clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Why violence in Israel and Palestine has spiked in the last 48 hours

A shooting in Jerusalem and a raid in Jenin, briefly explained.

A woman Israeli police officer wearing a camouflage uniform holds a military-style rifle and looks to her left. Behind her is an Israeli ambulance.
Israeli police investigate after 7 people were killed in an armed attack in a Jewish settlement at East Jerusalem on January 27, 2023.
Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Jonathan Guyer covers foreign policy, national security, and global affairs for Vox. From 2019 to 2021, he worked at the American Prospect, where as managing editor he reported on Biden’s and Trump's foreign policy teams.

It’s been a violent two days in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. On Friday evening in East Jerusalem, a Palestinian gunman killed at least seven Israelis in the most lethal attack in the city since 2008. Israeli officials described the shooting outside a synagogue as an act of terrorism. Earlier Friday, three rockets were shot from Gaza and Israeli jets attacked an underground Hamas bomb-making facility, according to the Israeli military.

A day prior, in the refugee camp of Jenin in the occupied West Bank, Israeli commandos raided an apartment building and the surrounding area, and killed nine Palestinians and wounded 20, in what a spokesperson for the Palestinian Authority called “a massacre.” Israel said the site of the raid housed a terrorist cell of the Islamic Jihad group.

More than one Palestinian has been killed a day on average in the first month of 2023, on track to double the tragic rate of lethal violence in the occupied West Bank last year — which was already the highest on record since the United Nations began collecting this data, and double that of 2021.

Little is known about the Friday shooter or his motives; he was killed by police after attacking the synagogue.

The escalating cycle of violence comes as CIA director Bill Burns visits Israel and Palestine; Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrives there on Monday. “We underscore the urgent need for all parties to de-escalate, prevent further loss of civilian life, and work together to improve the security situation in the West Bank,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement Thursday.

But analysts described the increasingly deadly and volatile situation as a product of foreclosed hope and other structural factors, exacerbated by an extreme-right Israeli government taking power earlier this month. At the very least, things are unlikely to calm.

The situation for Palestinians was already bad and continues to get worse, says Mairav Zonszein, an International Crisis Group analyst. “With a new far right government committed to continued dispossession of Palestinians and expansion of settlements, with the Palestinian body politic in shambles and no international stakeholder taking proactive steps, the crisis is likely to continue escalating,” she wrote in a message.

What we know about the attacks

It’s unusual, if not unprecedented, for a Palestinian attacker to respond so quickly to an Israeli raid like the one on Thursday in Jenin, an Israeli analyst speaking on condition of anonymity told me. Though it’s too soon to draw big conclusions about the particulars of each developing story, it is clear that the already dire situation could get very ugly.

On Friday evening outside a synagogue in the Israeli settlement of Neve Yaakov in East Jerusalem, a Palestinian militant shot at least 10 people and then was killed by police. The situation is still unfolding, and no militant Palestinian groups immediately claimed credit, but police have identified the shooter as a 21-year-old resident of East Jerusalem. The attack occurred on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. No information about the victims was immediately shared.

The Jerusalem police head pledged an “aggressive and significant” pursuit of anyone who abetted the attacker. “Israel will continue to act forcefully against the threat of terrorism. We will pursue and reach every terrorist who harms Israeli citizens,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.

A day earlier, a deadly Israeli raid on a Palestinian home in the Jenin refugee camp killed nine, among them an elderly woman named Majida Obaid. “Most injuries that arrived at the hospital today were in the head and chest area,” read a Palestinian Ministry of Health statement Thursday on the raid, cited by the news site Mondoweiss. “This means that the shooting of live ammunition towards residents was with the intent to kill.” Israeli forces also obstructed the movement of ambulances with gunfire, the hospital’s head, Wissam Baker, told Al Jazeera.

Relatives mourn during the funeral ceremony, on January 19, of two Palestinians who were killed by Israeli army bullets during a raid on the Jenin refugee camp in the occupied West Bank.
Nasser Ishtayeh/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Armed Palestinian resistance groups have been expanding in the occupied territories, including in Jenin, partially in response to the fractured nature of Palestinian leadership, the lack of opportunities for Palestinians, and the long-stalled negotiations that could lead to an sovereign state of Palestine. Over the past year, Israeli forces have responded to these new groups, notably Lion’s Den, with intensive raids with high numbers of civilian deaths.

The State Department’s top Middle East official, Barbara Leaf, told reporters Thursday that the lethal strike in Jenin had dismantled “a ticking time bomb of a threat — of a terrorist threat,” apparently amplifying comments from a senior Israeli military official.

In response to the Israeli operation, Palestine Liberation Organization chair Mahmoud Abbas said he would cut off security coordination with the Israeli government. Some experts noted that’s often been a talking point for Abbas, but one he has not always followed through on.

UN special rapporteur for human rights Francesca Albanese noted Israel’s obligation as an occupying power to safeguard Palestinian civilians in the West Bank and emphasized the “deeply alarming high rate of apparent extrajudicial killings of Palestinians of 2022 continues in this new year.”

Should we expect more violence under Israel’s new government?

In November, Israelis elected the most extreme government in the country’s history. More than 80,000 protesters demonstrated against the government’s new members and their judicial moves that would weaken the authority of the country’s supreme court. Even Moshe Ya’alon, a former defense minister who had served as a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s center-right Likud party, has called the new Israeli government “a dictatorship of criminals.” But less attention inside Israel has been paid to the radical new governing coalition’s drastic implications for Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinians living under occupation.

“The death toll over both in the West Bank and now in Jerusalem is in fact the entirely predictable result of an extremist Israeli government that is propagating violence,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of the advocacy and research organization Democracy for the Arab World Now.

The Biden administration, for its part, has restrained its criticism of the government so far. Though the Biden administration still holds out the prospect of a two-state solution and an independent Palestinian state, those talks have been frozen since 2014, and more recently Israel has forged diplomatic relations with Arab states like the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco, giving the government of Israel little incentive to advance any two-state outcome.

It’s not entirely clear how Secretary of State Blinken will manage to deescalate tensions between Israelis and Palestinians during his upcoming trip. The priorities for the visit include “preserving the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the protection of human rights and democratic values,” all which appear at risk of devolving further.

Tom Pickering, a career ambassador who previously served in Israel, is concerned that the rising violence could lead to a third Intifadah, or uprising, among Palestinians. “At the moment, the two-state outcome, as most people are fond of saying, is dead,” he told me. “But there is a no-state outcome that’s in the making” — that is, a status quo sought by the current Israeli government, in which a Palestinian state is no longer a viable possibility.

But the tragic violence of the past two days shows that’s not much of a solution at all.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.