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Sunday, December 4, 2016

By Luke Baker

JERUSALEM (Reuters) — A Jewish man stabbed and wounded four Arabs in southern Israel on Friday in an apparent reprisal attack for Palestinian violence during the worst spell of civil unrest in the region for several years.

In the past 10 days, four Israelis have been shot or stabbed to death in Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank, and at least a dozen have been wounded by Palestinians wielding knives or screwdrivers in stabbings in Tel Aviv and other Israeli cities.

Three Palestinians have also been killed, and scores wounded in clashes with Israeli security forces during stone-throwing demonstrations in East Jerusalem and across the West Bank, leading to talk of a third Palestinian uprising, or intifada.

Palestinian anger is largely focused on events at the al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem’s Old City and fears that Israel is trying to change the status quo at the holy site, revered by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and by Jews as the Temple Mount.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has denied wanting to change conditions under which Jews are allowed to visit the site but bans non-Muslim prayer, but his assurances have done little to quell Palestinian anger.

Both Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have called for calm and Palestinian police are continuing to coordinate with Israeli security forces to try to restore order, but there are few signs of the tension and violence dying down.

Palestinian protests were planned in Jerusalem and West Bank cities after Muslim prayers on Friday, and Israel has deployed thousands more police and soldiers. Muslim access to al-Aqsa has been restricted to men over 45 and women.

In the latest attack, a Jewish man in his 20s stabbed four Arab men in the southern Israeli city of Dimona, police said, adding that the motive was “nationalistic”.

The mayor of Dimona said the assailant was a resident of the city who was known to police. During questioning, police said the attacker described all Arabs as “terrorists”.

Hours later, a 14-year-old Jewish boy was stabbed and wounded by a Palestinian in the Old City of Jerusalem, a woman believed to be Palestinian tried to stab a guard at a bus station in north Israel, and a Palestinian stabbed a policeman near a Jewish settlement in the West Bank, Israeli police said.

The policeman’s attacker was shot dead, police said.

On Thursday, seven Israelis were stabbed in four separate incidents across the country, including the commercial capital Tel Aviv, fuelling concerns about a wider uprising following those of the late 1980s and early 2000s.

The violence now is on a much smaller scale than then but mistrust between Israel and the Palestinians is deep after their last negotiations ended in April 2014 without progress.

A new intifada would further complicate efforts by world leaders to resolve conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, and there is little appetite to re-engage in peace efforts between Israel and the Palestinians after many failures in the past.

The chances of peace talks resuming before U.S. President Barack Obama’s term ends appear slim.

NO PEACE, NO TALKS

Netanyahu has accused Abbas, his Fatah party and the Islamist group Hamas of inciting the violence in East Jerusalem in recent weeks. He reiterated that message at a news conference on Thursday, adding that there was no “quick fix”.

“We are in the midst of a wave of terrorism with knives, firebombs, rocks and even live fire,” he said.

“While these acts are mostly unorganized, they are all the result of wild and mendacious incitement by Hamas, the Palestinian Authority, several countries in the region and… the Islamic Movement in Israel.”

Abbas has praised Palestinians for defending al-Aqsa, a rallying point for Muslims throughout the region, but also urged people to engage in “peaceful popular resistance”. The leader of Hamas in Gaza urged Palestinians to step up attacks.

“We gives souls and blood for Jerusalem, Jerusalem and Aqsa is part of the religion,” Ismail Haniyeh said at Friday prayers.

“We call for escalating and deepening the intifada… We are proud of you, the heroes of knives.”

Israeli troops opened fire on Palestinians holding a rally near Gaza’s border fence with Israel on Friday, wounding 12 people, medics in Gaza said.

As well as tensions over al-Aqsa, Palestinian anger has mounted as Israeli forces took a tougher line against protesters who are violent. Netanyahu has told troops and police they can shoot Palestinian stone-throwers if they have reason to believe an Israeli life is threatened.

There is also frustration at the failure of Israeli police to track down the Jewish perpetrators suspected of an arson attack on a Palestinian family in the West Bank two months ago in which a child and his parents were killed.

In turn, Israelis are on edge after deadly stone-throwing attacks by Palestinians and the killing of an Israeli couple in the West Bank 10 days ago. They were shot as they drove in their car with their four children.

(Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Dan Williams in Jerusalem, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Photo: Palestinian men take part in Friday prayers outside the Old City as Israeli policemen patrol nearby in Arab east Jerusalem neighbourhood of Ras al-Amud, Oct. 9, 2015. REUTERS/Ammar Awad