Violence between Israelis and Palestinians has been escalating in recent weeks, raising fears of the possibility of a wider conflict, even though neither side truly wants that.
Six Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces on Tuesday and Wednesday, with four of them killed during an Israeli military raid in the West Bank city of Jenin, one killed in clashes on the Gaza Strip border, and another killed in a clash with soldiers near Jericho in the West Bank. The raid in Jenin, which saw the rare use of an Israeli suicide drone, also resulted in injuring tens of Palestinians.
Over the past year, the Israeli military has been increasing its activities in the West Bank in what it says is a concerted effort to thwart terrorist attacks.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, more than 180 Palestinians have been killed in clashes with Israeli forces in the West Bank since the beginning of the year. In the same period, 29 Israelis have been killed in attacks by Palestinians. The violence continues from 2022, one of the deadliest years in the West Bank in recent decades.
Israel captured the West Bank during the 1967 Six-Day War, and successive Israeli governments have allowed Jewish settlers to populate the area, which Palestinians see as an integral part of their future state. While the settlements are considered illegal under international law, Israel maintains that the future status of the territories should be determined through negotiations. However, talks have been stalled since 2014. The lack of a political resolution, continued Israeli construction that has intensified under the current government, and an increasingly weak Palestinian Authority have all contributed to the current escalating tensions.
On the Gaza border, the clashes come after a relatively long period of calm on that front. The unrest in Gaza has widened the scope of the tensions, leading Israel to bar the entry of thousands of Palestinian laborers from the coastal strip.
The Gaza Strip was one of the territories captured by Israel in the 1967 war and was subsequently settled by thousands of Israelis, living amid 2 million Palestinians. In 2005, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided to unilaterally evacuate the territory, leaving it to the control of the PA and PA President Mahmoud Abbas. However, soon afterward, internal rivalry split the Palestinians, with the Hamas terrorist organization violently taking control of Gaza in 2007 from Abbas’ Fatah Party, which remains in control in the West Bank. Since then, reconciliation attempts between the sides have failed.
The Gaza Strip has been under a strict Israeli-Egyptian blockade since 2007, which has further crippled the territory. Israel says the blockade is needed to protect itself, as Hamas refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist and has carried out militant operations ranging from extensive rocket fire into Israel to cross-border ground infiltrations.
Hamas is challenging Israel to pressure it into concessions
In recent days, Gazan youths have been gathering at the border, burning tires and throwing explosive devices at Israeli troops stationed there.
“It seems that Hamas has decided to challenge Israel by staging the border protests to pressure Israel into concessions, such as more international funds for rebuilding, widening the area allowed for fishing, more electricity, and increasing the number of work permits for Gazans to enter Israel,” Professor Amal Jamal, of Tel Aviv University's School of Political Science, told The Media Line.
While Israel disengaged from Gaza in 2005, it still retains control over Gaza's borders and many aspects of infrastructure such as electricity, water and sewage.
Hamas claims the current border protests are a response to recent Israeli provocations. In retaliation for the violence, Israel announced it was temporarily closing the sole pedestrian crossing with the Gaza Strip. Israel allows approximately 17,000 Gazan residents to enter the country daily for work in a policy aimed at alleviating some of the economic pressures plaguing the Gaza Strip, one of the most disadvantaged areas in the world.
Various media reports claim that the current border unrest is a result of Gaza's economic hardships and has less to do with Israel directly. Hamas, which is dependent on Qatari aid to pay the salaries of tens of thousands of government officials, has not received the money, leading to pent-up frustration. Over the summer, Hamas was already unable to pay the full salaries of many of its employees. This spurred a rare wave of criticism on social media toward the authoritarian government.
“The more pressure Hamas is under, the more Hamas is inclined to put pressure on Israel, which then results in pressure on Qatar and other regional actors to find a solution to its financial problems. Simultaneously, Hamas is also under pressure in the West Bank as Israel and the PA have increased their operations against them,” Noa Shusterman Dvir, a program manager on Palestinians and the region at security consultancy MIND Israel, told The Media Line.
Previous waves of border protests, in 2018 and 2019, led to the deaths of hundreds of Palestinians and the subsequent relief of financial pressure by Qatar and other countries, including Egypt at the United Nations.
While many of the recent attacks against Israelis in the West Bank and inside Israel have been carried out by lone assailants without any organizational affiliation, Hamas is believed to be behind some of the attacks and is a main instigator of incitement against Israel.
“Hamas will always prefer that the focus of violence will be in the West Bank and Jerusalem, knowing that any escalation in Gaza will require serious rehabilitation,” Shusterman Dvir said.
The most recent of several wars fought between Israel and Hamas was in 2021, when a massive Israeli offensive led to extensive damage in the Gaza Strip, requiring painstaking rehabilitation. This is a process Hamas is presumably hesitant to hinder by initiating another confrontation with Israel.
Rising tensions come during Jewish holidays
The rising tensions come during the current Jewish holidays, when large numbers of Jews usually visit Jerusalem's holiest site. Referred to by Jews as the Temple Mount and by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, home of the Al Aqsa Mosque, the site is often a focal point of Israeli-Palestinian violence, with Hamas encouraging Palestinian youths to clash with Israeli forces on all fronts.
The May 2021 war began when Israel restricted the access of Palestinian worshippers to the site, leading to violent Palestinian protests followed by Hamas joining in by firing rockets at Israel.
Against the backdrop of the current clashes are increasing reports of the possibility of normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. The kingdom has long been a champion of the Palestinian cause and is expected to condition any progress on Israeli concessions to the Palestinians. The current right-wing nationalist government in Israel may make this tricky for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but it also could contribute to lowering the flames between Israelis and Palestinians.
“An escalation would definitely harm normalization efforts,” Shusterman Dvir said.
But Jamal said the talks with the Saudis were not as advanced as Israel would like to portray.
“Reality is much more complex,” he said. “The Saudis will not make any progress without a very serious package for the Palestinians, something the current Israeli government cannot supply.”
Meanwhile, the bloodshed continues and the future is unpredictable.
“There is a dynamic of escalation, in which each side feels obligated to retaliate, although each side is not really interested in escalation,” Shusterman Dvir said.
- The story is written by Keren Setton and reprinted with permission from The Media Line