Analysis

Recent Clashes Have Israel, Palestinians on Brink of Broad Escalation

Monday's car ramming attack joins Gaza border protests, tension at the Temple Mount and unrest in Israel's prisons in a recipe for a new round of conflict

Israeli soldiers gather at the scene of a car ramming near Ramallah, in the West Bank, March 4, 2019.
\ MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/ REUTERS

The vehicular attack in which an Israeli army officer and a border policeman were injured just before dawn Monday, west of Ramallah, was exceptional. Veteran security figures who have been keeping watch on the West Bank for years can't recall a case of using a car to deliberately ram into people when there was more than one person inside the vehicle. Car ramming attacks generally involve one person, who may have acted on momentary impulse.

In this case there were three Palestinians in the car, two of whom were shot dead by soldiers immediately after the attack.

The Shin Bet and army sources insist that the description of events is accurate. According to the initial debriefing in the field and based on questioning the Palestinian who was wounded but survived, the event happened during a routine arrest in the village of N'ima. An army vehicle broke down and army and border police forces were working on extracting it. The surviving Palestinian told his interrogators that he and his two friends were driving back from a different attempted terror attack – throwing firebombs on Route 443, near an army checkpoint. When they saw the military forces in the village, the driver changed lanes and drove into the soldiers.

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Israeli forces stand guard next to a destroyed car, after two Palestinian were shot dead as they ran over troops in Kafr Nama, northwest of Ramallah, on March 4, 2019.
AFP

A battalion commander from the Kfir Brigade was badly injured but is expected to survive; one border policeman was mildly injured. Two of the three Palestinians in the car were shot by the soldiers.

In the backdrop, tensions have been mounting in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, and the Israeli election is approaching. Ostensibly almost all the elements for the perfect storm are here, which could exacerbate the tensions in the territories further, even before the April 9 election.

Army sources say that every day that passes without broader escalation in the West Bank is a happy surprise; in the Gaza Strip, much depends on the damage done by the bombs thrown at Israeli soldiers during the night-time protests. Bloodshed could lead to a stronger Israeli response; the Israel Defense Forces have already stepped up the intensity of their reactions, which now include, after bombs are thrown, tank fire towards Hamas positions.

The one supplying the means for restraint in the Strip right now is Egypt, which on Thursday acceded to persistent pressure from Hamas and released eight Gazans from prison – including four of Hamas’ naval commandos. The Egyptian gesture was apparently designed to guarantee that Hamas wouldn’t escalate the protests along the border fence. This comes in addition to the opening of the Rafah crossing in recent weeks.

However, on the other side, the components of a possible explosion continue to build up. Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas again announced that he would reject tax refunds from Israel because of the Israeli cabinet’s decision to take half a billion shekels from it to punish the PA for its assistance to security prisoners in Israel. Abbas threatens in parallel to cut the financial support he provides for the government in Gaza.

There are two more worrying processes at play. Tensions between the wardens and the Palestinian prisoners are simmering in prisons after Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan had disrupters installed in their wings to garble conversations on smuggled cellphones. Erdan and the prison authority argue that it was necessary, although it has already led to violent incidents with inmates. The army is worried that matters could escalate into a broad clash whose effects will spill over beyond the prison walls. Meanwhile, cabinet minister Naftali Bennett has been challenging Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to hold his ground against the prisoners.

Meanwhile, at the Temple Mount, no solution has yet been found for the conflict over the decision by the Waqf, the Islamic custodian of the Temple Mount, to reopen the contested building Bab-a-Rahma, by the Golden Gate, which had been closed down in 2003. The police, who responded belatedly to the developments (partially because of gaps in their intelligence and that of the Shin Bet), expelled the Waqf guards. Now those guards have called for mass protest prayers on Friday by the entrance to the Mount, like those that took place when metal detectors were installed at the site in the summer of 2017.

The components for escalation in the territories, even before the elections, are obvious. The government would probably prefer to steer clear of a clash, which could develop in any direction and which could affect the outcome of the election. But the fear of appearing weak to the Palestinians could induce the government to escalate matters – and on the Palestinian side too, some evidently view the situation as a tempting opportunity to drive Netanyahu into a corner.