Middle East Violence flares as Kerry arrives in Israel

Violence flares as Kerry arrives in Israel

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is greeted by U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro, left, Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2015, upon arrival in Tel Aviv, Israel.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is greeted by U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro, left, Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2015, upon arrival in Tel Aviv, Israel.

A Palestinian motorist rammed his vehicle into a group of Israeli soldiers at a West Bank checkpoint on Tuesday, wounding three, the military said, as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived for his first visit in more than a year on a mission to try and calm two months of deadly violence.

Kerry touched down amid a new rash of deadly attacks that have dampened any lingering hopes of renewed peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians during the Obama administration’s final year. Kerry conceded his visit had none of the ambitious agendas of past trips and was primarily focused on stemming the violence.

The violence erupted in mid-September over tensions surrounding a sensitive Jerusalem holy site and quickly spread across Israel and into the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Over this period, 19 Israelis have been killed, mostly in stabbings, while 89 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire. Of them, 57 are said by Israel to be attackers and the rest were killed in clashes.

The past week has been the deadliest thus far.

A Palestinian fatally stabbed an Israeli soldier at a West Bank gas station Monday before being killed along with two other Palestinian attackers. Five people were killed in stabbing and shooting attacks last Thursday, including Ezra Schwartz, an 18-year-old American from Kerry’s home state of Massachusetts.

Kerry lamented Schwartz’s death as “another young life cut short.”

“It happens almost every day over there and it’s terrible, and too many Israelis have been killed and stabbed, and too many Palestinians,” he told reporters traveling with him in the Middle East on Monday. “And there’s no excuse for any of the violence. There’s just no rationale.”

Amid so much violence, Kerry said “there’s no highfalutin, grandiose, hidden agenda here.” He said he sought steps “that could calm things down a little bit so people aren’t living in absolute, daily terror that they might be stabbed or driven into or shot trying to walk around their city.”

The attacks renewed Tuesday as Kerry landed in Israel.

The Israeli military said a Palestinian motorist rammed the soldiers at a West Bank checkpoint, lightly wounding three of them. It said the attacker was shot and wounded at the scene.

Kerry will meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other senior Israeli officials before traveling to the West Bank for discussions with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The script is well-trodden, with Kerry likely to ask both sides to avoid provocative actions. For the Israelis, that means holding off on construction of new settlements in lands the Palestinians seek for their future state. For the Palestinians, it means ending incitement to violence.

Kerry has visited Israel and the Palestinian territories only once since the collapse in April 2014 of a nine-month peace process he led. He traveled back three months later during warfare between Israel and Hamas militants in Gaza.

In recent months, Kerry and other U.S. officials have suggested a renewed peace push might be possible. Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton took unsuccessful stabs at a two-state solution during their final months in office. But the rising death toll seems, for now, to have created an environment that makes a similar commitment by President Barack Obama unlikely.

Kerry said the U.S. was prepared to re-engage in a serious peace effort, and “we have ideas for how things could proceed.”

“But this street violence doesn’t provide any leader with a framework within which they can look their people in the eye and say, ‘There’s a reason to be sitting down and talking about this or that,’ ” he said. “People aren’t in the mood for concessions. They’re in the mood for being tough.”

On a visit to the West Bank on Monday, Netanyahu didn’t suggest he was adopting a softer approach. Israel, he vowed, would enter “villages, communities and homes” and carry out “widespread arrests.”

Abbas, for his part, has provided no indication that he wants to restart direct peace talks with the Israelis anytime soon.

Israel says the recent violence stems from Palestinian incitement and incendiary videos on social media. The Palestinians say it is rooted in frustration over almost five decades of Israeli occupation and little hope for obtaining independence. Palestinians also accuse Israel of using excessive force, saying some attackers can be stopped without being killed.