A spike in Israeli-Palestinian violence on Thursday left at least three Palestinians killed and a dozen Israeli troops wounded in a rash of attacks and clashes a week after the Trump administration released its long-anticipated Mideast plan.
The new spate of attacks places the plan — which was already considered a long-shot because it greatly favors Israel and was rejected outright by the Palestinians — on even shakier ground, and sparked fears of a return to deadly rounds of violence of the past. The plan has sparked calls by Israeli nationalists for Israel to annex parts of the West Bank — land Palestinians want for their hoped-for state — and has set off tensions in the region.
But they erupted more fiercely Thursday, in the deadliest day of violence in months.
Early in the day, a Palestinian motorist slammed his car into a group of Israeli soldiers, wounding 12 before fleeing the scene, the Israeli military said. In the West Bank, two Palestinians died after clashes broke out with Israeli troops, according to Palestinian hospital officials.
And later, Israeli police said they shot and killed a Palestinian who opened fire at forces in Jerusalem's Old City, lightly wounding an officer.
Israeli military spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus said one of the 12 injured soldiers in Jerusalem was seriously hurt, the others were lightly injured. Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said the incident was being treated as a "terror attack," and said Israeli forces were searching for the assailant.
Palestinian hospital officials said a 19-year-old was killed in clashes in the West Bank city of Jenin. Six others were wounded in the confrontation. In a separate incident also in Jenin, a member of the Palestinian security forces who was shot by Israeli troops later died. That violence came just hours after Israeli forces shot and killed a 17-year-old Palestinian during clashes with demonstrators elsewhere in the West Bank on Wednesday.
"Attacks from Gaza, an attack in Jerusalem, signs of a rise in hostile activity in Jenin. Yesterday friction in Hebron. We are not trying to escalate the situation while understanding the complexity and sensitivity of the situation," Conricus said, stopping short of directly linking the spate of violence to Trump's plan.
In the first Jerusalem incident, the troops were out on a late-night "educational heritage tour," walking near a popular entertainment district in Jerusalem when the motorist rammed his car into them and fled.
While it did not claim responsibility for the attack, the Islamic Jihad militant group praised the car ramming as "the beginning of a new confrontation over Trump's plan."
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to have the assailant apprehended. "It's just a matter of time — and not much time," he said in a statement.
Such acts of violence were common in Jerusalem during a low-level wave of near-daily attacks over the last decade, but they tapered off and car rammings have become infrequent in recent years.
Conricus said troops were carrying out the demolition of a home in the West Bank belonging to a militant allegedly involved in a deadly attack. He said there was a "sizable riot" at the scene by Palestinians who threw Molotov cocktails at troops, who then came under sniper fire. Conricus said forces responded to the violence with their own sniper fire, saying a Palestinian shooter was killed.
Jenin governor Akram Rajoub said the 19-year-old casualty was a student at an academy that trains budding police officers, and was throwing stones at the troops.
Also Thursday, Israel struck Hamas positions in the Gaza Strip after three mortar shells were fired at Israel. There was no immediate report of injuries on either side.
Unveiled last week at the White House with much fanfare, Trump's plan envisions a disjointed Palestinian state that turns over key parts of the West Bank to Israel. It sides with Israel on key contentious issues that have bedeviled past peace efforts, including borders and the status of Jerusalem and Jewish West Bank settlements, and attaches nearly impossible conditions for granting the Palestinians their hoped-for state.
The plan was greeted ecstatically in Israel, with Netanyahu vowing to speed ahead with annexing parts of the West Bank. But under pressure from the U.S. administration he appears to be scaling back on that promise.
The Palestinians dismissed the plan as "nonsense" and have promised to resist it.
The Palestinians, as well as much of the international community, view the settlements in the West Bank and annexed east Jerusalem — territories seized by Israel in the 1967 war — as illegal and a major obstacle to peace.
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Wednesday urged the Iranians to actively participate in the upcoming parliamentary elections, official IRNA news agency reported.
Khamenei advised some Iranian media and officials to avoid "talking in a way to discourage people from attending the elections."
He also said that the enemy "exaggerates" the disputes and use them against Iran.
The Iranian top leader called for big turnout in the election, saying that it will disappoint the enemy.
Nearly 58 million Iranians are eligible to vote in the 11th round of parliamentary elections scheduled on Feb. 21.
The top US commander for the Middle East slipped quietly into Iraq Tuesday, as the Trump administration works to salvage relations with Iraqi leaders and shut down the government's push for an American troop withdrawal.
Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie became the most senior U.S. military official to visit since an American drone strike in Baghdad killed a top Iranian general, enraging the Iraqis.
McKenzie met with Iraq leaders in Baghdad and then went to see American troops at al Asad Air base, which was bombed by Iran last month in retaliation for the drone attack.
His visit comes amid heightened anti-American sentiment that has fueled violent protests, rocket attacks on the embassy and a vote by the Iraqi parliament pushing for withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country. And it raises questions about whether the appearance of a high-profile U.S. military commander could spur compromise, or simply inflame tensions and scuttle ongoing negotiations to put Patriot missile batteries in Iraq to better protect coalition forces.
Two reporters traveling with McKenzie for the past two weeks around the Middle East did not go with him into Iraq because the stop was added late and they didn't have required visas.
Top U.S. leaders have so far flatly dismissed Iraqi demands for U.S. troops to leave, adopting what appears to be a wait-and-see attitude with the hope that the problems will pass.
Iraqis, however, were furious over the drone strike at Baghdad's international airport on Jan. 3 that targeted and killed Qassem Suleimani, Iran's most powerful general, but also struck down an Iraq general who was with him. The Iraqi, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, was the deputy commander of Iran-backed militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces.
In response to what Iraqi leaders called a breach of sovereignty, Parliament passed a non-binding resolution urging U.S. troop withdrawal.
But after Iran struck back on Jan. 8, launching ballistic missiles at two Iraqi bases where American troops were stationed, the U.S. doubled down and asked to bring the Patriot systems into the country.
There were no Patriots or other air defenses in Iraq capable of shooting down ballistic missiles at the time of the Iranian strike. No forces were killed, but at least 64 have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injury.
Thus far, the Iraqis have not approved the request.
"That is one of the matters we have to work on and work through" with the Baghdad government, Defense Secretary Mark Esper told a recent Pentagon news conference. He and Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have made clear that they want Patriots in Iraq to better protect service members there.
The United States has more than 6,000 troops in Iraq to train and advise Iraqi security forces in their fight against extremist groups like the Islamic State and to provide protection for those troops.
Iran said Tuesday that its top court confirmed a death sentence for an Iranian man convicted of spying for the CIA, with state media alleging that he had shared details of the Islamic Republic's nuclear program with the American spy agency.
Judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili identified the purported spy as Amir Rahimpour and said he would be executed soon. Esmaili did not elaborate on what Rahimpour was accused of doing, nor on his age or background.
A report by the state-run IRNA news agency alleged that Rahimpour received money from the CIA to share details of Iran's nuclear program.
"While being in touch with the spy agency, he earned a lot of money as wages as he tried to deliver some information from Iran's nuclear program to the American agency," the IRNA report said. Rahimpour "had been identified and prosecuted and sentenced to death and recently, the country's National Supreme Court confirmed the sentence and, God willing, he will be punished soon."
The CIA declined to comment.
Esmaili said two other alleged spies for the CIA each received 15-year prison sentences — 10 years for spying and five years for acting against national security.
Esmaili did not name those arrested, only saying they worked in the "charitable field," without elaborating.
Iran in the past has sentenced alleged American and Israeli spies to death. The last such spy executed was Shahram Amiri, who defected to the U.S. at the height of Western efforts to thwart Iran's nuclear program. When he returned in 2010, he was welcomed with flowers by government leaders and even went on the Iranian talk-show circuit. Then he mysteriously disappeared.
He was hanged in August 2016, the same week that Tehran executed a group of militants and a year after Iran agreed to a landmark accord to limit uranium enrichment in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.
Tensions remain high between Iran and the U.S. since President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from Tehran's nuclear deal. A U.S. drone strike in January killed Iranian Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad, prompting Tehran to retaliate with a ballistic missile strike on Iraqi bases housing American troops.
Before the deal, a computer virus believed to be designed by the U.S. and Israel destroyed Iranian centrifuges. Meanwhile, Iranian nuclear scientists were targeted in a series of assassinations.
Anti-government demonstrators on Sunday rejected Iraq's new prime minister-designate following his nomination by rival government factions, compounding the challenges he'll have to surmount in order to resolve months of civil unrest.
Meanwhile, new divisions emerged among protesters and supporters of a maverick and often inscrutable Shiite cleric, who initially threw his weight behind the uprising but now is re-positioning himself toward the political establishment, after elites selected a candidate for prime minister that he endorsed.
On Sunday, Muqtada al-Sadr told his followers camped out among protesters in the capital and in the country's south to unblock roads and restore normalcy, angering protesters who felt al-Sadr had betrayed them and the reformist aims of their movement for political gain.
Saturday's selection of former Communications Minister Mohammed Allawi, 66, to replace outgoing Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi was the product of months of back-room talks between rival parties, ending a political stalemate.
Hundreds of students voiced their rejection of Allawi at rallies in Baghdad's central plazas and in southern Iraq. Protesters hung portraits of Allawi marked with an "X" on bridges and tunnels around Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the four-month protest movement.
"We don't want Allawi because he is a party member chosen by the parties," said Hadi Safir, a protester in Tahrir. "We want an independent nominee."
Others were more diplomatic, saying they'll wait and see how Allawi delivers on promises to hold early elections.
Iraqi officials said it was likely Allawi would face the same political realities that bedeviled his predecessor, who was often caught between rival political blocs Sairoon, headed by al-Sadr, and Fatah, headed by Hadi al-Ameri.
"He is not known as being tough or outspoken, so some see him as an even more pacified version of Adil Abdul-Mahdi, and will just serve the will of the parties," said one Iraqi official. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters.
But Allawi will have to cope with shifting sands of power in the Iraqi arena, with al-Sadr currently gaining the upper hand after showing his dominance over the Iraqi street. The cleric recently staged an anti-U.S. rally that brought tens of thousands to the street. By asking his followers to return to Tahrir Square, al-Sadr gained an advantage in the negotiations for prime minister.
"The groups we call pro-Iranian ... are taking a backseat now as al-Sadr emerges as more active in shaping the new government," said Harith Hasan, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center.
Following the U.S. airstrike in Baghdad that killed top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, Hasan said "the conviction increased that (Iraq's) military apparatus and militias would be unable to put an end to the protest movement and at the same time secure a new deal for the new prime minister without that help of al-Sadr — that strengthened his position."
Student demonstrations were also held in the southern city of Basra rejecting Allawi's candidacy. Other protesters burned tires in the holy city of Najaf.
"We did not choose this person; we demanded certain qualifications," said Ahmed Ali, a protester in Basra. "Mohammed Allawi is rejected by the people."
Mass anti-government protests erupted on Oct. 1 in Baghdad and the predominately Shiite south. They have decried rampant government corruption, poor services and lack of employment, and came with lofty goals: overthrow the political establishment, pass electoral reforms and hold snap elections. Security forces have killed at least 500 protesters since.
Al-Sadr's followers returned to the demonstration camps on Friday after the cleric reversed his decision to stop supporting the protest movement.
Upon returning, al-Sadr's followers consolidated control of strategic areas in Tahrir Square, including key bridges leading to the fortified Green Zone, the seat of government. Significantly, they also moved into a skeletal high-rise building nicknamed the "Turkish Restaurant," which offers a strategic lookout over the protests.
Militiamen interviewed said they had come to clear the area of "trouble-makers" and drug-users.
"We came here to clean this place up," said one militia member, standing guard outside the building.
Many protesters said al-Sadr's followers had threatened them to toe the cleric's line or leave the square.
"They will never mix with us," said protester Mariam Nael, 18. "We are here for our homeland, they are blindly following the tweet of one cleric."