Jenin, Jerusalem … now Israelis grieve as the cycle of violence intensifies

Bethan McKernan

The Observer  /  January 28, 2023

A chain reaction of killings leaves Israel and the occupied territories on the brink of a new round of bloodletting.

On Friday nights, quiet descends upon the holy city of Jerusalem. Many Muslim families are at home, spending time together after afternoon prayers; Jewish-owned businesses close just before sunset, buses and trams stop running and candles on dining tables announce the beginning of Shabbat.

What began as a normal, peaceful Friday evening ended in tragedy for the Mizrahi family, who live in the occupied East Jerusalem Jewish settlement of Neve Yaakov. At about 8pm, a lone Palestinian gunman opened fire on people outside a synagogue, killing seven and wounding three.

Eli and Natali Mizrahi, a newly married couple in their 40s, were eating dinner with their family when they heard gunshots and screaming on the street. They rushed outside to help, and paid with their lives.

“We were in the middle of our meal, and there were several shots and my son jumped up,” Eli’s father, Shimon Israel, told reporters. “It seems he was speaking with the terrorist, who pulled out a gun. [Eli] and his wife were murdered,” he said. “[The terrorist] was standing by his car and he shot them, then got into the car and fled.”

Neve Yaakov is the worst Palestinian terror attack against Israelis in 15 years, and it has left the country reeling. The shooting came a day after nine Palestinians were killed in a major Israeli raid on the West Bank’s Jenin refugee camp, the highest death toll in a single army operation in more than two decades. In the aftermath, the Palestinian Authority (PA), which governs parts of the West Bank, announced that it would suspend security cooperation with Israel.

Events in Jenin appear to have set off a chain reaction of violence, leaving Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories on the brink of what could be a devastating new round of bloodletting.

Two more Palestinians were shot and killed by soldiers in clashes sparked by the raid last Thursday, and early on Friday there was a limited exchange of rocket fire between the Islamist-controlled Gaza Strip and Israel.

On Friday night, after news of the synagogue shooting broke, the Palestinian health authority said three people had been admitted to hospital after being shot by a Jewish settler near the West Bank city of Nablus.

And on Saturday morning, a 13-year-old boy from East Jerusalem shot and injured a Jewish father and son near the walls of the Old City.

Three days of escalating carnage have not come out of nowhere. Tensions have risen since last spring, when a surge in Palestinian knife and gun attacks led the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) to launch Operation Breakwater – one of its biggest campaigns outside wartime.

Breakwater, which is mainly targeting Palestinian factions in Jenin and Nablus, contributed to the highest death toll in Israel and the West Bank since the second intifada ended in 2005, with about 150 Palestinians and 30 Israelis killed in 2022. Another 32 Palestinians, fighters and civilians, have been killed so far this year.

At the same time, the PA is steadily losing legitimacy and control: for many young Palestinians, who have grown up with leaders uninterested in changing the status quo, it is viewed as little more than a security subcontractor for the occupation. A new generation of armed militias only loosely affiliated with Fatah and Hamas, the established Palestinian factions, is increasingly popular, fuelled by weapons smuggled from Jordan and stolen from IDF bases.

On the other side of the Green Line, the election of Israel’s most rightwing government in history has also made the prospect of a return to full-blown fighting more likely. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is widely believed to be hostage to the demands of his extremist partners in return for their help in overturning his corruption trial.

As funerals for the Neve Yaakov dead were getting under way on Saturday evening, after the end of Shabbat, Netanyahu convened his security cabinet to discuss responses to the violence. Copycat and “price tag” attacks are feared on both sides; Israel’s police and army are on the highest level of alert, and five extra battalions have been deployed to Jerusalem and the West Bank.

On Friday night, Netanyahu urged people not to take matters into their own hands. But his national security minister, the far-right Itamar Ben-Gvir, sang a different tune, telling civilians at the scene of the shootings that “the government must act”, and that he would work to loosen gun control laws.

It is impossible to predict what will happen next, but in a recently released joint Palestinian-Israeli survey, 61% of Palestinians and 65% of Israeli Jews said they now think a third intifada is on the horizon.

The poll – conducted in December – found support for the peace process is at an all-time low, Palestinian support for armed struggle is on the rise, and an increasing number of Israelis now believe their country should go to war to destroy the Palestinians’ military capabilities.

All of these trends are accelerating, co-author of the survey Dr Dahlia Scheindlin said at a press conference in Jerusalem this week.

“The last time there was a majority on both sides [in favour of the two-state solution] was June 2017,” she said. “Support for a nondemocratic regime has overtaken a two-state solution for the first time … Peace in the region is more remote than ever.”

Bethan McKernan is Jerusalem correspondent for The Guardian