Four more Palestinians shot dead on the streets
Daily shootings and knife attacks have raised fears that the region is on the cusp of heavy violence, writes Inna Lazareva
The unrest sweeping the Holy Land claimed more lives on Saturday when four Palestinians were shot dead after trying to stab Israelis.
No fewer than eight Israelis have been stabbed to death and 36 Palestinians killed by the security forces or civilians during the past month. The daily bloodshed has raised fears of the outbreak of a third Palestinian "intifada", or "uprising".
President Barack Obama appealed for calm and urged Israeli and Palestinian leaders to avoid inflammatory rhetoric. One cause of tension has been a perception among many Palestinians that Israel is tightening its control over the holy sites in Jerusalem, and changing a delicate status quo.
France has launched a diplomatic initiative to allay these concerns, saying international observers should be sent to the Old City in Jerusalem.
In the first incident of the day, a 16-year-old Palestinian boy apparently drew a knife when he was waylaid by two Israeli policemen in East Jerusalem. The officers shot him dead.
A few hours later, an Israeli civilian shot and killed a Palestinian in the West Bank city of Hebron. The Israeli said the man had tried to stab him. A few hundred Jewish settlers live in the heart of Hebron, surrounded by a Palestinian population of 170,000, making this city one of the most dangerous areas of the occupied territories.
The third incident also took place in Hebron, where a Palestinian woman tried to stab a female Israeli police officer, lightly wounding her hand. The officer then shot her assailant dead.
Mr Obama expressed his fear of an escalation, saying: "We condemn in the strongest possible terms violence directed against innocent people, and believe that Israel has a right to maintain basic law and order and protect its citizens from knife attacks."
He urged Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, and Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, to avoid inflaming the situation, saying it was important for "people in positions of power to try to damp down rhetoric that may feed violence, anger or misunderstanding."
Commentators argue that mainstream political leaders on both sides have no interest in escalating the situation. Mr Abbas has made clear his belief that another intifada would be futile. He publicly described the last uprising, which took place between 2000 and 2004, as "one of our worst mistakes".
For now, the stabbings appear to be spontaneous incidents. The Palestinians responsible have not had known connections with armed groups.
The biggest danger is that unrest may escalate without a guiding hand, perhaps because of a perceived threat to the holy places in Jerusalem or a heavy-handed response from the authorities.
Mr Netanyahu's security cabinet has already authorised the security forces to take a series of measures to prevent the stabbings, including sealing off areas of East Jerusalem.
Most of the attackers have been Palestinians from the eastern half of the city. While West Bank Palestinians find it extremely difficult to enter Israel, those living in East Jerusalem have id-en-t-ity cards allowing free movement.
During a security council debate on Friday, Taye-Brook Zerihoun, the assistant secretary general, warned against "reckless statements made by Palestinian and Israeli extremist elements". He said a "heavy handed approach by the Israeli security services" had helped to fuel the recent unrest.
France has proposed sending international observers to Jerusalem's holy places, particularly the esplanade around Al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest site in Islam.
A draft "presidential statement" that may go before the United Nations Security Council provides for a team of neutral monitors to ensure there is no change in the existing rules on access for worshippers.
But securing the passage of the non-binding statement would require unanimity among the Security Council's 15 members.
Riyad Mansour, the Palestinian ambassador to the UN, also urged the security council to pass a resolution that would guarantee the safety and protection of ordinary Palestinians in Jerusalem. Israel's government immediately voiced its opposition, warning that any such resolution would "violate the status quo of the last several decades".
Danny Danon, the Israeli ambassador to the UN, said the idea would not be "helpful or contribute to stability".
After Palestinian worshippers were massacred inside a mosque by a Jewish gunman in Hebron in 1994, the UN adopted Resolution 904, which placed international observers in the city. The Palestinian leadership believes the same step should now be taken in respect of the Old City in Jerusalem.