A surge in violence on both sides since last March prompted the United Nations to warn in November that the conflict was “reaching a boiling point.” That was before the return of former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in last month’s elections. His right-wing, nationalist coalition government has only further soured relations.
“The outcome of all of this is looking extraordinarily bleak, particularly the potential for violence,” said Ferry de Kerckhove, a fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute who studies the Middle East.
Why has the conflict become so violent?
Ever since Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Mideast war, along with east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, violence has regularly erupted between Israelis and Palestinians, who each lay claim to various parts of the disputed region.
Efforts to resolve the conflict and establish a “two-state solution” — giving Palestinians their long-held goal of statehood — have been supported by Western nations that are largely allied with Israel. However, they have yet to yield a proper agreement, prolonging the conflict.
Two years-long uprisings or intifadas by the Palestinians, have broken out and led to thousands of deaths on both sides, the most recent of ending in 2005. Smaller outbreaks of violence have occurred since.
Signs have emerged that the conflict is again turning ugly.
Last year Israeli forces killed at least 146 Palestinians, including 34 children, the Israeli rights group B’Tselem reported, making 2022 the deadliest for Palestinians in the West Bank in 18 years, when the second intifada was still underway.
According to the Israeli army, most of the Palestinians killed have been militants. But youths protesting the incursions and others not involved in confrontations have also been killed.
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Most notably, Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was shot dead while reporting on an Israeli raid in Jenin last May. It wasn’t until September that the Israeli army admitted a soldier’s gunfire was to blame.
Palestinian attacks, meanwhile, killed at least 31 Israelis last year, the most since 2008. Militant groups like Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, have launched missile attacks into Israel and have bombed civilian targets.
Polling released last month by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research suggests two-thirds of people in the West Bank now support armed struggle. A similar number of Jews polled by the Israel Democracy Institute in October feared armed conflict will break out in the near future, up from the previous summer.
Israel says its operations in Palestinian communities are meant to dismantle militant networks and thwart future attacks. The Palestinians have decried the raids as collective punishment aimed at cementing Israel’s open-ended 55-year-old occupation.
Likewise, outside opinions differ on why last year was so violent. While some say Israel’s actions are to blame, Jewish advocates say the Palestinians must accept responsibility.
“We risk infantilizing Palestinians by not holding them to account for significant increases in intra-Palestinian society violence, the level of crime that has really just exploded, and the breakdown in civil society” within Palestinian-held areas, said Shimon Fogel, CEO of the Canadian Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.
Reports have emerged that black-market guns have proliferated Palestinian communities, making military-grade weaponry more accessible to young adults and teenagers.
New armed militant groups such as the “Lion’s Den” have popped up in the West Bank that ignore the controlling Palestinian Authority, which has not held elections in 16 years. Its longtime aging leader, Mahmoud Abbas, has not appointed an official successor.
A report prepared by Peter Larson, chair of the Ottawa Forum on Israel and Palestine, after a two-week visit to Israel and the West Bank in late October and early November of last year — which was shared with Global News — found increased talk of Palestinians taking matters “into their own hands” while ignoring established groups like Hamas and Fatah. The report corroborated the prevalence of black-market weapons.
“None of the Palestinians we spoke to felt that there was any possibility for a two-state solution,” the report says.
Fogel says attempts by the previous Israeli government to pursue a more peaceful path were ignored, raising questions of whether the Palestinians wish to be a “genuine partner.” Critics disagree.
“I’m not saying Hamas does not pose a threat,” de Kerckhove said. “But the idea that Israel’s security is under threat — with all the defensive capabilities it has — is a farce.”
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Why has Netanyahu’s government been so controversial?
Netanyahu, who was Israel’s prime minister from 1996 to 1999 and again from 2009 to 2021, reclaimed the position in last November’s elections despite facing an ongoing trial for charges of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes, which he denies.
In December, he formed a coalition government that includes far-right, ultranationalist figures like Itamar Ben-Gvir, who has a history of inflammatory remarks and actions against Palestinians and is now Israel’s national security minister.
Two weeks ago, Ben-Gvir sparked an uproar after visiting a holy Jerusalem worship site known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, with the Al Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam. Since Israel captured the site in 1967, Jews have been allowed to visit but not pray there, but Ben-Gvir and other nationalists have pushed for greater Jewish access to the site.
The visit drew condemnation from across the Muslim world as well as the United States. Israel’s neighbour Jordan, which acts as custodian of the contested shrine, condemned Ben-Gvir’s visit “in the strongest terms.”
A similar visit by then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon in September 2000 helped spark clashes that led to the second Palestinian uprising. The fear now, de Kerckhove says, is that a push for more Jewish prayer at the site would spark an even larger conflict.
“That would be a deliberate provocation that would create a disaster … not just with the Palestinians but with the whole Arab world,” he said. “Netanyahu has to be very careful.”
Less than a week after the Jerusalem visit, Netanyahu’s government approved a series of punitive steps against the Palestinian leadership, including withholding funds from the Palestinian Authority to use for compensating the families of Israeli victims of Palestinian militant attacks.
The steps came after the Palestinians successfully pushed the United Nations to seek an International Court of Justice opinion on the legality of Israeli policies in the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem.
The measures also include freezing Palestinian construction in part of the West Bank and taking unspecified “action” against organizations there that “promote terrorist activity or any hostile activity.” That includes groups carrying out what the government called “political and legal action against Israel under the guise of humanitarian work,” without making clear what groups would be targeted.
The new government has vowed to prioritize the expansion of settlements and legalize illegally built outposts in the West Bank. Already, Israel has constructed dozens of Jewish settlements, home to around 500,000 Israelis who live alongside close to 2.5 million Palestinians.
Fogel believes the Israeli government won’t ultimately pursue the more hardline policies pushed by ultranationalist members like Ben-Gvir, which Fogel attributed to “more colourful and exaggerated” campaign rhetoric that will be tempered by “the realities of governing.”
But he, too, admitted the outlook over the short-term remained bleak.
“Within the Jewish community here in Canada, there are a lot of troubling conversations going on about elements of the new government,” he said, “and many of us are anxious about how things are going to unfold.
“I just don’t see what is going to emerge to break this cycle.”
— With files from the Associated Press