Fears of full-blown Israeli-Palestinian conflict grow after bloodiest year since 2005

Extremist Jews visit the Haram al-Sharif, known to Jews as the Temple Mount, in the Old City of Jerusalem (Maya Alleruzzo - AP)

Bethan McKernan

The Guardian  /  December 15, 2022

Surge in violence either side of the ‘green line’ has led people to wonder if a third intifada is on the cards.

Late on Sunday night, like almost every other night in Jenin, the fighting started. The Israeli army said it entered the occupied West Bank city to arrest three suspected Palestinian terrorists and militants responded by throwing firebombs and opening fire.

According to two members of her family, 16-year-old Jana Majdi Zakaran ventured up to the roof of her home when gunfire erupted nearby to bring her cat inside to safety. When Zakaran’s father went to look for her, he found her dead in a pool of blood, the cat by her side.

In a rare admission of error, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) said the teenager had been accidentally shot by a sniper.

“She was killed in cold blood by the Israelis. She was alone on the roof,” said the girl’s uncle, Majed Zakaran. “She was just a child and they shot her four times in the head and chest.”

Zakaran is the latest victim of the bloodiest year on record in the West Bank and Jerusalem since the end of the second intifada in 2005. About 150 Palestinians have been killed, most of them in relation to a huge IDF offensive largely focused on Jenin and nearby Nablus. The well-known Al-Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was shot dead while reporting on a raid on Jenin’s refugee camp in May.

The fighting has been raging since March, making it one of the biggest IDF operations outside wartime, and shows no sign of slowing down. In the blockaded Gaza Strip in August, another 49 Palestinians died in a surprise three-day Israeli bombing campaign. Palestinian terrorist attacks have killed 30 Israelis – the most since 2008. The numbers suggest that 2022 was a quasi-intifada.

Whenever there is a surge in violence in the decades-old conflict, people on both sides of the “green line” begin to wonder whether a third popular uprising is on the horizon. A combination of worsening security and political factors, however, means a return to full-blown fighting between Israel and the Palestinians is more likely now than it has been in years. Polling released this week by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research found that 65% of people in the West Bank now support armed struggle.

Diana Buttu, a lawyer and former adviser to the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), said: “If you look back at 2022, the numbers are very high … But this is an ongoing occupation, and occupation is by nature violent. This has been happening for more than five decades, so in some ways it feels arbitrary to pick a date and say: ‘This is a particularly bad year.’

“That said, it is clear we are on a downward trajectory. I think it’s got to a point in Israel where they don’t see any red lines any more. No one in Israel talks about ending the occupation now, and no one in the international community is prepared to make them stop.”

In a statement, the IDF said: “In March 2022, a wave of terrorist attacks erupted in Israel. Following it, the IDF began to carry out counter-terrorism activities in various locations in [the West Bank] … based on precise intelligence and situational assessments.

“During these activities, individuals suspected of carrying out security offences were apprehended, and many illegal weapons and munitions were seized. We currently consider the operation a success in terms of countering terrorism and preventing it before it occurs.”

Several hallmarks of the 2000-05 intifada have returned this year, including the use of punishing sieges on Palestinian neighbourhoods and cities and targeted assassinations in the West Bank. Last month, the first bus bombings in Jerusalem in years killed two Israelis waiting for busy morning rush hour services.

Many of those doing the fighting now, however, are too young to remember those five years of bloodshed, which claimed about 3,000 Palestinian and 1,000 Israeli lives – let alone the peace process of the 1990s.

Israelis doing military service are generally about 19 or 20 years old. Almost everyone the Guardian met during visits to Jenin and Nablus this year said that since there is no hope for a better future, young Palestinians believe the only alternative is to pick up a gun. That is increasingly easy to do: the West Bank is awash with weapons smuggled over the border from Jordan and stolen from IDF bases.

Political developments are adding fuel to the fire. After 16 years without elections, the Palestinian Authority, which controls parts of the West Bank, is viewed by most of the population as corrupt and impotent. The elderly president, Mahmoud Abbas, is in ill health and has not appointed an official successor; his decline or death is likely to further destabilize the situation.

Most worrying of all, however, is the rise of the far right in Israel. In November’s election, the Religious Zionists, an extremist anti-Arab slate in former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition bloc, managed to more than double their number of seats, propelling Netanyahu back into office.

Bezalel Smotrich, the leader of the Religious Zionists, along with Itamar Ben-Gvir, the head of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party, will receive important cabinet positions in the incoming government, giving them expanded powers over Israel’s police and control over settlement building in the West Bank, which they are sure to accelerate.

The pair are also seeking to change the status quo on Jerusalem’s holy Temple Mount to allow Jewish worship, and Ben-Gvir has said he intends to visit soon. A similar stunt by the then leader of the opposition, Ariel Sharon, in 2000 helped ignite the second intifada. To Muslims, the sacred area is known as the Noble Sanctuary, or Haram al-Sharif.

A new Palestinian uprising will not look like the two that came before it. The young men fighting in Jenin and Nablus at the moment are for now acting only locally, and are not necessarily affiliated with established Palestinian militias such as the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades and Hamas’s Al-Qassam Brigades.

Suicide bombings are not as likely to feature prominently: the third intifada is instead expected to rely on the firearms that have proliferated in Palestinian society in recent years. Israel’s use of invasive surveillance technology and it’s as-yet unfulfilled threat to use armed drones in the West Bank would also make it much more difficult for Palestinian factions to operate.

“The Israelis have calculated there is a level of violence they can tolerate but there is only so much that is within their control,” Buttu said. “There are a lot of weapons around now. It’s just a matter of time before the violence in the West Bank boomerangs back around to them.”

Bethan McKernan is Jerusalem correspondent for The Guardian