A Palestinian protester uses a slingshot during a demonstration against a US-brokered peace proposal, in the occupied West Bank village of Bilin near Ramallah on February 7, 2020. Photo: Abbas Momani / AFP

A spate of attacks by Palestinians in Israel and the occupied territories in the wake of the Trump administration’s Deal of the Century have put Israeli security services on alert.

The attackers, acting with little to no apparent coordination with any party, hint at a grassroots movement that could disintegrate longstanding security agreements with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and negotiations with Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Israeli security services had warned that violence could follow the announcement of Trump’s controversial plan, which essentially green-lights Israeli annexation of significant chunks of the West Bank and Jerusalem. Their concerns were justified.

The day after the deal was unveiled on January 28, Hamas launched a new series of attacks, sending rockets, mortars and incendiary balloons into Israel, after weeks of restraint.

Israel responded with a series of attacks on Hamas targets throughout the Gaza Strip. These tit-for-tat attacks have now been ongoing for 10 days.

Most concerning for the Israeli security services has been the recent spread of resistance to the West Bank and Jerusalem. Demonstrations in the troubled city of Hebron turned violent as rocks and Molotov cocktails were thrown at Israeli Border Police troops. Dramatic footage shows one officer catch fire after a direct hit, although he managed to subsequently put out the flames. 

Two days later, Israeli forces shot a 17-year-old Palestinian to death. According to Israeli sources, he was targeted in the midst of throwing a Molotov cocktail in the same area.

Deadly ‘reprisal’ clash

On Wednesday night, matters in the West Bank escalated further. Soldiers entered the city of Jenin in order to destroy the house of an alleged terrorist, in what has now become a standard reprisal operation. The timing could not have been worse. The military received reports that hundreds of Palestinians were on their way to the area to resist the demolition. Fire was exchanged between the two sides and a Palestinian police officer and a cadet were killed in the melee.

Reminiscent of the Second Intifada, when open fire was exchanged between Israeli and Palestinian forces, the incident will increase tensions between the two security services. Opportunities for friction will soon increase. The spokesman for the Israeli Defense Forces announced that forces in the West Bank will be reinforced “in accordance with the constant reevaluation of the security conditions.”

Violence spread into Jerusalem early on Thursday morning, when a car rammed into a crowd of soldiers outside a popular nightlife spot in the Western part of the city. Twelve members of the Golani infantry brigade were injured in the event, one very severely.

This was the first vehicular terror attack to take place in Jerusalem since 2017. The late hour and unlikely presence of a concentrated group of soldiers in a civilian spot, have led Israeli security services to estimate that the attack was spontaneous. The alleged driver, a resident of East Jerusalem, was arrested early in the morning.

In another event on Thursday in Jerusalem, recognized last year as Israel’s capital, an Arab-Israeli citizen shot a Border Police officer and was killed by other officers. The shooter was a Christian Arab who had recently converted to Islam and become radicalized. Israeli security services were preparing a large presence for Friday prayers in the Old City of Jerusalem, as violent Palestinian demonstrations were expected.

A council member in Isawiya in East Jerusalem told Asia Times he fears the Palestinian population of Jerusalem will be “used as pawns by everyone, while we suffer the price”, suggesting distrust of the Palestinian Authority.

However, he said that if necessary all Palestinians “will unite to fight this so-called plan.”

‘With or without you’

The Trump administration and the Israeli government were quick to lay blame at the doorstep of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority.

After briefing members of the United Nations Security Council, Trump’s senior adviser Jared Kushner stated that Abbas “does have a responsibility for it [the escalation]” since “he calls for days of rage in response and he said that even before he saw the plan.”

Netanyahu concurred and in a direct public message for Abbas said: “This won’t help you. Not the stabbings, not the ramming attacks, not the sniping attacks, and not the incitement… We will do everything necessary to guard our security, secure our borders, and guarantee our future. We will do this with you or without you.”

If the accusations that President Abbas is to blame are well-founded, the use of violence would mark a departure from his long-standing strategy. Since taking over the Presidency in 2005, Abbas has diligently avoided engaging Israel in either conflict or negotiation. Rather, he relied on petitioning international institutions in a bid to isolate Israel diplomatically and pressure it into making concessions. This has clearly failed. Israel has gained an incredible amount of diplomatic influence in recent years, while the Palestinian Authority has significantly lost ground.

Attempts by the Palestinian Authority to mobilize international opposition to the plan have not succeeded. While the Arab League unanimously rejected the plan in Cairo last Saturday, several Arab countries have expressed a measure of public support. The EU failed to issue a unanimous condemnation of the plan as six European nations blocked the motion.

The Palestinians, thus, find themselves faced with a peace plan which will move the goalposts to their disadvantage and an international arena which may tacitly allow an annexation of 30% of the West Bank. The entire Palestinian nationalist movement has been backed into an untenable corner.

These developments have clearly forced President Abbas to recalibrate his strategy. A day prior to the release of the plan, he reportedly convened the heads of Fatah and told them: “We need an escalation of popular resistance on all fronts, and all the youth to join. They should not leave the streets. We will be in an emergency situation over the next few days.” This was followed by intense coordination with Hamas and other more violent Palestinian factions.

An official PA statement exclaimed that Trump’s plan “created this atmosphere of escalation and tension by trying to impose fake facts on the ground, which we have repeatedly warned against. The Palestinian people and their leadership will stand strong against all these conspiracies and they will foil them just as they did in all previous conspiracies, regardless of the sacrifices.”

The tenor of this statement implies that Ramallah will not actively attempt to lower the flames. However, support for protests does not equate to support for lethal terror attacks, which the Palestinian Authority has refrained from calling for.

But Hamas has no such reservations. According to their official statement: “The revolution raging in the West Bank cities and in Jerusalem is the implementation of the Palestinian people’s decision to expel the occupation from the West Bank and free it of settlers.” The escalation in Gaza undercuts longstanding and surprisingly successful attempts at a Hamas-Israel rapprochement.

Stoking conflict

Israeli security services believe that while the demonstrations are encouraged from the top, attempts at terror attacks are spontaneous and executed by lone-wolf operatives.

A senior source in the Israeli military Central Command, the territorial command responsible for Jerusalem and the West Bank, told Asia Times that: “Hamas and Fatah are intentionally creating an atmosphere of conflict. However, they are not running a cohesive terror campaign against us. Yet. We will be watching closely if they do.”

In the meantime, Israeli security forces plan to reinforce areas of conflict and increase checkpoints. In theory, the full support of the Trump administration allows the Israeli military more diplomatic leeway in cracking down on the Palestinians, but the high command does not want to take advantage of that opportunity.

As of now, they will avoid unduly provocative actions in the hopes of preventing a full-blown uprising.

The region is closer to a third Intifada than at any time since the end of the bloody second uprising 15 years ago. Since then, both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority have enjoyed varying amounts of cooperation with Israeli authorities in a mutual attempt to manage the conflict.

However, the Deal of the Century undermines the fragile basis of tacit cooperation. By facilitating Israeli annexation of large swathes of the West Bank and moving the goalposts of a future agreement, Israel and the United States have made it clear to Palestinians of all factions that the status quo is leading them to utter political defeat.

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