Henriette Chacar & Nidal al-Mughrabi
Reuters / January 30, 2023
JERUSALEM/GAZA – After bloodshed in Jerusalem and the West Bank and a month since Israel’s most right-wing government took office, Israel and the Palestinians risk sliding into a cycle of wider confrontation with pressure on both sides for retaliation, analysts say.
A Palestinian gunman shot dead seven people near a synagogue in Jerusalem’s outskirts on Friday evening, a day after Israeli forces carried out a raid on the occupied West Bank city of Jenin which killed 10 people including seven gunmen.
Israel said on Saturday it was sending army reinforcements to the West Bank and promised a “strong and swift” response to the shooting, which the Palestinian militant group Hamas hailed as a retaliation for the Jenin operation.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has ebbed and flowed for decades through wars, uprisings and peace talks. Now Israel has normalized relations with more Arab states, while Palestinians have grown more isolated and divided.
With prospects for political progress bleaker than they have been for years and with world powers now distracted by the Ukraine war, violence has steadily been rising.
The latest outbreak followed months of confrontations that left 190 Palestinians dead, according to United Nations figures. In addition to the seven killed on Friday, 29 Israelis and foreign nationals, including civilians and soldiers, were killed by Palestinians last year, according to Israeli government figures.
Tensions have risen further since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power in December with religious nationalists in key cabinet posts, promising a tougher stance and enraging Palestinians.
“I think this deterioration is going to continue and is inevitable,” said Ghassan al-Khatib, a Palestinian analyst and professor of politics at Birzeit University in the West Bank.
The rise of populist Israeli politics was fueling demand for uncompromising action against Palestinians, which would “bring further Palestinian reactions and that will lead into a continuity of the current escalation”, Khatib said.
Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who angered Muslims by visiting the Al Aqsa mosque compound within days of taking office, supports the death penalty for Palestinians convicted of killing Israelis and immunity from prosecution for Israeli soldiers and police.
BIGGER SETTLEMENTS, MORE GUNS
Ben-Gvir also seeks to further expand Jewish settlement in the West Bank, which was captured by Israel in a 1967 war and where Palestinians have long sought to establish a state. Most world powers consider Israel’s settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as illegal.
Speaking after Friday’s shooting, he promised more gun permits for Israelis and said he instructed police to destroy Palestinian houses built without permit in East Jerusalem, occupied by Israel in the 1967 June war.
Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem said Israel’s moves “will not stop our people’s legitimate resistance against the occupation” and said Palestinians would continue their “glorious revolution”.
Despite fiery language from the militant group which controls Gaza, Hamas has not turned its rockets on Israel – as it did in a 2021 war – and Netanyahu insists Israel is not seeking escalation, averting any new conflagration for now.
Yet, with at least 35 Palestinians – including gunmen and civilians – already killed this year, there is little sign of tensions easing. Israel says its West Bank raids targeted militants such as the suspects behind deadly attacks carried out by Palestinians inside Israel last year. The Palestinians call the Israeli raids acts of aggression in occupied land.
Friday evening’s attack by Khaire Alkam, the 21-year-old Palestinian gunman, came as Israelis began the Jewish Sabbath and International Holocaust Memorial Day, commemorating 6 million people killed by the Nazis in World War Two.
The situation has been complicated by so-called ‘lone wolf’ attackers, acting on their own but Israel says such young men are often radicalized by TikTok videos and other material from groups like Hamas even if they are not directly linked to them.
“Incitement on the web is promoted by Hamas and has a dramatic effect on the young generation’s minds,” said Michael Milshtein, a former adviser to the Israeli military agency overseeing Palestinian affairs in the West Bank.
Friday’s synagogue shooting was in an area of Jerusalem annexed by Israel, a move not recognized internationally.
Alkam’s father said his son, like other suspected ‘lone wolf’ attackers, had no links to militant groups.
Alkam’s grandfather, according to his family, was killed in a knife attack a quarter of a century ago. A Jewish settler arrested for the killing was ordered released after a month in detention by a court which said there was insufficient evidence to prosecute him, Israeli media said.
Police and court spokespeople did not immediately respond to requests for comment and requests for court documents related to the settler case.
Khatib said Palestinian anger was fueled by the actions of Israeli soldiers and Jewish settlers, not Palestinian groups.
“They don’t need Hamas, they don’t need Fatah, they don’t need anybody to encourage them. They just watch what the settlers are doing, they just watch what the Israeli soldiers are doing and this is enough,” Khatib said.
“The only way out of this chain of actions and reactions is a political process that can bring back hope to Palestinians of a peaceful end of occupation,” Khatib said.
Yet Palestinians have little prospect for coordinated response, with their leadership fractured between the isolated Islamist Hamas group in Gaza and the internationally recognized but hamstrung Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.
“Each area of the West Bank is witnessing some form of armed clashes, but these are not united mass-scale movements,” said Tahani Mustafa of the International Crisis Group.
Khaled Elgindy of the Middle East Institute said current tension echoed the situation in 2000 when a visit by Israel’s then opposition leader Ariel Sharon triggered Palestinian protests which grew into the Second Intifada, or uprising.
“Anything can be the spark,” Elgindy said.
That prolonged conflict led to renewed international peace efforts. But with many countries focused on the war in Ukraine and domestic economic challenges, there is little sign of outside pressure to stop any slide to wider conflict.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is visiting Israel and the West Bank this week. Blinken condemned Friday’s shooting in Jerusalem in a statement which made no mention of any U.S. commitment to address the wider crisis.
“We have a situation that is very similar to the dynamics that we saw in the midst of the Second Intifada, but without the outside actors acting as they did then,” Elgindy said.
Reporting by Henriette Chacar and James Mackenzie in Jerusalem, Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; additional reporting by Samia Nakhoul in Dubai; writing by Dominic Evans; editing by Edmund Blair