It is dangerously tense in Jerusalem right now

Israeli security forces stand guard outside the Old City in East Jerusalem on Oct. 10, 2015.

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The first debate between democratic US presidential contenders was last night. And not a single one of them mentioned Israel or Palestine in any meaningful way. That means not one of them addressed the distressing rise in violence that has taken hold there over the last couple weeks.

A series of attacks in Jerusalem yesterday killed three Israelis and wounded more than 20. It was one of the worst days of violence in a while, so everyone in the region is on edge. Since Oct. 1, at least seven Israelis and 29 Palestinians have been killed in back-and-forth violence.

It is young people on the Palestinian side and security forces on the Israeli side who are mostly carrying out the attacks. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Tuesday said the “apparent excessive use of force” by Israeli security forces was “troubling.”

As an example: security forces shot dead two Palestinian protesters — aged 12 and 15 — at a Gaza border fence over the weekend. Police have also shot and killed a number of young Palestinians who police believed were the perpetrators of attacks — mostly stabbings — on Israeli Jews. Little attempt is made to arrest these young people, which means there is no opportunity for the due process of a trial.

A lot of people are calling this latest violence the beginning of a third Palestinian intifada, or uprising. The violence, however, began well before Oct. 1. Really it's been simmering since the summer of 2014, when an Israeli bombing campaign in Gaza and related hostilities killed 2,200 people, mostly Palestinians, many of them children. For a few months after those bombings, tensions and attacks flared in Jerusalem, resulting in a series of killings and revenge killings from both sides. (Here is a timeline of the attacks from last year. And here is a timeline of the more recent violence.)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called an emergency meeting early Wednesday and announced possible new security measures, which included sealing off Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.  


Much of this recent friction is attributed to the concerns among Palestinians that Al Aqsa mosque, one of holiest places in Islam, is under threat by Israeli Jews. But really, all tensions in Israel and Palestine are historic. They go back many decades and are mostly territorial rather than religious.

In East Jerusalem, Palestinians are seething. They have been for a long time. Israel has occupied East Jerusalem (and the rest of the West Bank) since 1967, an occupation deemed illegal by most of the international community. Palestinians have ever since been officially marginalized. Neighborhoods in the east receive less funding than the predominantly Jewish west. Municipal services are scarce. And building permits are expensive and nearly impossible to obtain. As a result, Israel often destroys Palestinian homes it says were built illegally.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu is pushing ahead with a plan to build 1,000 new homes in East Jerusalem for Jewish settlers. US President Barack Obama has tried to prevent this. But apparently there is only so much influence $3.1 billion in annual aid can buy you. US Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday blamed the expansion of settlements, which essentially involves stealing Palestinian land, for the rise in tensions.

Peace in the Middle East is getting further and further away.


The democratic contenders for US president didn’t talk about any of these issues last night. In fact, they didn’t really talk a whole lot about the world outside the United States at all. While the candidates — especially Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — spoke deftly on many domestic issues, in the brief time that was devoted to talking about somewhere else, they all seemed somewhat uncomfortable.

Russian President Vladimir Putin came up, for a second. Sanders said Putin would regret his actions in Syria. He didn’t say why. And then he said Putin was already regretting his actions in Ukraine. Sanders did not say how he was so intimately in tune with Putin’s emotional state. Clinton told a story from 2009 when she and Obama, in her words, were “literally ... hunting for the Chinese" during climate discussions in Copenhagen in order to get them to the negotiating table. It sounded exciting, if unsettling. But she didn’t elaborate. She also said nuclear proliferation was the biggest threat to the world but didn't talk about America's own massive arsenal. The Iran deal came up very briefly, as did tensions in the South China Sea.

Most of the brief international discussion was about Syria. And that was really just a few minutes of candidates stumbling around the issue and avoiding saying much of substance. Most of them retreated to the comfort of criticizing the American war in Iraq, a strategy that played well for then-candidate Obama in 2008 and is certainly relevant today. But it felt a bit dated this time around.

There was one thing that they all made very clear on foreign policy: They would not be afraid to use military force abroad.

Oh, and we're all tired of hearing about Clinton's emails. Thanks for that one, Bernie.