What’s Driving the Israeli-Palestinian Violence?

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region



The flare up in violence between the Israelis and the Palestinians has turned the attention of the international community again to one of the region’s seemingly intractable conflicts. The events of the past week reflect its multifaceted challenges, including the status of East Jerusalem, the role of Arab Israelis, internal Palestinian disagreements, and Israeli PM Benyamin Netanyahu’s drive to prolong his grip on power. Few are surprised that the region’s central conflict has returned to the headlines, though what happens going forward is yet to be determined, not least by shifts in Israel’s fractious political landscape.

The decentralized and varied nature of the protests meant that the initial media reaction was rather muted and in some cases missing altogether. Many of the regional dailies, aside from news reports, contained very few opinion pieces or editorials. This fact was noted by Daily Sabah’s Melih Altinok: “The global press, by neglecting the violence against the children, is busy with the panic created by the ‘tin rockets’ that some radical organizations fired from the Palestinian regions and that were instantly destroyed in the air by Israel’s Iron Dome. Free social media platforms limit the accounts that announce the events to world public opinion. Even the Arab League could only gather online on the fourth day of the attacks, and they disbanded upon deciding to meet again to keep the issue on the agenda. With the exception of Palestine’s foreign minister, no member at the meeting could condemn Israel’s massacre. The oppressed people of Palestine have been lonely in their fight against the Israeli war machine due to the Israeli influence over the realms of states, global capital and the media.”

Once the violence escalated both within Israel and between Israel and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip, comments began to slowly trickle in, including this one by Yossi Mekelberg who in an op-ed for Arab News expressed little surprise that the violence had started in Jerusalem: “To say that the situation in Jerusalem has for long been a powder keg, just a trigger away from exploding, would be a massive understatement. In the last few weeks, the outbreak of violence in this holy city has been due to several issues inflaming an already unsustainable and volatile situation…. The lesson from the last few weeks is that the gridlock in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the stalling on a two-state solution is creating the conditions for the most extreme elements in the conflict to thrive and trigger more suffering and misery. The events in Jerusalem and how they affect relations with the rest of the Palestinians is a reminder to Israel that occupying people’s land and depriving them of their basic human rights can only lead to further hostilities.”

What is driving the violence?

There has been no lack of finger pointing when it comes to identifying the culprit behind the escalation of the violence. The Globes’ Danny Zaken, for example, asking “why are the rockets falling now” suggests that the violence is due to internal power struggles within Hamas: “For weeks, people in the security forces have been warning of the intention of the Hamas leadership in the Gaza Strip to break the routine and the relative calm. One important reason for that is the internal conflict within Hamas between Mohammed Deif, number one on Israel’s wanted list, who has escaped from several attempts to kill him, and who leads the organization’s military wing, and the political leadership headed by Yahya Sinwar…. What does Hamas seek to achieve? Leadership of the Palestinian people. Hamas sees the approaching end of the Abu Mazen (Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas) era, and the split in its main rival, Fatah. Five different Fatah parties registered for the parliamentary elections that were cancelled, and each of the potential leaders in Fatah thinks he can beat Hamas. Deif persuaded the other leaders that a militant approach over the Jerusalem issue would lead to further support versus the Palestinian Authority and Fatah, which are incapable of acting like him.”

In an op-ed for Asharq Alawsat, however, Hazem Saghieh argues that the true culprits are Israel’s political elite, its government, and Israeli settlers, all of whom stand to gain from what has been happening over the last few days: “Describing the situation in Jerusalem and the Palestinians’ conflict with the settlers and Netanyahu does not necessarily require national or religious chauvinism. It requires only that one is morally inclined to support righteous victims everywhere and adheres to the principle of equality between human beings. Today, dragging their country to become a place where all rights are expelled can be added to the Israeli political elite’s record, but they are also taking it to a place where an increasing number are embarrassed to be associated with it, grabbing their friendship with the country by the fingertips…. There are only two parties that stand to gain from this state of affairs: the settlers and their allies in Israel, and the regimes of the axis of resistance, the dexterous exploiters of Palestinian blood. This time, they shouldn’t be allowed to.”

What is PM Benyamin Netanyahu’s role in the violence?

Some have been quick to point out that the big winner from the recent events is Prime Minister Netanyahu, who, faced with a number of criminal indictments, is determined to stay in power. In an op-ed for Arab News, Daoud Kuttab provides a reasonable answer to the question, “Did the Israelis, particularly Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu amid his failure to form a government, want to instigate a conflict in order to get the support of the Israeli public, thanks to their expected handling of this issue, which has equal emotional and religious meaning to devout Jews? Netanyahu, who is not a devout Jew but is politically dependent on the political and religious Jewish parties, needed to have this drama around Jerusalem and the revered location of Al-Aqsa in order to gain the sympathy of the public and possibly to derail the attempts of his opponents to form a government that could replace him and his right-wing allies.”

Jerusalem Post’s Maayan Jafee-Hoffman seems to agree with the argument, reflecting especially on the recent softening of a coalition alliance aimed at removing Netanyahu from power: “Rockets and riots have thrown Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a life vest just as he was about to slip under water…. The immediate result of the Gaza and domestic violence is that Netanyahu will continue in his role. That is because on Thursday night, Bennett, who was the key to forming this anti-Netanyahu government and was expected to serve as its first leader, caved to political pressure from the Right, and his party members did not really want this change of government anyway…. While there is still a chance that Lapid could somehow succeed at forming a government. But the more likely scenarios are that either Netanyahu with Bennett’s support could pull together a coalition or the country will head into a fifth election, a move that would plunge Israel into another six months of political instability and paralysis.”

What are some of the criticisms levied against PM Netanyahu?

It seems that, despite PM Netanyahu’s attempts, Israel’s actions in the Occupied Territories, at least by some accounts, have turned public opinion against Israel. That at least is what Osama Al Sharif, a journalist and political commentator based in Amman, argues in a recent op-ed for Jordan Times: “Almost three years ago president Donald Trump took the illegal and unilateral step of recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s united capital. By doing so he and his top aides said the US had taken Jerusalem off the negotiations table. In the words of Trump: We don’t have to talk about it anymore! But the events of the past few days have underlined one clear and indisputable fact: Jerusalem remains at the core of the Palestinian Question and by extension the Arab-Israeli conflict…. Embattled Netanyahu has tried to push for a major onslaught to Judaize East Jerusalem in a bid to appease the settlers. But world public opinion has turned against Israel. That is not enough; only one party can step in and stop this dangerous and irresponsible misadventure and that is the Biden administration. Failing to do that will bring another disaster on the eve of the anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba.”

PM Netanyahu is also taking fire from within Israel, with former prime minister Ehud Olmert taking to the pages of the Jerusalem Post to declare that he would rather have yet another round of elections than a Netanyahu-led coalition: “There is no doubt that the pressure Netanyahu and his people are exerting is unpleasant, not to mention vile and disgusting. It is not easy to deal with them. It’s hard to resist them. It’s a walk on a thin tightrope – and there is no guarantee that this walk will succeed. This is exactly the moment when the quality and maturity of Bennett, Sa’ar and the other partners who join them to be national leaders will be measured…. Bennett, Sa’ar, Lapid and the other partners must now demonstrate the power to do these things. Whoever of their friends is not willing to join such an ensemble – a reserved, humble, small, one that is fundamentally different from what we have experienced in recent years – let him return to Bibi Netanyahu’s “warm” fold…. Another election is a despicable option. Every effort should be made to avoid it, at almost any cost. Not at any cost.”

Alan Kaufman, writing for the Times of Israel, is also disenchanted with Mr. Netanyahu, albeit for a different set of reasons, most notably for having left the country “vulnerable to a shabby, terrorist militia of fundamentalist fanatics…. Ensconced in a quagmire of internal politics, while publicly gloating over Israel’s brilliant handling of the Covid crisis, Netanyahu has skated on peace accords made possible by Jared Kushner with Arab states that were never at war with Israel to begin with. In all the clamoring distraction and jockeying to retain power, Netanyahu and his government, and the military too, were blindsided by the vicious all-out Hamas attack, an attack of unprecedented scale. Israel forgot herself. And in one thunderclap moment, her extreme vulnerability was laid bare by a shabby, terrorist militia of fundamentalist fanatics…. It is time for Netanyahu to step down, for the sake of the Jewish State; to relinquish control and to permit others to assemble in such a way as to create a balanced, vigilant government devoted not to maintaining power but to the safety and preservation of Israel and her people.”

How can Israel move forward?

Yedioth Ahronoth’s Ron Ben-Yishai is equally concerned about the state of Israel’s preparedness to deal with Hamas and other militant Palestinian groups, its loss of the ability to deter those organizations, or to quell domestic riots in Jerusalem and elsewhere: “These attacks show that Israel’s deterrence against Gaza has become virtually nonexistent, an issue that demands immediate attention and that could give Iran and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah ideas. These ideas would be far more deadly than anything Israel has witnessed so far from Hamas…. Another concept held tightly by the IDF and the politicians that has been shattered in recent days was that as the economic and humanitarian situation in Gaza improved, Hamas would be more willing to reach a long-term settlement with Israel…. The country’s leaders for over more than two years solely focused on themselves and their power, neglecting the Palestinian issue and the growing rise of violence in the Arab sector…. Israel needs proper leadership, with police and the army doing everything in their power to reestablish their deterrence in the face of multiple threats.”

It may not be a surprise, then, that observers such as the Jerusalem Post’s Gershon Baskin are calling on Israel’s other leaders to step up to the moment by providing principled leadership in order to bring to an end “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’s cycle of absurdity…. The Temple Mount will never allow us to forget the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and continued attempts by Israel to remove Palestinians from their homes and their land, especially in Jerusalem, will always light the flames of violence in this conflict…. We need new leaders who can be statesmen. To Lapid and Bennett, who will hopefully soon be the new leaders of Israel, and to whoever eventually succeeds Mahmoud Abbas – listen to the words of Rabin and Arafat. Find the leadership qualities that enable stepping out of the pre-scripted roles and changing our history, instead of just falling into this cycle of absurdity.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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