Is third intifada a stone's throw away?

Clashes between Palestinian youths and Israeli forces are growing more numerous, fuelling fears that diplomacy could be abandoned.

A Palestinian inspects the rubble of a building after an Israeli air strike on Friday in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, Saturday, March 20, 2010. Friday's missiles hit the defunct international airport in southern Gaza and tunnels dug by militants near the border with Israel. Hamas officials say Israeli aircrafts fired five missiles at Gaza's defunct airport and nearby border tunnels, wounding at least 12 people. (AP Photo/ Eyad Baba) *** Local Caption ***  TTW101_APTOPIX_MIDEAST_ISRAEL_PALESTINIANS.jpg

BIR NABALA, WEST BANK // There's a little ritual that has played out at a junction in Bir Nabala, a village just north of Jerusalem, on most recent Fridays after the noon prayers. It starts with burning tyres, three this Friday, placed in the middle of a junction where the main road through the village branches into two and another road shoots up between the houses that climb the hill. The youths of the village gather, having already assembled stones and rocks as ammunition. Some wear masks and some carry slingshots. No one carries a slingshot without wearing a mask. Others are just curious.

The good folk of Bir Nabala, meanwhile, move their cars out of sight. Visitors are kindly warned by shopkeepers to do the same, as the few shops open pull down their shutters and close their doors. And then everyone waits. Clashes between stone-throwing Palestinians and Israeli security forces have grown more numerous in the last month and have spread to dozens of locations in the occupied territory. A peak was reached last week, when Israel "shut" the West Bank, arrested dozens over five days and banned most Palestinians from Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

The renewed clashes have several causes: Continued Israeli settlement building in occupied territory, particularly East Jerusalem, the building of the separation barrier, as well as other incidents, such as the consecration of a synagogue in Jerusalem's Old City last week or the addition to a list of Israeli heritage sites of religious sites in Hebron and in Bethlehem last month. Diplomats are now again stepping to salvage a diplomatic process. Yesterday, Ban Ki-moon, the UN's secretary general, toured the Ramallah area with Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minster, to get what visiting dignitaries rarely get - a firsthand view of the Israeli settlements obstructing the emergence of a viable Palestinian state. Mr Ban was treated to a view of Givat Zeev, home to 11,000 Jewish settlers, and built 7km inside occupied territory. In order to ensure contiguity with territory on the Israeli side of the 1948 armistice lines, Givat Zeev is linked by roads that bypass and dissect Palestinian villages such as Bir Nabala, severing them from each other and Jerusalem.

Israel invests millions of dollars to ensure settlers do not have to come into close contact with Palestinians, to the extent that tunnels are dug and new roads laid to re-route Palestinian traffic away from settler roads. Such slicing of territory leaves little room for the creation of a viable and contiguous Palestinian state. However, it is receiving greater acknowledgement from diplomats, including Mr Ban, who yesterday reiterated the UN position that Jewish settlements are illegal under international law.

"Let us be clear: all settlement activity is illegal anywhere in occupied territory, and this must stop," he said. Mr Ban precedes George Mitchell, the US special envoy, who is due in the region today to try to kick-start indirect negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis that were put on hold after Israel announced 1,600 new settlements in Jerusalem during the visit of Joe Biden, the US vice president. That announcement caused a row between Israel and Washington that officials from both sides have tried to downplay since but which still saw Mr Mitchell postpone his visit last week. The US has reportedly drawn up a list of gestures it would like Israel to make to inject some confidence into a negotiations process. These include the cancellation of the most recent settlement construction, a withdrawal of forces from some areas of the West Bank and the release of prisoners to Mahmoud Abbas, the PLO leader. Mr Mitchell will brief Palestinian leaders on US efforts that Mr Ban yesterday said he hoped he would see the so-called proximity talks soon get off the ground.

Yet even as diplomatic activity shifts gear, Palestinians remain sceptical. Mr Abbas may be persuaded to begin negotiations again, but no one believes they will lead very far, especially on Jerusalem. "Israel is now presenting the world with a fait accompli; that it is impossible to divide the city," said Ziad Hammouri, director of the Jerusalem Centre for Social and Economic Rights. "There is nothing left to negotiate in Jerusalem." As a result, said Mr Hammouri, who dismissed the US-Israel row as "not serious" and said Barack Obama, the US president, had brought "nothing new" to the table, a third intifada was all but inevitable.

Hamas yesterday called on the Palestinian Authority to "unleash the resistance". The PA is unlikely to sanction any such thing, but unless it can point to some progress it may simply be shunted aside as an irrelevance by a frustrated population. A lot depends on international, especially US, diplomacy, but few hold out much hope. "So far, the present US administration has been weak [in dealing] with the Israeli government," said George Giacaman, a professor of political science at Birzeit University. "[And] the Israeli government believes it can use its influence in the US congress, where elections are due in November, to prevent any substantive pressure."

Back in Bir Nabala on Friday, an Israeli army jeep eventually responded to the smoke signals. Pelted with stones, the armoured vehicle made its way into the centre of the junction, scattering the youths behind buildings or up the hill. Four helmeted soldiers sprang out of their jeep, firing tear gas and rubber bullets at the youths. The standoff lasted 20 minutes. Eventually everyone tired and went home. The clash could have been avoided, but it was not. There were no injuries, but if this Friday ritual continues, there will be.