Is Palestinian-Israeli violence being driven by social media?

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Masked Palestinians surround a bonfire in Shuafat, East Jerusalem (05/10/15)Image source, Reuters

Violence between Israel and the Palestinians is once again spiralling, with casualties mounting by the day.

Here are some key questions and answers about what is going on.

What is happening between Israelis and Palestinians?

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Israelis have been targeted in a growing number of apparent lone-wolf attacks

There has been a wave of stabbings and some gun attacks on Israelis by Palestinians since early October, and one apparent revenge stabbing by an Israeli.

The attacks, some of which have been fatal, have struck in Jerusalem, across Israel and in the occupied West Bank.

Israel has tightened security and clashed with rioting Palestinians, leading to deaths on the Palestinian side.

There has also been associated violence in the border area inside the neighbouring Gaza Strip.

What's behind the latest unrest?

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Jerusalem's Temple Mount/ Haram al-Sharif explained

Violence between the two communities has spiralled since clashes erupted at a flashpoint Jerusalem holy site in mid-September.

It was fuelled by rumours among Palestinians that Israel was attempting to alter in favour of Jews a delicate long-standing religious arrangement governing the site. Israel repeatedly dismissed the rumours as incitement.

Soon afterwards, two Israelis travelling with their four children were shot dead by Palestinians in the West Bank. Two days later the stabbing attacks began.

Both Israel and the Palestinian authorities have accused one another of doing nothing to protect each other's communities.

Israel says the Palestinian leadership is inciting attacks, and that the attackers are driven not by political frustration but by a radical religious ideology which opposes Israel's very existence.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has blamed "acts of aggression" by the Israeli authorities and Jewish settlers for the latest violence.

But isn't there more to it than that?

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The war which followed Israel's creation left generations of Palestinian refugees

Yes. Much more. The current violence stems from decades of unresolved conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. At its most basic, it is a fight over land and national rights.

There are rival and seemingly incompatible historical narratives. The Palestinian position is that Israel was created on their land in 1948, turning many into refugees, and further occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem, in the 1967 Middle East war. They say any hoped-for future Palestinian state is being undermined by Israeli settlement-building in the occupied territories. The settlements are seen as illegal under international law, though Israel disputes this.

Added to this is Israel's expansion in East Jerusalem, where the proportion of Jewish Israeli inhabitants has swelled compared to the number of Palestinian residents, and where Palestinian districts suffer from poor infrastructure and services.

Israel's counter-position is that its right to exist is incontestable and that the Palestinian refugee problem is the result of wars forced on it by Arab neighbours. It says the Palestinian leadership - despite officially recognising Israel - have not proven they are willing to accept its permanence nor give up violence to achieve their aims.

Peace talks aimed at ending the conflict by creating a Palestinian state alongside Israel have repeatedly collapsed over the years and many on both sides have lost faith in the process.

Are the attacks being driven by social media?

Image source, YouTube
Image caption,
Hamas released a social media video depicting an attack on Jews

While there is no clear evidence that the attacks have been centrally organised, some Palestinians have taken to social media to champion them.

Posts praising and encouraging attacks on Israelis have emerged on YouTube and Facebook, while Twitter hashtags including "Jerusalem Intifada" or "Intifada of the Knives" are gaining traction among Palestinians.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin has described the inflammatory use of social media as "Osama Bin Laden meets [Facebook founder] Mark Zuckerberg".

A staged online video in the name of Hamas, the militant group which dominates Gaza, which portrayed an Arab bystander stabbing two "Jews" for bullying Arab children and called for a new intifada, was removed from Hamas' YouTube channel after Israel's foreign ministry complained that it glorified violence.

Many of the attacks and aftermath have been filmed on mobile phones and CCTV, getting quickly uploaded and shared. Israeli officials have expressed fear that images of assailants being shot could fuel anger and inspire further attacks.

Experts have also noticed a marked increase in anti-Arab rhetoric on Israeli social media sites, according to Israel's Haaretz newspaper. It says the use of inciteful language among Israelis on the internet soared in the wake of the first stabbing attacks.

Is this a new Palestinian intifada?

There have been two organised intifadas, or uprisings, by Palestinians against Israeli occupation, in the 1980s and early 2000s.

With peace talks moribund, some observers have questioned whether we are now seeing a third.

The stabbing attacks seem to be spontaneous and although they have been praised by militant groups and supporters of Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah faction on social media, Mr Abbas has said Palestinians are not interested in a further escalation.

However, there is a danger that the attacks could gain momentum and become orchestrated by militant groups, and unable to be reined in by the recognised authorities.

What is the East Jerusalem connection in all of this?

Most of the attackers have come from East Jerusalem. Israel has occupied the sector since 1967 and considers the entire city its capital, but this is not recognised by the international community.

There are about 300,000 Palestinians in East Jerusalem, all of whom have so-called "permanent residence" status, meaning they can live and work in Israel and, inter alia, receive the same social benefits and health insurance as Israelis. They can apply for full citizenship, but most have chosen not to, preferring not to recognise Israeli sovereignty.

Some 200,000 Jewish citizens live in 12 settlements in East Jerusalem. They are widely considered illegal under international law, though Israel disputes this.

Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state, but Israel says the city will never again be divided.

Arguably the most contentious issue between Israel and the Palestinians is the fate of a site in the Old City area of East Jerusalem known to Jews as the Temple Mount and Muslims as Haram al-Sharif. The compound is revered by Jews as the site of two biblical temples and is the holiest site in Judaism.

It also contains the al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest shrine in Islam. Sensitivities around what happens there means it is a continual source of religious and political tension, sometimes spilling over into violence.