bitter struggle that rages out of control. This is a stage in which extreme restraint, control and oversight of every soldier bearing weapons, a humane approach to the demands of the hunger strikers and the careful release of security prisoners - and certainly not the re-arrests of those released in the Shalit exchange - can reduce the scope of the street clashes. None of these are a substitute for peace talks or a diplomatic arrangement, nor will they ultimately calm a populace frustrated by nearly 46 years of occupation. But they are necessary in order to deny the stone and the bullet veto power over any chance for a solution.
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