Israel and Palestine are on the verge of a new escalation in violence – this is how we got here

Archie Bland

The Guardian  /  February 2, 2023

 Attacks on Palestinians and Israelis have risen in recent months, and heightened political tensions – will the crisis escalate yet further ?

For months, the question of whether Israel and Palestine are on the brink of a third intifada [popular uprising] has loomed over every story to come out of the region, with fears that the conditions for a major escalation in bloodshed are inexorably being put in place. In the last week, those fears have appeared closer than ever to being realised.

After an IDF raid in the West Bank that killed nine and the massacre of seven Israelis by a Palestinian gunman in occupied East Jerusalem the next day, Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline government has cracked down on the West Bank – and a series of copycat Palestinian attacks in response have only heightened tensions. Overnight on Thursday, Israel conducted air strikes on militant training centres in the central Gaza Strip, prompting a new round of rockets in response.

So what would it take for the crisis to turn into a full-blown Palestinian uprising – and how different would that look from the status quo? Today’s newsletter, with The Guardian’s Jerusalem correspondent, Bethan McKernan, is after the headlines.

‘A lot of younger Palestinians don’t see there is anything to be done other than take up arms’

 One week ago, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) entered Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank, acting on intelligence suggesting a cell linked to Palestinian Islamic Jihad was planning an imminent attack. Seven men linked to militant groups and two civilians were killed.

The next day, a Palestinian gunman identified as Khayri Alqam, 21, drove to a neighbourhood of Jewish settlers in occupied East Jerusalem, where he opened fire outside a synagogue. He killed seven Israelis, including a 14-year-old boy and a 68-year-old Ukrainian woman, before being shot dead by police as he fled. He is believed to have acted alone.

While last year was the bloodiest in Israel and the West Bank since 2005, those incidents a day apart felt different, Bethan McKernan said. “These are the deadliest single events in Israel and the West Bank going back at least 15 years,” she said. They again raise the question of whether a third intifada – or popular Palestinian uprising – is near.

An uprising might be distinguished from the current violence by its coordination and scale. Two features besides the increase in bloodshed are ominous: the growing number of young Palestinian men aligned with a new generation of more loosely associated militant groups, among them the Lions’ Den in Nablus, and the prospect of that tendency spreading from the north of the West Bank, where it is currently strongest.

Still, it is difficult to define exactly how unrest tips into an intifada. “At the moment, it does feel as if we’re ticking off the boxes,” Bethan said. “But how do we know if we’re in it? I don’t think anybody exactly knows the answer.”

Here are some of the factors to keep in mind.

Palestinian hopelessness and disillusionment with a two-state solution

Last July, Joe Biden visited the West Bank, and expressed his theoretical backing for a two-state solution, but declined to offer any concrete support for measures that would bring a Palestinian state closer. “The ground is not ripe at this moment,” he said, adding: “I know that the goal of the two states seems so far away.”

“He literally told a Palestinian audience that the peace process is not on the table,” Bethan said. This week, US secretary of state Antony Blinken visited Jerusalem – a diplomatic mission which one analyst said had no more impact than “an extended condolence call”.

In a sense, Biden’s intervention was a statement of the obvious, corresponding to conditions like an IDF siege of Nablus, unlawful targeted West Bank assassinations and house demolitions, and the deaths of 146 Palestinians at the hands of Israeli security forces in the West Bank, as well as 29 Israelis killed by Palestinians, in 2022. Much of that violence was the product of Operation Breakwater, an IDF response to a surge in knife and gun attacks. (Read more about Breakwater in this September piece.)

“There is very little hope that things will improve,” Bethan said. Nor is there any faith in the Palestinian Authority (PA), which has not held elections in 16 years and is viewed by many younger Palestinians as “a security subcontractor for the occupation”, as Bethan wrote on Sunday. She added: “A lot of younger Palestinians don’t see anything to be done other than to take up arms.” More than 30 Palestinians have already died this year, and support on both sides for a two-state solution is at an all-time low (£).

The other part of the equation is economic desperation – and this may cut the other way. “Many families in the West Bank are reliant on paycheques from the Palestinian Authority,” Bethan said – and that is continuing for now, though Israel is withholding a portion of the tax revenues it collects on the PA’s behalf. “Until those families start being hit economically, I don’t see this spreading into a popular uprising.”

A draconian Israeli response to the latest violence

Benjamin Netanyahu’s government believes that “nothing that happens to Israelis in occupied East Jerusalem can pass without a response – and probably a very harsh one”, Bethan said. The response since Friday’s attack has been exactly that.

On Sunday, and in the aftermath of several more incidents, Netanyahu’s office set out a range of “additional deterrent measures”, ranging from revoking Jerusalem residence rights to stripping militants’ families of social security and health benefits – all measures illegal under international law. Family members of Palestinian attackers have been evicted from their homes, which will be demolished.

Meanwhile, there have been scores of so-called “price tag” incidents – revenge attacks by settlers. “There haven’t been any deaths, but we’ve seen shootings, sheep stolen, cars and property burned, and settlers are doing this with impunity,” Bethan said. Israeli human rights group B’Tselem has documented some of these attacks, which were already at unprecedented levels: the IDF recorded 838 such incidents in 2022, compared with 446 the year before.

Some see the Israeli government as complicit: B’Tselem notes that in 14 incidents it was aware of, IDF soldiers were present. Netanyahu’s hard-right coalition includes Religious Zionism, an ultranationalist group that secured the inclusion in the coalition agreement of a promise to annex the West Bank. “Some of them have been preparing for this for decades,” said Bethan. “They aren’t really concerned about the consequences.”

The ability for Palestinians to organise and arm

The first intifada was “very much a popular, grassroots uprising, distinguished kinetically by things like molotov cocktails and stone throwing”, Bethan said. “The second was much bloodier – it was backed by Yasser Arafat, and characterized by the violence of militant groups, including suicide bombings. A third intifada would not look like either.”

Key to it happening is whether there is any capacity to organize among Palestinians seeking to respond violently. “They don’t have the support of Fatah, or the Palestinian Authority,” Bethan said. “There is no overarching political leadership. And Israeli surveillance is very tight now – I wonder how people can visit their family without the Israelis knowing, much less organize a united Palestinian front. So we may see sporadic episodes of violence, rather than anything more coordinated.”

Then there’s the question of weapons. While Israel’s grip on the West Bank means that rocket attacks and suicide bombings are less likely to be prominent features of whatever comes next, there is another significant factor: the proliferation of illicit guns in the West Bank.

“They are being smuggled in, and stolen from IDF bases in huge numbers,” Bethan said. “If a third intifada happens, it will be guns that make it possible.”

For some analysts, the question of how a third intifada would begin is moot: they contend that after almost a year of escalating violence and near-daily IDF raids in the West Bank with no obvious route out, it has already started.

“The situation is already so bad that you arguably don’t need a label of intifada to designate it as serious,” Bethan said. “And how do you distinguish meaningfully for ordinary Palestinians, who are already dealing with the everyday violence of occupation? For them, it’s not clear that a change would be obvious – other than that it gets worse, and it continues to get worse every day.”

Archie Bland is the editor of The Guardian‘s First Edition newsletter