Israel seeks to contain Palestinian unrest as tensions remain high

Israeli security forces outside Jerusalem synagogue Photo: Times of Israel

Israeli security forces outside Jerusalem synagogue Photo: Times of Israel

In recent weeks, sectarian tensions between Jews and Arabs in Israel, especially in Jerusalem, remained high, with near-daily unrest reported in Jerusalem’s Arab neighborhoods. This has been accompanied by a recent intensification in Palestinian attacks targeting Israelis. This was highlighted chiefly in a Jerusalem synagogue attack on November 18, when two Arabs from the Jabal Mukaber area of Jerusalem infiltrated a synagogue with cold weapons, pistols, and an assault rifle. Three of the fatalities held American citizenship. A fourth held British citizenship. A Druze policeman was killed as well. Moreover, a number of attacks targeting persons from both sides have occurred in Jerusalem and elsewhere in recent weeks.

  • During the evening hours of November 24, two Jewish Yeshiva students were stabbed in Jerusalem’s Old City near Jaffa Gate. The assaults were reportedly carried out by a group of Arab men and youth.
  • On November 24, an Arab youth was reportedly attacked by three Israelis on a bus in Jerusalem.
  • An ultra-Orthodox Jewish bus driver was reportedly attacked by two Arab passengers on a trip between Afula and Tel Aviv. Israeli buses in the Wadi Ara region of northern Israel have been attacked with stones in recent weeks. Similar occurrences have been reported in southern Israel.
  • An Arab resident of Jerusalem also said he was attacked by three Jewish youths in the Pisgat Ze’ev area of Jerusalem. Cases of arson and vandalism have also been reported by both sides. Unconfirmed reports from November 23 indicated that a Palestinian woman was arrested for allegedly attempting to stab an Israeli soldier at the Shuafat checkpoint in northern Jerusalem. An Israeli was stabbed at the Gush Etzion Junction on December 1 by a female Palestinian. She was shot by security forces as she fled the scene. Another attack was thwarted at the Tapuach Junction, also in the West Bank, on the same day.
  • Other unverified reports indicated that an Israeli-Arab taxi driver said he was assaulted by over a dozen ultra-Orthodox Jews in Bnei Brak, near Tel Aviv, after he was accused of trying to run over several of them. On November 24, an Arab man was arrested in Jerusalem for hiding a knife outside a government office on Jaffa Street after he noticed a security guard at the front door. There are no indications he intended to carry out an attack.

Israel has responded to an increase in riots and attacks, including vehicular attacks and stabbings, with numerous measures. Cement blocks have been placed around public transportation stations in Jerusalem to prevent vehicles from targeting citizens. A number of checkpoints have also been erected outside Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem. One particular neighborhood targeted with such measures in recent weeks was reportedly Issawiya. Locals there allege that Israel largely enclosed the neighborhood. Authorities have also increased the number of security personnel in Jerusalem, to contain and deter riots. Thousands of personnel are now patrolling Jerusalem’s streets. Israel also transferred two Border Guard patrol units to Jerusalem from the West Bank. Moreover, Israel has also renewed a policy of destroying the homes, or parts of it, belonging to the families of militants involved in attacks. This measure, along with refusing to hand over the bodies of the slain militants involved in the Jerusalem synagogue attack, is meant to instill deterrence. More passive defensive measures have also been enacted. After the Jerusalem synagogue attack, Jewish religious sites were told to post guards. Authorities were also considering adding guards to kindergartens as well. Regular Israeli schools already have guards. Security protocols at installations have also been reviewed. In addition, some 23 commandos from Israel’s SEAL unit offered to join the civil guard in Jerusalem. Israel is hoping to add more volunteers to the guard unit to bolster regular police deployments. Israel has also seemingly increased its surveillance of goods being shipped to Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem. On November 20, reports indicated that Israeli authorities compromised a plot to ship a variety of weaponry to rioters in East Jerusalem. Intelligence information led Israeli police and custom officials to a shipping container in Afula. The container was marked as carrying Christmas lights. However, the contents included 5,200 knives, thousands of taser devices, 18,000 firecrackers, and 1,000 swords. Police said it was the largest seizure of weapons in recent history. The shipment, from China, was reportedly addressed to residents of Beit Hanina in East Jerusalem.

Much of the violence is centered on Jerusalem, where tensions are nearly always present as Israeli Jews and Arabs live in close proximity. Violence in the West Bank has occurred in many locales; however, this appears to be more sporadic. As mentioned above, sporadic instances of sectarian violence are also occurring in locales throughout Israel. The levels of such violence will more or less correlate to developments in Jerusalem and the Palestinian Territories. More specifically, the issue of the Temple Mount/al-Aqsa Mosque Compound, a central catalyst for tensions in Jerusalem, is a religious issue that resonates equally with Israeli Arabs. Security forces are therefore likely to be cognizant of the threat of more attacks inside Israel, including in major cities, aside from Jerusalem.

Despite increasing volatility, there are indications that the situation has yet to develop, for now, into an open rebellion or “intifada”. To that point, the level of unrest has slightly lessened in recent days. This may have been partially due to inclement weather, but also due to bolstered deployments. Furthermore, it can be argued that the number of Arabs in Jerusalem who are involved in rioting is not so extensive. While hard to ascertain, this could point to less support for an escalation with Israel. It also remains questionable whether those taking part in riots are acting upon orders from militant leaders. The same can be argued for those carrying out militant attacks, yet many attackers are members of militant factions. That said, Hamas and other Palestinian groups continue to call for attacks or action against Israelis. The Israeli government, for its part, has cited such calls to condemn Palestinian political factions. Most recently, the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority has been the focus of such charges. The Israeli public, meanwhile, largely considered the latest wave of violence as an escalation. This was evident prior to the Jerusalem synagogue attack, which constituted a notable intensification in violence. Therefore, Israeli leaders are under pressure to curtail the violence and volatility, especially in Jerusalem.

In this context, Israel will likely maintain bolstered deployments in Jerusalem, especially along known lines of friction between Jewish and Arab neighborhoods. Thousands of additional security personnel have already been deployed. Checkpoints manned by Border Guards and police will also likely remain around select Arab neighborhoods. Israeli security agencies may also increase measures, if not already underway, to identify and then arrest perceived agitators. This likely constitutes those calling for action or attacks on social media, as well as activists organizing street riots or clashes. While common in the West Bank, Israel may intensify efforts to conduct arrest operations in Jerusalem for the purpose of gathering intelligence. The Israeli government has also authorized a number of policies meant to deter attacks by individual Palestinian militants. Homes of militant attackers in Jerusalem have been destroyed. Concerning the wife of one of the synagogue attackers, Israel reportedly expelled her to the West Bank and removed her state benefits. She was in Israel under the “family unification” process.  As Israel has done in the past, the level of restrictive measures against Arabs in Jerusalem will likely correlate to the level of violence. Should violence in or from the West Bank intensify, the government could decide to restrict entry permits to Palestinians from the West Bank.

Other measures to calm tensions, both in the short and long-terms will likely be implemented. In the short term, the Israeli government will likely continue to state that it has no interest in altering the status-quo on the Temple Mount/al-Aqsa Mosque Compound. In order to quell religious tensions amongst Muslims, this step has been implemented. Along this line, the Israeli government may also seek to discourage or curtail right-wing Jewish activists from ascending the area. The government may also refrain from implementing restrictions on Muslim entry to the site, but only if there are no riots or plans to do so. Footage of religious Jews on the aforementioned compound has been used to propagate a message throughout the Muslim world that Jews are taking over the site. On the other hand, PM Netanyahu’s efforts to pass a proposed law to constitutionally cement Israel’s Jewish identity could increase tensions, especially in Israel’s Arab sector. Palestinian leaders have already begun to decry the legislation. More diplomatic sessions between regional leaders, urged by the US, are also possible. Such meetings are meant to urge the sides to take concrete steps to avoid further escalations. However, developments on the ground can serve to undermine such efforts. It also remains uncertain whether Palestinian factions, especially the PA, have the necessary clout or interest in fully curtailing violence within the Palestinian sector.

The current wave of instability in the Palestinian sector is taking place in the context of ongoing tensions and feuding between Hamas and Fatah. Both factions compete for supremacy within the Palestinian political arena. Both factions have also called for action in order to defend the Temple Mount/al-Aqsa Mosque Compound from a perceived Israeli plot to control the site. Thus while Arabs in Jerusalem are perceivably carrying out actions called for by leading Palestinian factions, it is debatable whether such calls are the direct catalysts for Palestinian unrest, or simply adding more fuel to already heightened volatility. This is highlighted by a number of recent declarations by both Hamas and Fatah for “days of rage” against Israel. Those days, however, did not produce a very notable intensification of violence in Jerusalem or the West Bank. Therefore, there is a growing assumption that the current wave of volatility is mostly a localized and grass-roots initiative. Palestinian factions would therefore seek to infiltrate and then control the violence for their own benefit.

Hamas does have an interest in escalating sectarian tensions with Israel. This includes both in Jerusalem and the West Bank. This is needed in order to undermine the PA, especially its security cooperation with Israel and standing amongst the Palestinian populace, while affecting Israel’s sense of security. The PA’s position, on the other hand, likely cannot afford to be seen as opposing a grassroots Palestinian movement perceived as defending Muslim and Palestinian interests in Jerusalem. This is especially the case given that the PA is cognizant of its decreasing popularity, mainly in the West Bank. Additionally, the PA may be of the realization that further volatility in Jerusalem and the West Bank will pressure the international community of the need to support its diplomatic initiatives to establish a Palestinian state. Therefore, it lends its support for escalation. Conversely, the PA may be concerned that it will be unable to control an escalation, which could ultimately further undermine its authority in the West Bank or threaten its diplomatic initiatives. Already, the PA has reportedly been forced to postpone a vote in the UN Security Council on a timeline for Palestinian statehood. It was not able to attain the required votes. Both Israel and the US would likely seek to utilize the threat of the PA’s vulnerability to pressure the PA to tone down calls for action and to maintain security arrangements with Israel. There is already a working assumption that the PA is aiming to limit violence in the West Bank.

Nonetheless, as mentioned above, the level of factional influence within the current wave of Palestinian unrest is questionable. So despite a plausible reduction in PA calls for action, amidst ongoing calls by Hamas and other groups, violence and heightened tensions are likely to continue in Jerusalem and the West Bank. The rate of violence is liable to fluctuate, with casualties and Palestinian attacks serving as sources of intensification. Therefore, daily incidents of unrest are likely to continue over the coming weeks, while further occasional Palestinian attacks, despite security measures, should be anticipated.

About Daniel Brode

Senior Intelligence Analyst with Max-Security Solutions, a geopolitical risk-consulting firm in Israel. Articles have been published in The New York Times, Jerusalem Post, Al-Arabiya, and Hurriyet. Matriculated at the Virginia Military Institute; completed US Army Airborne School and an exchange program at the University of the German Federal Armed Forces Hamburg. Studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem before receiving a B.A. from Duquesne University in History and a Minor in German. Graduated with a M.A. in Security & Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University. Interned as a research analyst for the Institute for National Security Studies in the Military and Strategic Affairs Program and represented Tel Aviv University in the Wikistrat International Grand Strategy Competition. Completed mandatory military service in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
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