Stabbings put Israel on dangerous precipice

Story highlights

  • Alan Elsner: Seemingly spontaneous Palestinian knife attacks stoke panic in Jerusalem; police clampdown with curfews will be futile
  • He says Israel must face Palestinians' rage at status quo. America, global leaders must push compromise to pull parties from edge

Alan Elsner is vice president of communications for J Street, the political arm of the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

Jerusalem (CNN)To be in Jerusalem these past few days is to feel a city giving way to an overwhelming feeling of panic and terror.

The city, on high alert after a series of stabbings by Palestinians in recent weeks, is surrounded by roadblocks and checkpoints manned by nervous, heavily-armed soldiers. Helicopters whir overhead. Any Palestinian vehicle trying to enter is stopped and searched. The government has empowered the police to close off Palestinian neighborhoods and impose curfews.
Alan Elsner
And yet it is doubtful whether these measures can do anything to restore calm or prevent attacks. Israel is not facing an offensive mounted by organized terror cells but a series of seemingly spontaneous individual knife attacks mostly carried out by teenagers. In one attack Monday, a 13-year-old Palestinian seriously wounded an Israeli kid his own age who was riding his bike in a neighborhood of East Jerusalem. How do the security forces prevent a teenager from taking a bread knife out of a kitchen drawer and stabbing a randomly-chosen victim on the street?
    These attacks don't appear to have a political agenda as such. They are an expression of deep rage and frustration stemming from a feeling within the Palestinian population of hopelessness and powerlessness in the face of a nearly half-century Israeli occupation. It is almost as if Palestinians are sending Israelis a message: If we are suffering, we want to make sure that you suffer too. If we are miserable, you too will be miserable. If there is no peace for us, neither will there be peace for you.
    An Israeli government that has offered the Palestinians no prospect of ending the conflict through a two-state solution, and with a Prime Minister who has vowed never to allow a Palestinian state to be created on his watch is now reaping the fruits of that policy. An Israeli government that has continued to relentlessly expand and widen its settlements in the Occupied West Bank is now realizing that there is a price to pay for its actions.
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    Both sides must realize that they have no choice other than to negotiate a just end to this conflict, and that can only come through a two-state solution. Without the ability to exercise their right to self-determination, Palestinians will continue to resist with whatever means they have at their disposal.
    This is not to justify these meaningless and horrific knife attacks. But if Israel continues to regard this phenomenon as a security challenge that can be met through more efficient policing, rather than a political problem that demands a political response, it will have totally missed the point and the violence will only escalate.
    The United States and the European nations have a vital role to play. The status quo is not sustainable -- and in fact no longer exists. Without a renewed diplomatic initiative backed by real American muscle that pressures both sides to compromise, the situation could get much worse very fast.
    That is because these attacks deepen the paranoia that both peoples feel toward each other. Israelis may well look at every Arab they see (and even Jews with a so-called "Arab features") as potential murderers and cry for revenge. And Palestinians will likely respond to heavy-handed Israeli attempts to deal with the violence through harsh collective punishments by deepening their hatred and resentment of Israel.
    This is a very dangerous moment. There is a real risk that Hamas will decide to join the battle in support of its Palestinian brethren in the West Bank by renewing rocket attacks against Israeli cities -- in which case we could have another war between Israel and Gaza. The Palestinian security forces in the West Bank, which have been trying to tamp down the violence, are being accused by their own people of doing Israel's dirty work. They may decide to step aside. The Palestinian Authority itself could collapse.
    What we need now is responsible leadership from all parties -- Israel, the Palestinians, the United States and the international community. There is no time to waste. We are sitting on the edge of a volcano.