Since the beginning of this year, there has been a spike in violence between Israel and the Palestinians, which has been summed up by the term “cycle of violence,” with death tolls on both sides reaching highs not seen in years.
Israel and Palestine have been at odds since the middle of the last century. The Gaza Strip and the West Bank are at the center of many of these confrontations. Israel has occupied the West Bank and East Jerusalem since the 1967 Middle East War, where the majority of the current violence is taking place.
A century-long issue
After World War I, British ruled Palestine; a Jewish minority and an Arab majority inhabited the area. When the world community entrusted Britain the job of creating a “national home” in Palestine for Jews, tensions rose between the two groups. It was Jews’ ancestral house, but Palestinian Arabs also claimed it and protested the move. Many Jews fled Europe and established a refuge in Palestine between 1920s and 1940s, after World War II. British rule and Jewish-Arab violence increased. In 1947, the UN divided Palestine into Jewish and Arab governments and made Jerusalem an international city. Jewish leaders embraced that idea, while Arab leaders opposed it.
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Tensions began to rise in March 2022. After a series of deadly Palestinian attacks, the Israeli military started an open-ended operation in the West Bank, resulting in near-nightly raids. Over the years, Israeli and Palestinian governments have failed to reach a peace deal.
The “cycle of violence”
Over the previous year, Israeli military operations and Palestinian attacks have caused many injuries and deaths, but this era of violence is notable for the number and scale of killings. The violence has fueled speculation that a new “intifada” may be imminent. Intifada refers to two prior Palestinian uprisings against Israel in 1978 and 2000.
Last year, Israeli forces in the West Bank and East Jerusalem killed at least 150 Palestinian terrorists, civilians, and attackers, which is the most since UN records began in 2005. Meanwhile, attacks by Palestinians or Israeli Arabs claimed the lives of 29 Israelis and two foreign nationals, of whom all but four were civilians. This was the deadliest year since 2015 for Israelis.
In the first two months of this year, 60 Palestinians and 14 Israelis have died, a larger death toll than in 2022. A cycle of violence has been fueled by near-daily killings and injuries on both sides.
On January 16, 2023, Israeli forces killed a Palestinian youngster in the West Bank. According to media sources, Israel Defense Forces open fired in response to rocks, Molotov cocktails, and Improvised explosive devices. Palestinian sources said that an Israeli raid in Nablus killed 10 Palestinians and injured over 100 on February 22, 2023. Following the attack on Nablus, Palestinian terrorists and Israel Defense Forces engaged in a missile exchange in the Gaza Strip. In reaction to Palestinian militants firing rockets at southern Israel, the Israeli military reportedly launched air strikes. Moreover, during an Israeli military operation in the West Bank city of Jenin, nine Palestinians were reportedly killed.
Israelis have also been shaken by a series of attacks. In January, seven civilians were shot outside an East Jerusalem synagogue, and in February, three were rammed at a bus stop on the city’s borders.
Why is the violence intensifying?
Palestinian attacks on Israelis sparked Operation Breakwater, an Israeli military campaign that began March 31, 2022. Since then, Israel has launched daily raid in the Israeli-occupied West Bank to detain suspected militants and seize weapons. As a result, Palestinians are being murdered almost every week.
There are also longer-term Palestinian terrorists who, according to their supporters, are battling Israel and the occupation and avenging Israeli attacks. Several of the attacks were carried out by “lone wolves” – unaffiliated individuals operating independently of an organization. Israel accuses the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority (PA) of encouraging these operations.
Other attacks have been perpetrated by Palestinian militant groups, such as the recently created Lions’ Den, whose influence on the Palestinian street has increased. According to Israel, the continuing “Break the Wave” operation in the West Bank targets militant groups with detention raids to prevent them from carrying out attacks. The raids, however, typically take place in heavily populated refugee camps and other metropolitan areas, where gunmen fight and turn violent.
On February 13, 2023, the newest Israeli government revealed that its Security Cabinet had authorized nine West Bank settlements. These followed “murderous terrorist attacks” in east Jerusalem.
Government plays a big role
According to polls, the majority of Palestinians no longer support Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, 87, one of the region’s oldest leaders. He failed to pursue Palestinian independence through nonviolence and diplomatic discussions with Israel. In the 19th year of his four-year term, Abbas has lost Gaza to Hamas, called off elections for new leadership, assisted government corruption to develop, and failed to provide a clear future for Palestinians.
On the other hand, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longtime leader, is back as prime minister with a far-right coalition that has outlined a strategy to tighten its hold on the West Bank and take harsher measures against Palestinians. The government has caused several disputes in its first month, particularly over Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque compound. Israeli officials are bracing themselves for a potentially tense situation in the coming months as Ramadan and Passover coincide, creating a volatile mix that could ignite violence fueled by religious and nationalist sentiments.
A third intifada on the way?
A third intifada is now a matter of how to prevent it. In a recent survey, 61 percent of Palestinians and 65 percent of Israeli Jews agreed that it was near.
The degree of support for a two-state solution among both Palestinians and Israeli Jews is at its lowest point since polling began almost twenty years ago. The expansion of settlements by Israelis is viewed by Palestinians as an ongoing process that results in the loss of more land, and there is little optimism about the possibility of altering the current conditions. The situation has been labeled as apartheid by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, a UN rapporteur, and the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem.
Two recent occurrences exacerbate the current threat. The first is that West Bank’s gun trafficking is increasing. The second is the political climate. The Israeli government is now the most anti-Arab and far-right in its entire history. Itamar Ben-Gvir, the country’s current minister of national security, was previously convicted of inciting racism. In January of 2023, he promised to simplify the process for Israeli residents to carry firearms. The government is now focusing on the judiciary, which could put at risk the few legal limits on settlement growth and make annexation easier. It is also pursuing collective punishment, which is against international law, with even more vigor than before. In the meantime, the ailing and unpopular Palestinian Authority has not conducted elections in sixteen years and is largely viewed as Israel’s security contractor. Newer militias operate independently of Fatah and Hamas. However, the real threat will arise when violent acts are fueled by inflammatory political rhetoric.
Will the “Joint commitment to end violence” work?
On 26 February 2023, Israeli and Palestinian delegates agreed to take immediate action to halt the current escalation of violence. This followed discussions between the parties in Aqaba, Jordan, with American and Egyptian officials.
The release stated that the Palestinian and Israeli sides “reaffirmed their commitment to all previous agreements between them, and to work towards just and lasting peace”.
Both parties also agreed to cooperate immediately to halt unilateral actions for a period of three to six months. This includes a commitment by Israel to halt the discussion of any additional settlement units for four months and to halt the approval of any outposts for six months.
Nonetheless, Israeli and Palestinian politicians have expressed skepticism regarding the viability of the shared commitments. Bezalel Smotrich, Israeli finance minister and chairman of the Religious Zionist Party, is rumored to have opposed the peace settlement. The minister issued a statement stating that “there will be no freeze on settlement building and development, not even for a one day”.
In addition to building Israeli settlements in the West Bank, Israel’s new hard-liner, right-wing government is speeding up demolitions of attackers’ homes. According to reports, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted that settlement construction would resume.
The Palestinians blame Israel’s actions and superior military for the attacks, while Israel claims it must carry on its operations to weaken the extremist groups and prevent attacks. There is also no political peace process that could lead to a permanent solution. This suggests that long-standing grievances, such as the Palestinians’ aspirations for statehood and Israel’s quest for security, are still festering and intensifying over time.
Although international law deems settlements illegal, Israel disputes this position. The protracted conflict between Palestinians and Israel is primarily attributed by Palestinians to the ongoing expansion of Israeli settlements on land that they claim for their future state. Furthermore, the escalation of violence in the West Bank during the Aqaba negotiations has cast further doubt on the prospects for a peaceful resolution of the conflict.