Israeli-Palestinian Violence Is Spiraling in the Occupied West Bank

The northern West Bank was once viewed by Israeli, Palestinian and international authorities as a kind of pilot program for Israeli disengagement from the occupied territory, and by some even as a potential prototype for a future Palestinian state.

But a sharp escalation of violence in the region in recent days involving Palestinian militants, Israeli security forces and extremist Jewish settlers underlines the failure of that vision.

The northern West Bank is witnessing an explosive mix of the rise of local, armed Palestinian militias carrying out shooting attacks against Israelis; almost daily raids by the Israeli military to arrest militants, which often turn deadly; and reprisals by extremist Jewish settlers, who have rampaged through Palestinian villages setting fire to property.

Heightening tensions, the coalition government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — which includes far-right, ultranationalist parties that reject any talks with the Palestinian leadership — has been pressing a more aggressive military response to attacks. The government is also pushing for the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, which most countries see as an obstacle to resolving the conflict and a violation of international law.

The volatile mix has resulted in one of the deadliest years for Palestinians in the West Bank in more than a decade. Of the 140 Palestinian deaths in the territory so far this year, about 86 were in the northern West Bank, mostly in the areas of Jenin and Nablus. Most were killed in armed clashes during military raids, though some were innocent bystanders.

“Over the past few months, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has assumed a new guise,” Yohanan Tzofeff, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, wrote on Thursday. “The attacks in the West Bank and the attempts to escalate the situation have increased.”

The violence this week began with a deadly Israeli raid on Monday into the northern West Bank city of Jenin: It prompted an hourslong gun battle in which seven Palestinians, including a 15-year-old girl, were killed, according to Palestinian health officials. Israeli helicopter gunships were sent into the area for the first time since the early 2000s to secure forces trying to extricate wounded soldiers and armored vehicles disabled by a powerful roadside bomb.

A day later, Palestinian gunmen killed four Israeli civilians, including a 17-year-old boy, near the Jewish settlement of Eli. The Palestinian gunmen were members of the armed wing of Hamas, the Islamic militant group that seized control in the coastal territory of Gaza in 2007 after winning elections a year earlier.

And then late Wednesday, an Israeli airstrike by a pilotless drone killed three Palestinian militants in a car who the military said had just shot at an Israeli position in the northern West Bank and had carried out attacks against Jewish settlements in the area.

The killing of the four Israelis at Eli set off waves of reprisals on Tuesday and Wednesday by Israeli extremists who rampaged through Palestinian towns and villages, including Turmus Aya, north of Ramallah, the headquarters of the Palestinian Authority, which administers most Palestinian cities and towns in the West Bank. Turmus Aya is a relatively well-heeled community, and many of its residents are also U.S. citizens.

The Israeli arsonists burned 15 homes and 60 vehicles as well as crops, Lafi Deeb, the head of the Turmus Aya council, told Palestinian radio on Thursday. One Palestinian man from the town was fatally shot by an Israeli officer during the melee, according to officials.

Mr. Deeb said his town, lacking its own fire trucks, had to wait for one to arrive from Bir Zeit, about a half-hour drive away.

When the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, Mohammad Shtayyeh, later visited the town, he was confronted by a resident who shouted at him and demanded that the authority “do more to protect its people,” The Associated Press reported.

Mr. Netanyahu called the settler attacks unacceptable, saying: “The State of Israel is a state of law. The citizens of Israel are all obligated to respect the law.”

The Israeli military condemned the settler violence, and said security forces entered the town to extinguish the fires, prevent clashes and to collect evidence, and that the Israeli police were investigating the event.

But the Israeli forces, despite their overall control of the territory and a spate of similarly destructive settler reprisals in February, appear helpless in preventing it.

While the violence in the northern West Bank has been escalating in recent months, the situation has been deteriorating for years, with waves of violence rising and ebbing since the collapse of peace talks nearly a decade ago.

Hoping to reduce friction in the area and signal progress toward a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israel in 2005 dismantled four Jewish settlements around Jenin, and also withdrew from the Palestinian coastal enclave of the Gaza Strip.

Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East war and has said its future will be determined in negotiations, but the last formal round of American-brokered Israeli-Palestinian peace talks ended in 2014.

The Palestinian Authority, the interim body formed in the mid-1990s as part of the Oslo peace process, is supposed to exercise limited self-rule in parts of the occupied West Bank, with security forces numbering about 60,000 members. But it is absent from the hotbeds of Palestinian militancy in the northern part of the territory such as Jenin and Nablus and appears, experts say, to have all but abdicated responsibility.

“It’s a reversal and a collapse,” said Zakaria al-Qaq, a Palestinian expert in national security. Instead of less engagement, he said, “there is total involvement between Israel and the small Palestinian factions, and the Palestinian Authority is outside of the game, on the margins, or not really there at all.”

“We are back to square one,” he added. “There is no Oslo. There is nothing.”

Israeli hard-liners, including Itamar Ben-Gvir, the far-right minister of national security, have called for a broad Israeli military operation in the West Bank along the lines of the invasion of the Palestinian cities that Israel carried out in 2002, at the height of the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, when suicide bombers attacked Israeli cities.

But many Israeli security experts say the conditions do not justify a major operation.

“In 2002 we had 130 dead per month,” said Yaakov Amidror, a former national security adviser to Mr. Netanyahu and now a senior fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, a conservative-leaning research group, of the Israeli victims of the intifada. So far this year, 29 Israelis have been killed by Arab assailants.

“There are a lot of weapons in the territory, the Palestinian Authority is not functioning and we have to deal with it alone,” Mr. Amidror said. “But it’s not the same situation,” he added, noting that today’s armed Palestinian militias in the West Bank were mostly local gangs acting without organizational infrastructure.

Instead, as well as acting more aggressively against the militias, the Israeli government is focusing on expanding the settlements.

Immediately after the attack in Eli, Mr. Netanyahu announced plans to build 1,000 settler homes there. In addition, the Israeli authorities are expected to advance plans for another 4,000 settlement homes in a planning meeting next week.

On Sunday, the government eased the process for approving new Jewish settlement construction in the occupied West Bank and transferred oversight from the defense minister, currently Yoav Gallant, to the finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, a far-right former settlement activist who advocates Israeli annexation of the West Bank.

And in March, Israel’s Parliament repealed legislation that barred settlers from the four Jewish communities in the occupied West Bank that were evacuated in 2005, allowing visits there, though the government would still need to approve any reconstruction in the areas.

Myra Noveck and Hiba Yazbek contributed reporting.

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