Jerusalem Bombings Escalate Simmering Security Tensions, Recall Intifada
Israeli forensic experts work at the scene of an explosion at a bus stop in Jerusalem on November 23, 2022. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images)

Jerusalem Bombings Escalate Simmering Security Tensions, Recall Intifada

Suspenseful coalition bargaining, political developments may add to the turmoil

The twin bus bombings that rocked Jerusalem last week, killing two and wounding dozens, caught many Israelis by surprise. The explosions were seen by many as a serious escalation of the tensions between Israelis and Palestinians that have been simmering for a long time.

As the end of 2022 nears, it looks to be one of the deadliest years in the West Bank in recent years. And the outlook for the immediate future is grim, as neither side seems to be willing or able to lower the flames.

The UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs released a report on November 25 showing that in the West Bank, 127 Palestinians in the West Bank had been killed and 9,027 injured by Israeli forces since the beginning of the year. The Israeli military says most of the casualties were among combatants, including terrorists who attacked Israeli civilians and Palestinian fighters involved in clashes with the Israeli military. Many of the fatalities were Palestinians killed in shootouts during arrest raids. Most of the violence has been concentrated in and around the West Bank city of Nablus, where the army has been focusing its crackdown on terrorist cells in recent months.

In the past few years, Israelis have grown accustomed to sporadic stabbings, shooting attacks, and car rammings carried out by Palestinian attackers, usually operating alone. From Israel’s point of view, the current wave of tension began last spring, when 19 Israelis, most of them civilians, were killed in a series of Palestinian attacks in Israel and the West Bank. Since then, the number of Israelis killed by Palestinian terrorists and combatants in 2022 has risen to about 30. Many of the assailants had no direct affiliation with known terrorist organizations. In response, the Israeli army began carrying out frequent raids in the West Bank. This has led to more friction between the sides.

“We are in a continuous intifada (popular uprising by Palestinians) that never stopped, it just changes shape and size,” said Dr. Ronit Marzan, a researcher of Palestinian society and politics and the author of The Father, The Son and the Spirit of the Revolution: Young Arabs in the Arab Spring (Hebrew). She added: “I expect more attacks, as we are heading to an impossible reality.”

The Jerusalem attack last Wednesday was literally and figuratively a blast from the past. A rare occurrence of two remotely detonated bombs exploding almost simultaneously at two different sites, shocked Israelis even though tensions have been running high. Security forces were put on heightened alert in an attempt to thwart similar attacks.

During the Second Intifada, from 2000 to 2005, there were frequent bus bombings. Over 1,000 Israelis were killed, many by suicide bombers. More than 3,000 Palestinians were killed throughout the uprising, many of them civilians but also a sizeable number of combatants.

Two Israeli civilians were killed in the bombings and dozens were wounded. Authorities believe Palestinian terrorists were behind the attack, but no organization has taken responsibility for it.

“It is unlikely that the attack was carried out by a lone assailant,” said Prof. Boaz Ganor, founder and executive director of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at Reichman University. “It is probably a local network that made preparations and had a lab to prepare the explosives,” he theorized.

The manhunt for the assailants continues. Ganor believes they will try to carry out more attacks until apprehended.

Israeli media reported that defense officials and police intelligence officers believe the masterminds behind the attack came from east Jerusalem. Many Palestinians living in east Jerusalem lack Israeli citizenship but have residency IDs that allow them to travel freely throughout the country, which poses a challenge to the security forces.

“There is operational difficulty in Jerusalem to prevent attacks,” said Ganor. “The fact that they are residents makes it difficult to monitor their movements.”

Jerusalem was divided between eastern and western sectors under Jordanian and Israeli control, respectively, during the 1948 war. The western sector served as Israel’s capital since 1950. Israel annexed east Jerusalem immediately after conquering it in the 1967 war. Nevertheless, most countries maintain their embassies to Israel in the Tel Aviv area. But a handful of countries, most prominently, the United States, have moved their embassies to Jerusalem. Palestinians claim east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.

“Jerusalem will be a very active scene in a Palestinian uprising,” Marzan said.

As hostilities continue, a new government is expected to be sworn in, in the coming weeks. Led by Likud party leader Binyamin Netanyahu, it is slated to be a far-right government whose members have vowed to take a hard-line approach to the conflict.

On Friday, a first coalition agreement was signed between Netanyahu’s Likud and the ultra-right Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party. Led by Itamar Ben-Gvir, Jewish Power wants to bolster the police, loosen the IDF rules of engagement, and grant Israeli soldiers immunity from criminal prosecution in operational deaths of Palestinians. The party also seeks legislation that would allow Israeli courts to apply the death penalty to convicted Palestinian terrorists.

Ben-Gvir is to be appointed minister of national security, a newly devised role that gives him expanded powers beyond those of the current public security portfolio. The Otzma Yehudit leader claimed in a 2015 interview to have been indicted by Israeli prosecutors 53 times and convicted seven times. His criminal record reportedly includes convictions on charges of obstructing a police officer in the performance of his duties, rioting, and incitement to racism, two charges of possession of propaganda material for a terrorist organization, and two charges of supporting a terrorist organization. As head of the new ministry, he would oversee the Israel Police, including its Border Police operations in the West Bank. Until now, the Border Police has been under military command in the territories.

“This has an acute meaning,” said Marzan. “Giving Ben-Gvir authority over a body that was previously under the army is essentially erasing the borders between Israel and the territories.”

This move comes in addition to other policies that members of the incoming government have promised to promote to create new facts on the ground.

The far-right leader of the Religious Zionism party, MK Bezalel Smotrich, is likely to head the Finance Ministry, a post he intends to use to promote his vision of solidifying Israeli control over the West Bank by expanding the Jewish presence there.

“This will lead to the collapse of the PA,” Marzan predicted. “The Palestinians will not agree with this and we will see a violent uprising similar to the Second Intifada. As soon as the PA will collapse, all the Palestinian factions will cooperate against Israel.”

Ben-Gvir and other members of the right wing have vowed to crack down on Palestinian terrorism, as tensions continue to mount. “Such a tough stance could create deterrence and reduce the number of attacks,” said Ganor. “But if it will not be balanced or will harm the economy, … This could bring more people to engage in attacks.”

In the past year, Israel has increased the number of Palestinian workers allowed to enter the country from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. A series of additional measures were passed by outgoing Defense Minister Benny Gantz in an attempt to lower tensions.

“The Israeli security services … have very high intelligence capabilities,” said Ganor. “But there is also cooperation with the PA, which understands, at this point, that terrorist attacks and especially bombings harm the Palestinian interest.”

“If there will be collective punishment and escalation in Jerusalem or the Temple Mount, it could be that motivation [to cooperate with Israel] will decrease,” Ganor added. With tensions running high, it is surprising that the number of attacks is not greater.

Once Israel’s new government is sworn in, actions will replace rhetoric to determine the nature of the conflict for the near future. And, Marzan predicts, “there will be a Palestinian effort to prove that the new government will not be able to bring security to the people of Israel.”

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