RAMALLAH, West Bank, March 17 (Tom Perry/Reuters) - A surge in Palestinian-Israeli violence on the streets of Jerusalem
and the West Bank
is a sign of broader instability ahead unless the United States can quickly restore faith in the peace process
. Clashes this month indicate the rising tension between Palestinians and a right-wing Israeli government
which has incensed Palestinians with moves they believe aim to deepen the Jewish state's control of the holy city and its hinterland.
The violence, the worst since Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
formed his coalition a year ago, has mainly been restricted to stone-throwing by Palestinians and the use of rubber bullets and tear gas by Israeli security forces.
Few see a return to the kind of bloodshed seen a few years ago, not least because, for all its frustration, the Palestinian Authority
of President Mahmoud Abbas
is loath to risk the loss of the Western diplomatic and economic support that it now enjoys.
But with dozens hurt, the latest trouble on the streets has cast a shadow over US efforts to revive the two-decade-old peace process, which many on both sides have grown tired of.
Many expert observers say a vacuum in progress toward a solution will be filled, sooner or later, by more unpredictable confrontations, unless the United States can instill confidence that it is serious about ending more than 60 years of conflict.
Its latest proposal for indirect negotiations between the PA and Israel had barely been launched before hitting difficulties.
It is clear with the arrival of the extreme right-wing government ... that this was bound to provoke a Palestinian reaction, especially in Jerusalem, said George Giacaman, a political scientist at Birzeit University in the West Bank.
There will be a reaction on the Palestinian side in response to Israeli measures and they may continue, he said. The role of the American administration is extremely important.
There is little faith in the United States, however, among the youths who have taken part in protests in recent weeks.
It is Israel's No. 1 ally, said one 20-year-old student, who took part in a protest at an Israeli checkpoint outside Ramallah
this week in which seven Palestinians were wounded.
There is suppressed anger among the youth.
I expect that there will be a third Intifada, added the student, a member of Abbas's Fatah
faction. He asked not to be named for fear of arrest over his role in the protest.
Palestinian analysts are more hesitant to predict another Intifada -- the name given to two extended uprisings mounted by Palestinians against Israel since the late '80s. More trouble is expected, they say, but the scope and timing is unclear.
SLIDE TOWARDS NEW INTIFADA?
Islamists who control the Gaza Strip
on Tuesday called for an Intifada. It wants armed action in the West Bank -- a challenge to both Israel
and to Abbas's PA forces in Ramallah, which have clamped down on their Palestinian rivals.
But few observers in the West Bank see broad appetite among Palestinians for repeating the armed uprising of the early years of last decade which was marked by bombings, shootings and heavy casualties on both sides of the Green Line frontier set in 1948.
Hamas, committed to armed struggle, has by it own admission been weakened in the West Bank due to the crackdown by Abbas's security forces, retrained with the backing of the United States and the European Union.
The Palestinian Authority, largely funded by Western governments, rules out violence on its part against Israel -- in contrast to the Intifada from 2000, when various forces loyal to Abbas's late predecessor Yasser Arafat
The PA has warned, however, that Israeli policies threaten to undermine West Bank stability which it has worked to build.
Conscious of Hamas accusations that they have sold out on Palestinian rights, the PA and Abbas's Fatah party which dominates it have swung behind calls for more popular resistance, shorthand for activism including protests.
The number of demonstrations have increased in recent months. They have become the main confrontation between Israelis and Palestinians, with demonstrators hurling rocks at soldiers who fire tear gas and rubber bullets.
The images have recalled scenes of the first Palestinian Intifada that erupted in 1987 and which Palestinian politicians in the West Bank, including Fatah leaders, say should be the model for a new wave of activism.
For now, the PA has yet to fully swing behind popular resistance, said Palestinian political analyst Hani al-Masri.
So far, it's more of a tactic, but it appears that the closure of the political process will push the PA to adopt popular resistance as a strategy. If it doesn't, events will overtake it, he said.
Senior Fatah leader and former prime minister Ahmed Qurei
said this week an Intifada was coming, with or without the support of the Palestinian leadership.
Masri said: The PA is working to delay an Intifada. If it wanted an Intifada, it would have started.
But it can't prevent it forever. What it is going on in Jerusalem accelerates the move towards an Intifada.