James Gurd: The deadly attacks in Israel as three great religious celebrations meet – Passover, Easter and Ramadan.

15 Apr

James Gurd is Executive Director of Conservative Friends of Israel.

News of the brutal terror attack at a busy bar in the heart of Tel Aviv broke during CFI’s first parliamentary delegation since the pandemic. The attack was the fourth such incident in little over a week – the deadliest in 15 years. Our week had been shaped by an inescapable question – was this the beginning of a Third Intifada?

Israelis have an inbuilt resilience to these sorts of tragic incidents. You will be hard pressed to find an Israeli that wasn’t affected in some way by the hundreds of Palestinian terror attacks during the Second Intifada of 2000-2005 which killed over a thousand. There is a growing feeling that something is again brewing.

The night of the Tel Aviv attack I was out and about along Jerusalem’s main Jaffa Street. The security presence was palpable and the city felt unusually quiet – a far cry from previous visits. Police cars patrolled the streets methodically at short intervals and armed police and soldiers were ever present.

The scene will have been similar across much of the country and is likely to continue for another few weeks yet as Israel experiences a rare confluence of three major religious festivals – Passover, Ramadan and Easter.

Ramadan has historically been a time of increased tensions and attacks, and the overlap with Passover and Easter has certainly added to the combustibility of this period. The approaching one-year anniversary of Israel’s latest conflict with the Hamas terror group, as well as Israel’s Independence Day (5th May), will likely serve as additional flashpoints down the line. This period of tension will not be abating any time soon.

The threat of attacks had been anticipated. Jordan – custodian of the holy Muslim sites in Jerusalem – had publicly hosted senior Israeli ministers ahead of the holidays and the two countries had been closely and publicly coordinating.

Israel, for its part, has waived permit restrictions for tens of thousands of Palestinian worshippers to visit the al-Aqsa Mosque on Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount throughout Ramadan. Israeli officials made no change to this policy in the wake of the attacks, perhaps mindful of Hamas’s long history of presenting any perceived Israeli restriction on access to al-Aqsa Mosque as a call to arms.

Hamas has chosen to dial up its rhetoric over Jerusalem regardless but it still seems unlikely that the group will initiate another round of conflict from the Gaza Strip. Less than a year ago, Gaza was the centre of the world’s attention as Israelis sheltered from thousands of rockets and Gazans endured another tragic conflict inflicted by their Hamas overseers. Today, there is relative calm.

In our recent briefing with the Israel Defense Forces on the border with Gaza, it was noted that Hamas was not ready for a major escalation as it was busy rebuilding after Israel delivered a heavy blow to its military capabilities. Hamas is even understood to be preventing rival terror groups – including Palestinian Islamic Jihad – from launching rockets into Israel. This threat level, as always, can change rapidly though.

For now, Hamas appears to be far more willing to unleash its extensive network of cells across the West Bank. A strategy of arms length violence works well for the group as it looks to jointly deliver fatal blows across Israel and threaten the rule of its fierce rival, the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority which governs the West Bank. As ever in the Middle East, Iran is usually no more than one-degree of separation away from any instability and as one of the Islamic Republic’s premier terror franchises it is likely that Hamas is being encouraged to agitate again now.

The PA is vehemently opposed to Hamas strengthening its position in the West Bank through a campaign of violence. 17 years into his four-year term, President Mahmoud Abbas and his PA old-guard are deeply unpopular among Palestinians for their well-documented corruption and there is a growing sense of malaise exacerbated by high-unemployment and stalled peace process. Polls indicate a worrying growth in support for violent acts, especially among younger Palestinians who now make up the majority of the population.

President Abbas may have been applauded by some commentators for his condemnation of two recent terror attacks – albeit under pressure from Jordan and the U.S. – but his Fatah party hasn’t hesitated to celebrate the attacks and their perpetrators. The families of the ‘martyrs’ are even set to be honoured with financial support; one of the deplorable practices which may have led the UK to recently freeze its aid to the PA.

Despite this, Israel is working with the PA’s UK-trained security services to stamp out the shared threat posed by Hamas-driven violence but appear to be having mixed success.

Much of the focus has been on the northern Palestinian city of Jenin where the perpetrators of two recent attacks came from. Regarded as the “capital of resistance” by Palestinians during the Second Intifada due to the many suicide bombers who came from the town, it has again become a hotbed for Hamas and PIJ fighters after the PA appeared to lose control of the area in recent years – although it remains unclear how orchestrated they have been. Israeli security services have reportedly foiled further terror attacks originating in the area but its ongoing security operations in Jenin have led to a series of fatal clashes and firefights which are likely to escalate further.

It is a combustible situation, and will likely spread elsewhere in the West Bank and into Jerusalem. Religious fervour has already seen the desecration of Joseph’s Tomb – a holy Jewish and Muslim site – by Palestinian protestors.

Israel seems to have been less prepared for another dynamic – the possibility of attacks claimed by so-called Islamic State. The Jewish state hasn’t been a major focus of the group and yet two of the recent attacks were undertaken by Arabs living within Israel that had pledged allegiance to the group. It remains to be seen whether IS will seek further attacks in Israel, but Hamas and PIJ are certainly committed to doing so.

The uncertainty over what happens next is looming large. There is a great deal at stake for regional stability in the tense days ahead. While Israelis contend with that inescapable and fraught question over a possible Third Intifada, the world is rightly focused on the Russian onslaught in Ukraine. If events continue to escalate though it may not be long be another international crisis erupts. As ever in the Middle East, unpredictability is the only predictable thing.