TEL AVIV – Three deadly attacks in Israel in a week are raising questions over Israel's approach to its conflict with the Palestinians, after years of efforts to sideline the issue and focus instead on other regional priorities.
The attacks by Palestinian assailants, including most recently on Tuesday night, have killed 11 people in the deadliest spate Israel has seen in years. They come as peace talks on ending Israel's rule over Palestinians and setting up a Palestinian state on occupied lands are a distant memory. In the meantime, Israel has shifted its priorities to containing archenemy Iran and building regional Arab alliances.
Israel’s government, with support from the Biden administration, has tried to do what leaders describe as “shrinking” the conflict. Instead of seeking a partition deal with the Palestinians, it aims to keep things quiet by taking steps to improve the Palestinian economy and reduce frictions.
But now, as Israel faces the possibility of another cycle of violence less than a year after a war with Hamas militants in Gaza, the Palestinian issue is once again clawing its way back to the fore and exposing the weaknesses of this approach.
It was a message that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas tried to deliver as he condemned Tuesday night’s shooting in the central city of Bnei Brak.
“Permanent, comprehensive and just peace is the shortest way to provide security and stability for the Palestinian and Israeli peoples and the peoples of the region,” he said. Israel has long sidelined Abbas, branding him an unacceptable partner for peace talks.
Israel sees the current wave as another round of extremist violence aimed against its very existence. It blames incitement on Palestinian social media, says that Hamas encourages the violence and points to a flood of weapons available in Palestinian communities.
In Tuesday’s attack, a 27-year-old Palestinian from the West Bank methodically gunned down victims, killing five. On Sunday night, a shooting attack by two Islamic State sympathizers in the central city of Hadera killed two police officers. Last week, a combined car-ramming and stabbing attack in the southern city of Beersheba — also by an attacker inspired by IS — killed four.
The two earlier attacks were carried out by Palestinian citizens of Israel; in all three incidents the attackers were killed by police or passersby.
The violence has stunned Israelis, who had enjoyed relative quiet since last year’s 11-day war with Hamas. It has also overshadowed a historic gathering in the Negev Desert this week that for the first time saw the foreign ministers of four Arab countries meet their Israeli and American counterparts on Israeli soil. And though the foreign ministers — from Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Morocco — paid lip service to the Palestinian issue, the meeting centered on the emerging nuclear deal between Iran and world powers. The Palestinians were not invited.
In response to the violence, Israel has increased its security presence in Israeli cities and the occupied West Bank. It has made arrests in Arab communities and raided the West Bank home of the man who carried out Tuesday's attack.
“We are dealing with a new wave of terror,” said Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. “As in other waves, we will prevail.”
Ahead of a Cabinet meeting Wednesday, Bennett said that along with calling up reservists to bolster the police, he was evaluating “a larger framework for incorporating civilian volunteers who want to help and assist.”
“Anyone who has a license for a firearm, this is the time to carry a weapon,” he said.
But there are no signs that Bennett is prepared to address the deeper issues fueling the conflict.
Bennett heads an unwieldy coalition of ideologically diverse parties — including an Islamist Arab faction — that united with the goal of toppling former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. To survive, the coalition agreed to set aside divisive issues, most notably the conflict with the Palestinians, and instead focus on matters in the Israeli consensus, such as the pandemic and the economy.
The U.S. ambassador to Israel, Tom Nides, has repeatedly called the new government “a beautiful thing.” Focused on the war in Ukraine and tensions with China, Washington has indicated it has no plans to float a peace plan and instead wants to lay the foundation for future talks one day.
With his tack, Bennett and his government did not diverge from Netanyahu, who begrudgingly accepted the concept of Palestinian statehood under fierce American pressure but did little to advance the idea.
The Palestinians, in turn, have drawn disappointing parallels with the war in Ukraine, lamenting that the West has rallied swiftly against Russia’s aggression and has yet to move to sanction Israel for its 55-year occupation.
Meanwhile, Israel has deepened its control over the West Bank with its web of checkpoints and barriers, and hundreds of thousands of Israelis living in Jewish settlements. The Israeli-Egyptian blockade on Gaza persists. The last substantive peace talks took place a decade and a half ago. The Palestinians seek the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, for a future state.
The Bennett government appears to have learned some lessons from last year, when a series of missteps before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan boiled over into the Gaza war.
This year, as major Muslim, Jewish and Christian holidays converge, Israel has offered to ease a series of restrictions on Palestinians ahead of Ramadan, which begins this weekend.
Israel has issued thousands of work permits for Gaza laborers, lifted a ban on family visits to Palestinian prisoners from Gaza and said it will not restrict Palestinian gatherings around Jerusalem’s Old City like last year.
A rare visit by Jordan’s king to Palestinian leaders in the West Bank this week, followed by visits to the king by Israel’s defense minister and president on Wednesday, was aimed at cementing the calm.
The uptick in violence could derail the new measures.
King Abdullah II told Isaac Herzog, the visiting Israeli president, that he condemned the bloodshed, but that any regional progress “must include our Palestinian brothers.”
Many Palestinians say the true aim of Israel's measures is to maintain the status quo, in which millions live under a decades-long military occupation with no end in sight.
“They’re doling out little privileges through an eyedropper,” said Diana Buttu, a former legal adviser to the Palestinian leadership. “The Israelis have long taken the position that Palestinians don’t deserve rights, that we don’t want rights, that it’s just a question of us being able to be bought off, to get little permits here and there.”
Any solution to the Palestinian conflict is complicated by a yearslong rift between Abbas’ Fatah movement and Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip and calls for Israel’s destruction. And with two of the last three attacks having been carried out by Israeli citizens, Israel may now be forced to reckon with a minority population riddled by violent crime and long suffering from discrimination.
In Israel, some argue that even Palestinian statehood wouldn't end the conflict.
The Palestinians “will never accept Israel as a Jewish state. The struggle for them is for all of Israel,” Yitzhak Gershon, a retired military major general, told Israeli Army Radio.
Meanwhile, several rights groups have branded Israeli rule between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea as an apartheid system.
Omar Shakir of the international group Human Rights Watch stressed that no grievance justifies the killing of innocent people. He added: “The reality is that it is unsustainable to continue ruling over millions of people deprived of their fundamental rights.”
Associated Press writers Joseph Krauss and Ilan Ben Zion in Jerusalem contributed to this report.