Raids, Rockets, and Riots: The Accelerating Cycle of Violence in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Image Source: BBC

On April 5, violence broke out between local Israeli police and Palestinians at al-Aqsa mosque in the Old City of East Jerusalem, resulting in at least 12 Palestinians injured and at least 400 arrested. Every year tensions between Palestinians and Israeli citizens as well as Israeli security forces flare up during the religious holiday period, which includes Ramadan, Passover and Easter (including Orthodox Easter). Every year, Israeli-Jewish citizens attempt to enter the holy site of Temple Mount, where al-Aqsa mosque is located (under Jordanian custodianship), to slaughter a lamb for Passover. Every year they are apprehended for it by local police: on April 3 and 4, three Israelis were arrested. On April 4, Hamas and other organizations called upon Palestinians to protect the Holy Site. Tens of thousands of Palestinians went to al-Aqsa mosque on April 5 for Tahajjud prayers and afterwards hundreds remained in the mosque. Local Israeli security forces saw this as a sign of aggression, as it contravened the police’s prior agreement with the Al-Aqsa authorities that does not allow people to stay overnight. The local police responded with batons, tear gas, and sound bombs to force the Palestinians out of the prayer hall. This incident is a regular occurrence in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and is an episode in the self-perpetuating cycle of violence.

Recent calls from the international community reflect the escalation in violence. On February 23, the United Nations special coordinator for the Middle East, Tor Wennesland, said that he was ‘deeply disturbed’ by the most recent incidents of violence in Israel-Palestine. Political risk analysts also said the recent events in 2023 and events in the second half of 2022 have not been this tense since the Second Intifada from 2000 to 2005. The number of casualties, particularly amongst Palestinian population, has been so alarming that even the U.S. State Department has stated they are ‘deeply concerned’ by the high numbers of civilian injuries in the most recent Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) raid in Nablus on February 22, 2023. The IDF raids and retaliations are just one form of violent methods used in this cycle of violence. Both Israelis and Palestinians have perpetrated this violence, as Palestinian radical groups have also used terrorist tactics (including firing rockets from Gaza into Israel).

In order to have a comprehensive understanding of the escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is crucial to acknowledge that conflicts are inherently reactive. Additionally, one must recognize the three distinct regions within the territories that require examination: The West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and Israeli territory. These regions are inhabited by various political factions, combatants, and non-combatants, which increase the complexity of the already tense relationship between Israelis and Palestinians. However, comprehending the cyclic pattern of violence that characterizes the situation is vital in determining what constitutes escalation in the conflict. This pattern of survival and aggravation obstructs any peaceful resolution without compromise from either government. The complexities and layering of the conflict are expected to increase the severity of violence due to the fear of the opposing side’s retaliation. Therefore, the cycle of violence is likely to persist, as it has in previous years, and a surge in violence during the holiday periods in the future should be expected. The prospects for change are slim, as it would require either a compromise among domestic actors or significant international intervention, neither of which is likely to occur.

The West Bank

The IDF has regularly carried out operational raids, and the main focal point for these raids is in the West Bank. Cities in the north of the West Bank, particularly Jenin, Ramallah and Nablus, have become centers of violence. These raids are part of a larger strategy under the operational code-name “Break the Wave”. The justification behind these raids is to weed out terrorists affiliated with designated terrorist organizations, such as Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ).On February 22, 2023, clashes in Nablus during an IDF terrorist raid resulted in the death of ten Palestinians, including an elderly man and militants affiliated with the Lion’s Den Group. The Lion’s Den Group is an armed group from Nablus, known for carrying out attacks against Israeli checkpoints, forces, and settlements. Most of these members have ties to the traditional Palestinian political parties – Fatah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Although these raids are intended to target terrorist cells and affiliates, civilians have also been affected. Last year the IDF arrested approximately 2,000 Palestinians and killed more than 150 Palestinians in clashes during these raids in the West Bank. According to the UN envoy report, 44 Palestinian youths and one Israeli child were killed in 2022. Another incident in which civilians were caught up as collateral damage was the murder of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. The American-Palestinian journalist was shot in the head on May 11, 2022, by Israeli forces while she was reporting during an IDF raid at the entrance of Jenin Refugee Camp.

These offensive raids have exacerbated the threat of terrorism and violence in the region. Palestinian groups and civilians have, predictably, responded with violent means. In the West Bank, these raids have incited violent protests that have resulted in rock throwing and further shootouts in cities and villages. The most notable of these protests took place in May 2021 in East Jerusalem and lasted for four days. Israeli Shin Bet forces responded with force, resulting in the injury of at least 840 Palestinians, at least 21 Israeli police officers and seven Israeli civilians. In conjunction with these raids, Israeli authorities conduct house demolitions of terrorists or their families. From January to June 2022, Israeli authorities demolished a total of 388 building structures, leaving approximately 491 people displaced. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 20 of these structures were donor-funded and 11 were funded by the European Union or its member states. House demolitions of Palestinian homes without Israeli-issued building permits in East Jerusalem have been fast-tracked under Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s new administration: 47 Palestinian-built structures have been demolished since the start of 2023. These house demolitions raise tensions between Palestinian civilians and the Israeli authorities, which in the past have caused confrontations that have escalated into violence.

Another topic that has provoked anger among Palestinians is increased settlement building, which has infringed on the Green Line borders that were established in 1967. Although Israel and Palestine have not agreed upon official borders in the West Bank, the 1967 borders have remained the “de jure” borders. Negotiations between the two sides have failed to produce a final agreement on borders, leaving the status of the West Bank in limbo. According to Carnegie, there were approximately 199 Israeli settlements and 220 outposts in the West Bank. These settlements are protected by walls of separation and networks of roads that have structurally blocked off the northern, central and southern areas of the West Bank. These areas are then divided further into six cantons, which comprise around 68 ghettos. This demarcation makes Israeli surveillance and control of the territory easier, facilitating further settlement construction.

Israeli infringement on Palestinian territory in the West Bank can trigger lone-wolf attacks in Jerusalem as well as the West Bank itself. The most recent attack occurred on Monday, April 24, when a 30 year old Palestinian man drove his car into a crowd in Jerusalem, injuring five people. The driver was shot dead by Israeli police, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu openly called the incident a terrorist attack. Before this, on April 7, two British-Israeli sisters, aged 15 and 20, were killed in a shooting attack in the West Bank. Their mother was injured and died later on April 10. Later that same day, IDF forces raided the Aqbat Jaber refugee camp near Jericho to arrest the suspect. They shot and killed a 15-year-old Palestinian boy, Mohammad Fayez Balhan – it is yet to be verified if Balhan committed these murders. As this case demonstrates, both the IDF and Palestinian entities continue the pattern of violence.

Gaza Strip

The Palestinians’ response to violence in the West Bank and to Israeli government decisions is not restricted to the West Bank. One of the main escalations that reaches headlines are cross border attacks in the Gaza strip. On May 2, 26 rockets were fired from Gaza into the Israeli settlements near Sderot, wounding three people. This was a reprisal to the death of prominent Palestinian prisoner, Khader Adnan, who was affiliated with the PIJ under Israeli custody after an 87-day hunger strike. In response, the IDF fired artillery shells followed by airstrikes over several areas in the Gaza Strip. Similarly, after the violence at al-Aqsa Mosque on April 5, four rockets were fired from Gaza over the Israeli border. In response, IDF planes carried out airstrikes overnight on April 5 over Gaza. No casualties have been reported so far, but further violence from both sides is expected. Responsive attacks also took place on January 26, 2023. Palestinian militants fired approximately 13 rockets roughly 3.5 miles across the Gaza border into Israel that night as a response – no casualties were reported. These rockets tend to be associated with Hamas’s military wing Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, but in more recent years PIJ militants have taken responsibility. In 2022, a total of 1115 rocket attacks from Gaza were reported with 1,100 of these attacks taking place within the 3 day escalation period August 5-7, 2022. However, most of these rockets are intercepted by Israel’s air defense system, the Iron Dome. According to an Israeli military spokesperson, this air defense system had a 97 percent success rate during the attacks in August 2022. Alongside rocket attacks, militants and civilians within Gaza have been known to use incendiary balloons. They use the Mediterranean Sea winds to propel the balloons into Israeli territory, where they wildfires and destroy agricultural lands and infrastructure. In 2018, incendiary balloons burned more than 10,400 acres in the Gaza Envelope. In response to these attacks and to growing violence in the West Bank, the Israeli government orders and carries out airstrikes on targeted locations in Gaza. These attacks from the Gaza Strip, although mostly intercepted by the Iron Dome, still threaten Israeli citizens living around the Gaza Envelope, warranting an Israeli government response.

As expected, the IDF has not held back in its responses to these acts of aggression. On February 13, 2023, the IDF responded with airstrikes targeting IDF-identified Hamas rocket manufacturing sites. The IDF forces carried out a full-scale military offensive on the Gaza Strip between May 10 and 21, 2021. This attack killed 261 Palestinians – many of whom were non-combatants, including children. On May 15, 2021 Israeli airstrikes targeted the Jalaa building that housed Al Jazeera’s bureau and the Associated Press office.

The international community has questioned the high levels of collateral damage associated with these attacks. Israeli intelligence claimed it had evidence that the building “contained military assets belonging to Hamas military intelligence.” It is worth mentioning that the munitions used in the attacks were part of a package of Joint Direct Attack Munitions – missiles that convert into smart bombs with more precision accuracy – sent by the United States to Israel. During the May 2021 bombardment, the IDF claimed to have killed at least 225 Hamas and PIJ fighters as well as 25 of their leaders. However, Hamas and PIJ openly stated that they only lost 80 fighters- 57 Hamas, 22 PIJ and one member of the Popular Resistance Committee. Furthermore, the Gaza Health authorities released statistics on civilian casualties: 17 elderly and 66 child casualties. The statistics on combatants and non-combatants are unreliable, which makes cases like this hard to quantify force and its impact. It also does not consider Palestinian militant groups’ use of civilians as human shields. Nevertheless, despite the advances in technology, civilian casualties continue to exacerbate the cycle of violence.

Inside Israeli Territory

The final sphere of civil disruption is cities and villages in Israeli territory, as these locations tend to mix Israeli and Arab-Israeli populations. Cities such as Lod have become breeding grounds for resentment, raids, and riots. On February 19, 2023, when the committee representing the Arab residents announced that all Arab-owned businesses would strike. The precedent for the strike was established in May 2021, when Lod became the ‘epicenter of three nights of violence’. Fears arose that violence from Arab rioters, as well as Israeli police crackdowns in mixed Israeli cities, would catalyze civil war. After a state of emergency and curfew was announced, the violence died down. Demonstrations in Lod have reoccurred since, as have Israeli responses. Operation Guardian of the Walls was the Israeli government’s response to the outbreak of riots in Israel and cross-border attacks with Gaza in 2021. Palestinians are still being arrested for their involvement in the violence in all three spheres in 2021.

Israeli territory also faces lone wolf attacks carried out by militants, civilians identified as affiliated with a militant group or even unidentified civilians. For example, on January 27, 2023, a 21 year old Palestinian gunman with no militant affiliations killed seven people and wounded three during a terrorist attack in a Jerusalem synagogue. Hamas praised this attack, hailing it as “a response to the crime conducted by the occupation in Jenin and a natural response to the occupation’s criminal actions.” On April 7, 2022, three people were killed and several others were injured in a terrorist shooting on Dizengoff street in the center of Tel Aviv. The shooter was a 29-year-old Palestinian man from Jenin. Islamic State took responsibility for the attack. The most recent terrorist attack also took place on March 9, when a gunman affiliated with Hamas left three Israelis injured. More often than not, these attacks purportedly take place in response to IDF raids or Israeli aggression and are praised and encouraged by Hamas, PIJ and other militant groups. Lone wolf attacks are harder to predict or collect prior intelligence on. They are sometimes incited by Palestinian groups, such as Hamas, via social media. These incidents can incite others to carry out further attacks like this. They also demonstrate potential weaknesses in the IDF and Israeli government’s ability to protect its citizens. As expected, the Israeli government aims to show a strong front with a definitive response, in the form of raids in the West Bank and confrontation in the Gaza Strip.

 An Unbroken Cycle

Conflicts are inherently cyclical, as one side acts in response to the others. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has witnessed consistent violence since 1948. The establishment of the State of Israel and the mass displacement of Palestinians can be viewed as responsive itself. Jewish migrants acting on the need for security and development within the boundaries of their own state led to the mass exodus and persecution of Palestinians. Palestinians coordinate in factions to return to their homes and fight for survival. Thus, this flow of survival and aggravation hinders and delays any form of a peaceful solution without compromise from either government. It is important to recognize that this is no longer a two-sided conflict. Not all Israeli citizens agree with the government in power, and Palestinians’ political landscape remains fractured. Due to the fear of reprisal from the opposing side, the complexity and intricacy of the conflict are likely to intensify the violence. Understanding this pattern of conflict can help analysts assess whether this year’s increased violence will be an out-of-the-ordinary escalation or a qualitative continuation of the past 75 years. Despite the frequency of these violent attacks in the past year, as well as international recognition of the escalation, the international community’s involvement falls short of mere commentary. Therefore, the cycle of violence is likely to persist as it has in the past years, and we should expect an upsurge in violence during the holiday periods in the future. Change will only take place if domestic actors compromise, or if the international community intervenes. Unfortunately, under current conditions, neither is likely to happen.

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