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1 April 2022

Attacks in Israel show peace with its neighbours is not enough

Regional alliances do nothing to assuage tensions between Israelis and Palestinians.

By Alona Ferber

The contrast could not have been much greater. On the one hand, Israeli diplomacy was enjoying something of a triumph. In the space of a week the prime minister, Naftali Bennet, flew to Sharm el-Sheikh at the invitation of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the Egyptian president, and the signatories of the Abraham Accords — normalisation agreements between Israel and a number of Arab states — met in the Negev desert, southern Israel, alongside representatives of Egypt and the US. 

The meetings were a sign that Israel had redefined its ties with former enemies. No longer would the intransigent conflict with the Palestinians and UN criticism stop Israel from boosting trade and forming alliances against Iran. And yet, at the same time, the country was reeling from the bloodiest week inside its borders in years. 

Over eight days, 11 people were killed in three terrorist attacks. Last Tuesday (22 March), in the southern city of Be’er Sheva, an assailant killed four people with a knife. On Sunday, the first day of the Negev summit, two gunmen killed two border police in the northern city of Hadera. In both incidents, the perpetrators were Israeli Arabs who identified with Islamic State. The jihadists later claimed the second attack.

Then, on Tuesday this week, a Palestinian from the West Bank killed five people in Bnei Brak, a central city near Tel Aviv with a large ultra-Orthodox Jewish population. He had spent time in prison as a youth for planning a suicide bombing. While Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, condemned the violence, there are reports that the attacker was affiliated with Abbas’s Fatah movement. All four assailants were killed at the scene. 

In a video message to the nation after the Bnei Brak attack Bennet, from the right-wing Yamina alliance, called on citizens with a gun licence to carry their weapons as he outlined the government’s response to the “murderous terror wave”. It is impossible to tell whether the recent violence will continue or is a sign of things to come. In 2015-2016 a series of lone attacks known as the Knife Intifada, mostly by Palestinians from East Jerusalem, while during the Second Intifada, a wider uprising by Palestinians which started in 2000, attacks backed by organised terrorist groups killed 1,000 Israelis.

The shock reappearance of Islamic State was a reminder that, alongside Palestinian groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the group still has the capacity to inspire violence from lone wolves. Despite Israel’s proximity to Syria and Iraq, where thousands of foreign fighters joined the ranks of Islamic State after it proclaimed its caliphate in 2014, relatively few Muslims from Israel and the occupied territories tried to join up or planned attacks in its name. This week the government said it would double down on efforts to track citizens with minor convictions linked to the group.   

The attacks took place just before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, a time of simmering tensions between Palestinians and Israeli security forces in recent years. Last May, 11 days of fighting between Hamas in Gaza and the Israel Defence Forces broke out following clashes during Ramadan. This year, with Ramadan, Easter and Passover coinciding, Washington has reportedly pressured Jerusalem to do what it can to calm the flames to avoid the outbreak of another war.  

In recent weeks Bennet, who took over as prime minister from Benjamin Netanyahu in 2021, following two years of inconclusive elections, has been playing the part of the global statesman. Aside from the Negev and Sharm el-Sheikh summits, he has mediated between Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky over the war in Ukraine; in February he became the first Israeli leader to visit Bahrain.

The US-brokered Abraham Accords were in line with Netanyahu’s grand strategy: “peace from a position of strength”. The former prime minister believed that if he could boost ties with the Arab world over shared economic and strategic interests, including the threat of Iran and the likes of Islamic State, pressure on Israel to make peace or address violations of Palestinian rights would dissipate.

But even with autocratic states in the region willing to turn a blind eye to Israeli policy towards the Palestinians, the situation on the ground will remain volatile if the conflict continues. This week’s attacks may have taken the country by surprise but they happened amid ongoing violence in the occupied territories, where there are regular clashes between Israeli troops, Israeli settlers and Palestinians. Drawing attention to this context, Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Joint List, a coalition of majority-Arab parties, said in response to Tuesday’s attack, “Five citizens were killed today. Each a world in his own right. They join the 51 Palestinians killed since the start of the year, each a world in his own right.”  

This ongoing violence, and the divisions between Arabs and Jews, Palestinians and Israelis, within Israel and in the occupied territories, is a ticking time bomb. Rights violations in the Palestinian territories are well documented, with a growing chorus of organisations accusing Israel of crimes against humanity. Within Israel proper, Arab citizens face systemic racism, inequality, and neglect. Their communities are underfunded and illegal weapons are widely available. 

In his responses to the attack on Tuesday Bennet, who hails from the further reaches of the right on Israel’s political spectrum, framed the violence within the context of the conflict. “They won’t move us from here,” he tweeted. “We will win.” But staying put under the shadow of war and rises in violence seems like a Pyrrhic victory.

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