January saw the most violent confrontations between Israel and Palestinians since 2015, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health. Some 35 Palestinians were killed in the West Bank.
The Israeli army invaded the Jenin refugee camp on 27 January, killing 10 Palestinians and arresting several others. Tel Aviv claimed it was an operation to thwart a major plot to attack Israel, but the army did not elaborate on the alleged plot.
Several armed Palestinians have attempted to confront the Israeli forces, and clashed with them. Among those was a militia affiliated to Al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas, which for the first time admitted there was an organised military presence in Jenin Refugee Camp called Al-Qassam Brigades - Jenin Brigade.
Hamas’ military wing has thus joined those armed groups recently mounting operations recently in the Jenin Refugee Camp, including some associated with Islamic Jihad and the Fatah-affiliated Al-Aqsa Martyrs.
However, most of the victims at the refugee camp were civilians, and they included an elderly woman and member of the Palestinian Olympic team Ezzeddin Salahat, who played for Ittihad Al-Shurta Club and represented the national team at many sports events.
The Israeli army also destroyed the youth sports centre at Jenin Camp, where the main building and the sports pitch were seriously damaged.
Islamic Jihad also fired two rockets from the Gaza Strip towards Ashkelon on its border, and Israel responded by bombing military locations in Gaza. Islamic Jihad once again fired rockets, before cautious calm was restored.
On Friday, tensions peaked following a shooting by a Palestinian called Khairy Alqam, 21, near a synagogue in occupied Jerusalem that killed seven Israelis and injured more than ten others. The attack had a seismic impact inside Israel, and Tel Aviv described it as the worst since 2008.
Israeli analysts viewed the incident as a serious example of the danger represented by what Israel calls “lone wolves”. This is a term used by Israeli security circles to describe those who carry out attacks but don’t belong to any armed Palestinian group.
It is a challenge for Israeli security agencies to pursue such attackers because there is no organisational structure that can be discovered or information collected from those arrested during daily raids by the Israeli army in the West Bank. The army claims
those raids are in pursuit of elements connected to Palestinian factions, especially Islamic Jihad which is active in Jenin and is trying to form robust armed cells there.
According to Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, there is nothing much to do about lone wolf attacks, except to monitor social media through the Israeli army’s intelligence agencies to uncover the intentions of possible perpetrators and deploy more Israeli forces to thwart operations on the ground.
One day later, two Israelis were injured in a shooting by an Israeli youth in Salwan district in Jerusalem. In response, Israel took a series of unprecedented steps including approving the arrest of the families of Palestinian attackers and barricading their homes. Israeli forces took these steps against the family of Alqam, the perpetrator of the Jerusalem attack.
The smaller Israeli security cabinet approved a series of steps, including denying the right to national insurance and other benefits to the families of Palestinians who support armed operations against Israel, not issuing Israeli ID cards to families of Palestinians who support attacks, and increasing to thousands the number of gun owners by accelerating and expanding the scope of firearms licenses.
The police urged any Israeli with a licensed weapon to carry it with them, since in the past Israelis have shot at Palestinians carrying out attacks against Israel. Tel Aviv also decided to deploy its troops extensively in various areas across Israel. It is likely the new Israeli government will take further steps to confront the wave of increasing attacks against Israelis. These include an imminent proposal by National Security Ministry Itamar ben Gvir that includes sentencing Palestinian attackers to the electric chair.
The growing escalation in the West Bank and Jerusalem portends a broader confrontation if armed Palestinian factions in the Gaza Strip engage on the front line, especially since factions like Islamic Jihad refuse to curb their response to Israeli attacks on Gaza, which they view as an Israeli plot to separate Palestinian areas and deal with each separately.
Hamas, however, which was more cautious at the start of the military escalation with Israel, warned that the region is approaching an unprecedented upsurge as Israel continues to target Palestinians, especially the families of Palestinian prisoners which Israel has taken several punitive measures against.
Ismail Haniyah, the head of Hamas’ Politburo, warned on Saturday that there will be unprecedented escalation in the Palestinian territories, due to widespread repression by the Israeli Prisons Administration against Palestinian prisoners. Haniyah warned that confrontation will not remain within Israeli prisons.
“The repression to which prisoners are subjected is part of a systematic terrorist plan within an agreed agenda of Netanayhu’s government, led by Ben Gvir,” asserted Haniyah.
In response to Israeli escalation, hundreds of Palestinian prisoners decided on Monday to begin an open hunger strike to protest Israeli measures taken by the prison administration against them.
As confrontations crescendoed in all Palestinian areas, the US administration attempted to calm the situation. This was the main talking point during meetings by CIA Director William Burns and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who visited Israel and Ramallah to urge calm. Washington’s efforts were timed shortly after the Palestinian Authority (PA) declared it would end security coordination with Israel, and begin action against Israel on the international stage, with the help of Arab countries, at the UN and International Court of Justice.
The US is trying to dissuade the PA from continuing along this path to prevent a greater rupture with Israel. However, the Palestinian leadership – which has unusually refrained from condemning the killing of Israelis in the shooting attack in Jerusalem – gave
a list of demands to US officials visiting Ramallah.
The PA rejects Washington’s proposal to provide economic incentives without progress on the political track with Israel. While the US has reiterated its commitment to a two-state solution, it is not taking any steps to prevent Israel from settlement activities or the Judaisation of occupied Jerusalem.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 2 February, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly