A week of escalating tensions between Israelis and Palestinians seemed to culminate Friday with a shooting in the occupied West Bank in which two Israeli sisters were killed and their mother was critically injured. The attack exacerbated fears about intensifying violence in the region, and deepened international concerns about whether deescalation is possible in the short term.
The shooting, which Israeli authorities are investigating as a terrorist attack, came just hours after Israeli airstrikes targeting the Palestinian Islamic militant group Hamas in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. Hamas has not claimed responsibility for the shooting.
Israel ordered the airstrikes in response to a bombardment of rockets fired from Lebanon on Thursday night — the largest since the countries went to war in 2006. Israel blamed Hamas for firing the rockets, but also has held the government of Lebanon, which is struggling with its own political and economic crises, responsible for failing to prevent the attack.
The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) said in a statement that it “will not allow the Hamas terrorist organization to operate from within Lebanon and holds the state of Lebanon responsible for every directed fire emanating from its territory.” Those rocket strikes themselves were in response to Israeli police twice raiding the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem earlier this week, as Palestinians prayed during Ramadan services.
For now, neither Israel nor Hamas has articulated a desire to escalate the conflict. Reuters reported Friday that “quiet will be answered with quiet at this stage” by the Israeli army, and that Hamas would do the same after having “made its point.”
But 2022 proved the deadliest year for Palestinians living in the West Bank since the United Nations started recording killings in 2005, and the conflict has continued to claim many lives this year. At least 90 Palestinians and 15 Israelis, almost all civilians, have been killed in 2023 so far, according to CNN, meaning that the violence could potentially be worse this year than the last.
Why is violence escalating right now?
Tensions spiked this week after Israeli police twice stormed the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem and arrested hundreds of Palestinians as they offered up prayers during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The mosque is considered one of the holiest sites in the Muslim world, and is built on one of Judaism’s holiest sites.
Israeli police say they were looking to arrest “law-breaking youths and masked agitators” who had brought stones and fireworks into the mosque, refused to leave, and tried to barricade themselves inside, despite a prior agreement with the mosque’s authorities that no one would be allowed to stay in the mosque overnight during Ramadan. It’s not clear exactly why they tried to barricade themselves inside, but Palestinians have been worried that Jewish nationalist groups are encouraging inflammatory practices at the mosque, which is one of the few remaining national symbols over which they have some control.
CNN reported that, on Wednesday, police had broken windows and doors to enter, deflected fireworks with riot shields, and used stun grenades, rubber bullets, and batons on the crowd. At least 12 people, including two Israeli police officers, were injured in that altercation.
The raids have drawn swift condemnation from neighboring Muslim and Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, and Qatar. The White House has expressed concern about the violence and urged Israelis and Palestinians to deescalate the situation.
The US Office of Palestinian Affairs tweeted Wednesday that “Violence has no place in a holy site and during a holy season. Alarmed by the shocking scenes in Al Aqsa Mosque and rockets launched from Gaza toward Israel. We call for restraint and de-escalation to allow peaceful worship and to protect the sanctity of the holy sites.”
How much is the new Israeli government responsible for the current situation?
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has formed the most far-right coalition government in the country’s history, and human rights organizations have blamed its nationalist, exclusionist policies for the escalating violence against Palestinians.
Netanyahu has already seen a central pillar of his coalition’s platform backfire: a judicial overhaul that was seen as a transparent power grab and sparked some of the biggest protests in the country’s history.
But his coalition of ultra-Orthodox and religious Zionist parties have also advanced policies of Jewish supremacy, abandoning any notion of negotiating with Palestinians. An agreement laying out the coalition’s ideology states that “The Jewish people have an exclusive and inalienable right over all areas of the Land of Israel.” It has since authorized more Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, where Palestinians live under Israeli rule.
Violent uprisings among Israeli settlers there have become increasingly common this year. In response to these and other long-worsening conditions, grassroots Palestinian groups and individuals are increasingly turning to violent resistance and occasionally terrorism.
Netanyahu’s coalition has also maintained a controversial policy, initiated under the previous government, that allows Israeli forces to open fire in a broad set of circumstances, such as when arresting someone suspected of committing a felony crime or planning a suicide attack, or in life-threatening situations. That policy, criticized by human rights groups as permitting use of excessive force, led to the accidental shooting of a Palestinian American reporter for Al Jazeera last year. The US has called on Israel to reconsider the policy.
Israel claims that it’s responding to rising attacks by Palestinian militants. But its strategy raises the risk of intensifying tit-for-tat attacks like the series of violent incidents sparked by the storming of al-Aqsa this week.