Ramallah, occupied West Bank – Instability hangs low over life for Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
There is an expectation that the situation on the ground is going to implode at some point in the near future.
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When and how that will unfold – or what the trigger will be – cannot be predicted, but several developments on the ground over the past year indicate that the occupied West Bank is approaching a serious shift in the currently unsustainable political and security status quo.
“A Palestinian confrontation and a renewal of the struggle with the [Israeli] occupation is inevitable,” Belal Shobaki, head of the political science department at Hebron University, told Al Jazeera. “I believe that the scenario of matters exploding in 2023 is possible.”
“In the estimations of the Israeli military and security apparatus, the West Bank is bound to eventually mobilise. Israel is trying to postpone this scenario for as long as possible by employing a strategy of containment and absorption,” he continued.
For now, he said: “Israel is not allowing complete calm, and it is not allowing matters to explode.”
For close to a year, the occupied West Bank has witnessed an increase in violence by the Israeli military, with at least 170 Palestinians, including 30 children, killed during near-daily raids in 2022 – the highest death toll in 16 years according to the United Nations. Attacks committed against Palestinians by Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank have also sharply increased.
The deaths have continued into 2023, with four Palestinians, including three children, killed in the first five days during Israeli raids.
While many of those killed over the past year were civilians, the Israeli army raids and killings are being conducted under the banner of crushing Palestinian armed resistance in the northern occupied West Bank.
A new, far-right Israeli government sworn in last month has taken punitive measures against the Palestinian Authority (PA), and includes controversial figures in key positions of control over Palestinians, further raising the prospect of an explosion on the ground.
A new military operation?
Since September 2021, a number of relatively small, cross-factional Palestinian armed groups have been formed, mainly in the cities of Jenin and Nablus. The groups are limited in terms of their capabilities and are focused on defending the areas they operate in during Israeli military raids, and also carry out shootings at Israeli military checkpoints.
Separately in 2022, attacks committed by Palestinians in Israel and the occupied West Bank killed 29 people, according to the Israeli foreign ministry.
The prospect of Israel launching a full-scale invasion of Palestinian cities, as it did in 2002, or a new Palestinian Intifada (uprising) has repeatedly been put forward by observers over the past year.
However, Abdeljawad Hamayel, an academic at Birzeit University, said he believes it is unlikely that Israel will invade with full force unless there is a change in the nature of the attacks carried out by Palestinian groups.
“[Israel’s] strategy now is a mix of negotiation and assassination. The armed groups themselves are not carrying out attacks deep in Israel. If there are attacks in the coastal area for example – then they might start considering this again as then they will have enough political will to take these groups out,” Hamayel told Al Jazeera.
“The [armed] groups have created zones of relative freedom, but they are not isolated from Israeli power. Israel enters, arrests, carries out assassinations and special operations in these areas with relative immunity for its soldiers,” he continued.
“Yes, they are facing firepower and they can’t arrest people as easily as before, but these zones are penetrable to the Israeli army so they don’t feel they need to do a full-scale invasion.”
For Shobaki, the absence of real coordination between the armed groups, and the violence still being largely restricted to the occupied West Bank, means that Israel is content with its current strategy.
“The majority of the points of confrontation have been in the Palestinian arena – inside the villages and cities, refugee camps, on checkpoints. All of this is happening in a way that is not affecting daily life for the settlers, and that is not as costly for the Israeli occupation as it is for the lives of Palestinians,” he explained.
Gaza and the Palestinian Authority
It is not just Israel seeking to stop any significant upheaval in the occupied West Bank.
The Palestinian Authority (PA), controlled by the Fatah party, also has a role to play, and one that separates it from other Palestinian groups.
“If we look at the reality of the occupied West Bank, we have a group of parties that are looking to change the reality even if it means an explosion in the West Bank,” said Shobaki. “They are Hamas, the Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).”
While many members of the newly-formed armed groups are affiliated with Fatah, they represent a form of opposition to the PA leadership, which cooperates with the Israeli army in security coordination to thwart attacks and publicly condemns armed attacks.
“We may see that pockets of the Fatah movement may defect and become part of the armed struggle against the Israeli occupation, [allowing space for] Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the PFLP to work in,” said Shobaki.
Instead, several of the new armed groups are affiliated with the armed wing of the Gaza-based Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) – the al-Quds Brigades.
Israel targeted the PIJ in August in a three-day bombardment of the besieged Gaza Strip, killing at least 49 Palestinians, the majority of them civilians, including 17 children.
But the short-lived nature of that conflict, and the absence of any real follow-up, have led observers to believe that another Israeli war in Gaza is unlikely in the coming period.
Instead, groups like the PIJ, which has close ties with Iran, have looked to the occupied West Bank and the wave of unrest there to confront Israel.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, PIJ spokesperson Tareq Silmi in Gaza said the group had played “a special role” in the emergence of the new armed groups in the West Bank over the last year.
“It is no secret that the Jenin Brigades [one of the new groups] is affiliated with the al-Quds Brigades – the armed wing of the Islamic Jihad,” said Silmi, who added that the PIJ was working “around the clock … to support the phenomenon of armed resistance in the West Bank”.
Will the PA’s role change?
Besides the prospect of large defections from the Fatah movement, analysts say the other possible scenario is Israel changing the role of the PA itself.
Far-right figures in Israel’s government, such as Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, have been vocal about their disinterest in the PA’s continued existence.
On December 28, the then-incoming Israeli government said its top priority was to “advance and develop settlement in all parts of the land of Israel” including the occupied West Bank, in a cloaked admission that it had no intention of allowing the creation of a Palestinian state.
“The PA should take this government seriously,” said Hamayel. “They want a PA that doesn’t have any national claims, that does its job of maintaining civil matters in the area.”
“They want a PA without the ‘P’,” he explained, adding that the Israeli government wants “Palestinians to either accept Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank and across the whole country, or to get out – which is at the core of the Zionist movement itself”.
All of this spells uncertainty for the coming year.
While the occupied West Bank is expected to be at the centre of any coming Palestinian confrontation with Israel, it may not necessarily be the trigger.
Last week, as reports came that Ben-Gvir planned to enter the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, there were real fears of an eruption of the situation.
Ultimately, that did not happen, and the event passed without any confrontation. That may not happen during the next incident.
“The street moves for emotional reasons,” said Shobaki. “A single event may move them and push them [Palestinians] to the street.”
Maram Humaid contributed to this report from the occupied Gaza Strip.