Since late last week, violence between Israelis and Palestinians has rapidly escalated in the West Bank and around Jerusalem, and January has proven to be one of the most violent months in the West Bank in decades. Attacks continue, exacerbated by bitter publics, frenzied politics and fragile institutions in the West Bank. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict may be in a spiral toward a third intifada and even the possible end of the two-state paradigm.

A neighborhood in East Jerusalem on Sunday, Jan. 29, 2023. (Afif H. Amireh/The New York Times)
A neighborhood in east Jerusalem on Sunday, Jan. 29, 2023. (Afif H. Amireh/The New York Times)

As the situation continues to evolve, USIP’s Robert Barron explains how we got here, the implications of the current round of violence and what can be done to deescalate the situation.

What is the immediate background of the current violence?

The background of current crisis is hard to remove from the months that preceded it. For years, the Palestinian Authority (PA) has faced cascading political, economic and legitimacy crises, and in recent months an ever-loosening control over security in significant parts of the West Bank, where disaffected militant groups are growing in strength. Simultaneously, Israel has moved increasingly to the right, with its newest government representing the most extreme right representation in the country’s history. Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir — a member of the hard-right Jewish Power party — has committed to strengthening the Israeli settler movement across the West Bank and within East Jerusalem, upending the longstanding status quo arrangement at the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif to push for full Israeli sovereignty, and taking aim at any display of Palestinian presence in Israel and Jerusalem, going so far as to ban Palestinian flags as “symbols of terrorism.” Amid this context, tensions between Israelis and Palestinians have been building for months.

Perhaps most directly related to the current crisis, as Israel-PA relations have seriously deteriorated in recent years, so has West Bank security — a trend that now seems to be coming to a head. Last year was the deadliest year for West Bank Palestinians in nearly 20 years, with 146 killed by Israeli security forces. And with the increasing number of Palestinian militant attacks on Israelis (individually and through emerging insurgent groups), Israeli raids into PA-controlled areas, and steadily rising clashes between Israeli forces and Palestinians in the northern West Bank, the current crisis seemed almost inevitable.

On Thursday, January 26, Israeli forces entered the Jenin refugee camp, targeting Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) militants. The operation was one of the deadliest in years, killing 10 and wounding 20 Palestinians, including militants and civilians. The raid — which took place in Area A, under the control of the Palestinian Authority — also demonstrates the deteriorating relationship between Israeli and Palestinian security forces and societies. The Israeli security apparatus has become more and more skeptical of the PA’s ability to prevent insurgent groups like PIJ, Hamas and the Lion’s Den from operating in the West Bank. PA forces are deeply unpopular with the Palestinian public, viewed as perpetuating the Israeli occupation — in polling, 72 percent of Palestinians supported the formation of armed groups like the Lion’s Den, with 87 percent stating that PA forces have no right to stop such groups.

On Friday, East Jerusalem, long a flashpoint, was scene to the city’s worst terror attack in 15 years, when 21-year-old East Jerusalemite Khairi Alkam shot seven people leaving a synagogue and was killed by Israeli Police trying to escape. The next day, a 13-year-old Palestinian from East Jerusalem shot and wounded two Israelis. Alkam carried out the attack to avenge the death of a teenager holding a toy weapon, who was killed by Israeli forces in the Shoafat refugee camp on Wednesday. In a sad demonstration of the long-term, generational cycles of violence that characterize the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Alkam was named after his grandfather, who was killed by a Jewish terrorist in 1998.

What has the reaction been?

Since Friday’s terror attack, violence has escalated further, and the rhetoric has become harsher. On both sides, public sentiment seems to combine elements of doubled-down resolve, anger, hurt and cruelty. Most signs point to steps toward further escalation, rather than de-escalation.  

On the Israeli side, the attack unleashed a wave of retaliatory violence by some Israeli settlers in the West Bank, resulting in a number of deaths and destruction of property. In response to the attacks, Israeli leadership promised a strong, swift response. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he would “strengthen the settlements” and expand punishments for attackers, including immediate sealing and destruction of terrorist’s homes, arrests of family and friends of attackers, cancelling social security benefits for families of terrorists and expanded Israeli gun licenses. Security Minister Ben Gvir has proposed the death penalty for terrorists, while others in the governing coalition have called for “deportation and assassination” of Palestinian attackers and their families. The latter proposals raised some protests in Israel and abroad, who noted the Fourth Geneva Convention’s prohibition of collective punishment.

In the West Bank, the Israeli raid in Jenin led Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to announce a halt to Palestinian security coordination with Israel. After the attack in Neveh Yaakov, some Palestinians in parts of the West Bank and Gaza celebrated the act as revenge for Israeli raids and occupation. Palestinian President Abbas released a statement after the attack claiming that "the government of Israel is fully responsible for this dangerous escalation." In his press conference with Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday, Abbas went scorched earth in his characterizations and litany of complaints against Israel, accusing it of actions tantamount to “ethnic cleansing and apartheid.” The Palestinian discourse — from officials to the grass roots — seems to be rallying around messages of resilience and resistance to the occupation.

What are the implications of this?

The near- and longer-term implications of this moment are yet to be seen, but strongly suggest a step toward deeper conflict and cycles of violence. A key ongoing driver of the conflict is the long-running Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Should the Israeli government take steps to deepen the occupation — such as annexing East Jerusalem or expanding Israeli military presence in the West Bank — Israeli security presence in the area will expand accordingly, leading to more friction with Palestinians. In sum, Israelis and Palestinians could be looking at a spiral into the dynamics of the 1970s and 80s — perhaps a third intifada.

It's also not hard to imagine this series of events leading to an irreversible change in the conflict and both societies. Should broad-scale violence erupt, or the Israeli government take steps to annex large parts of the West Bank, we could see an altogether collapse of the (fragile and unpopular) Palestinian Authority, leading to Israeli re-occupation of the full territory from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. Israeli control over three million West Bank Palestinians, plus two million Palestinian citizens of Israel, would approach demographic parity with the 7 million Israeli Jews who also reside in Israel and the West Bank.

Thus, the result of current trends could be negative conflict transformation. After years of debate, we may be on the road to the moment at which a two-state option becomes undisputedly un-workable, the Oslo paradigm of two states for two peoples and “conflict management” along those lines abandoned. Filling the void may be a multi-generational struggle to define collective and individual rights for the peoples living between the river and sea. At that point, with the Israeli government unlikely to offer a binational state with equal rights for all, criticisms of Israeli policy toward the Palestinians — increasingly employing the “apartheid” label — will become more central to the discourse. Should the current crisis get out of hand, the parties and international community will be facing major dilemmas that could last decades.

What can be done to de-escalate the confrontation?  What role can the United States and its partners play?

Blinken had no way of knowing that his planned visit to the Middle East would coincide with one of the most fraught moments in the West Bank in years. The secretary has been clear in its calls for de-escalation, the administration’s commitment to a two-state solution to the conflict and its “enduring goal of Palestinians and Israelis enjoying equal measures of freedom, security, opportunity, justice, and dignity.” Still, the senior rung of the administration has proven hesitant to take proactive steps toward a negotiated solution or even clearly define U.S. policy toward the conflict. As Israeli and Palestinian political posturing increases, and Ramadan and Passover approach, the odds of a conflagration seem certain to rise.

During his trip, Blinken has been clear that the administration opposes "any action by either side that makes [a two-state solution] more difficult to achieve, more distant. And we’ve been clear that this includes things like settlement expansion, the legalization of outposts, demolitions and evictions, disruptions to the historic status quo of the holy sites, and of course incitement and acquiescence to violence.”

Toward this aim, the United States should work to prevent these steps from happening. These are goals shared across the international community, and the Biden administration should also rally partners with relationships on both sides — like the UAE, Egypt and Jordan — to share the message that rash, reactionary steps which undermine the long-term prospects for peace will affect their relationships with the parties. Finally, if it hopes to shift trends back toward a two-state outcome, the Biden administration should seek to reaffirm the United States’ historic role as a trusted and impactful mediator, able to deliver for both sides — an expectation which has been eroded in past years.   

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