Christmas Violence in the Holy Land Shadows Middle East Peace Talks

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Ashraf Amra / Zuma Press

A Palestinian relative carries the lifeless body of Hala Abu Sebakha, who medics said was killed by shrapnel during an Israeli air strike on the Al Maghazi camp, at the morgue of Al-Aqsa hospital in Deir Al Balah, central Gaza Strip, on Dec. 24, 2013.

It may be the Season of Peace in much of the world, but the Holy Land is seeing a sharp uptick in the violence that has marred the province of Christ’s birth for most of the last century.

Israelis are alarmed by three attacks by Palestinians in as many days, including a bomb that exploded on a just-evacuated city bus, an Israeli policeman stabbed in the back outside a West Bank settlement, and the Christmas Eve death by sniper bullet of a man working on the fence that confines 1.7 million residents of the Gaza Strip.

Palestinians are seething over a surge in deaths on the West Bank, which after the latest addition — a three-year old Gaza girl killed by shrapnel from the Israeli airstrike intended to avenge the sniper death — stands at 28 so far this year. That’s more than triple the eight Palestinians killed in 2012. Another 3,600 have been injured, according to the United Nations.

The result is a rising unease on both sides of the barriers that separate the two populations, one Jewish, the other overwhelmingly Muslim. Christians account for only 3 percent of the combined population of Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, so the juxtaposition with Christmas is more apparent to a world that, on Christmas Eve, checks in at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, occupied by Israeli forces since 1967 and separated from adjacent Jerusalem by a towering concrete barrier.

“Are we facing a new intifada?” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked in a speech Tuesday, using the Arabic term for uprising first used to name the spontaneous revolt of slingshots and stone-throwing that occurred in the late 1980s. That outburst set the stage for the Oslo Accords that held out the prospect of a permanent peace based on a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

But Oslo has been on life support since the Second Intifada, which erupted in 2000 and lasted five years. That far more brutal conflict was marked by suicide bombings and armored incursions that claimed some 3,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israeli lives. Israel’s “peace camp” was also a casualty. In the last election, only one party ran on a call for resuming negotiations with the Palestinians. It won just five percent of the vote.

“We will act with a fierce offensive policy,” Netanyahu said Tuesday, “so that whoever considers attacking us would have to think twice.”

What’s striking about the new spasm of violence is where it’s happening. The Palestinians are cordoned off from Israel by concrete barriers and reinforced fences, and from one another by both geography and politics: Some 2.8 million live in the terraced stone hills of the West Bank and are governed by the Palestinian Authority led by Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the secular Fateh party.  Because Abbas opposes terror attacks – and the rival political parties, led by Hamas, that endorse them — his government quietly cooperates with Israel’s security services to arrest anyone suspected of carrying out an attack, or even throwing stones.

The far more militant Hamas controls Gaza, and the 1.6 million Palestinians confined there. But in the year since it last engaged in combat with Israel, Hamas has enforced a cease-fire with genuine rigor.  Until a sniper pulled the trigger on the Israeli Ministry of Defense employee tending the fence, the 12 months since the November 2012 fighting had seen the lowest level of violence and civilian casualties in 13 years, according to the UN.

It’s the West Bank that’s smoldering. While Gaza produced five Palestinian attacks on Israelis in November, the West Bank recorded 107, according to Shin Bet, the Israeli domestic security service. (Jerusalem, which has a sizable Palestinian population, saw another 53 incidents, up from 32 in October.)

Opinions differ on the significance of the violence — and whether it’s related to the U.S.-sponsored peace talks between Abbas’ government and Netanayahu’s, which have been going on since July.  Security officials on both sides say they detect no evidence that previously militant groups played a role in any of the attacks. To date, all the incidents appear to be the act of lone wolves, or small groups operating with limited resources or expertise: The bomb left in a bag on the No. 240 bus in suburban Tel Aviv was described as small and without the tiny bits of metal, such as ball bearings or bolts, often used to extend the kill zone.

“We have seen several attacks and some aborted attempts to attack Israelis, but still it does not amount to organized violence by the organizations that are opposed to the peace process,” notes Yoram Schweitzer, a researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies, a think tank at Tel Aviv University.

Still, the number of incidents has doubled since peace talks resumed in July, fueling speculation in Israel that the fact of negotiations roils the population. The most recent former head of Shin Bet, who spent years studying the dynamics of Palestinian society, argues that the prospects for the current talks – widely reported on both sides as dim — is aggravated by Netanyahu’s pattern during the talks of simultaneously expanding Jewish settlements, which already restrict Palestinians from 40 percent of the West Bank.

“The Palestinians feel that they are being robbed of their state,” Diskin said in a Dec. 5 speech. “The concentration of gas fumes in the air is getting to the level that a tiny spark can lead to a huge conflagration.”

That’s the residual fear of the Israeli population, still scarred from the trauma of the Second Intifada. But Palestinians suffered even more during the uprising, both in terms of casualties and freedoms, and their economy was devastated.  The memory is no less painful, but so is the daily reality of living under occupation, says Ziad Abu Ein, a former militant who now works the number two official in the prisoner affairs ministry under Abbas.

“These events are very limited and insignificant and occur because of the frustrations, harassment and suffocation of the Palestinian people and I do not think that they warrant any attention,” Abu Ein tells TIME. “They are not taking place to stop the negotiations but they are a normal expression of the anger of the Palestinians.”

–  with reporting by Rami Nazzal / Ramallah