The Israeli army is continuing to assassinate Palestinian activists in the West Bank under the pretext that these are pre-emptive attacks to thwart operations against Israelis. Meanwhile, there have been Arab and international warnings that the confrontations between the Palestinians and Israelis could reach a climax during the holy month of Ramadan.
The most recent assassinations by an Israeli special force were on 16 March in Jenin in the northern West Bank that killed four Palestinians including a boy not older than 16 years who happened to be passing as Israeli forces were carrying out an assassination.
This targeted two prominent activists in the Al-Quds Brigades, the armed wing of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad Movement, and the Al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas, which Israel accuses of establishing a military presence in the West Bank.
Unlike previous operations, the Israeli operation was in broad daylight and saw Israeli special forces infiltrating the area without the support of the Israeli army and even executing one of the targets at point blank range before quickly withdrawing.
This Israeli operation has raised the number of Palestinian martyrs since the beginning of this year to 90, with hundreds of others injured and arrested, according to the latest official Palestinian statistics.
The Israeli assaults have exacerbated conditions on the ground in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, accompanied by growing threats of confrontation reaching a critical stage. The armed Palestinian factions in the Gaza Strip have been particularly vocal, warning that they will not remain silent about the Israeli actions, especially in Occupied East Jerusalem where confrontations usually intensify during Ramadan.
Hours after the Israeli assassinations, the army announced it had detected a rocket launch from the Gaza Strip targeting Israeli towns bordering Gaza. Israel did not respond.
UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Tor Wennesland called on Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) to work on preventing any escalation of the violence during Ramadan, stating that if the understandings reached at the Aqaba Summit in late February are implemented, success can be achieved.
Wennesland criticised the reaction of some Israeli ministers to the Aqaba Summit for attacking the outcomes and claiming they are non-binding on Israel. “Responsible leaders need to take decisions now to ensure calm during Ramadan,” he said.
The reaction of the Israeli government and some extremist ministers in it was more disciplined after Sunday’s meeting in Sharm El-Sheikh, which produced practical steps to try to regulate conditions on the ground in order to prevent widespread escalation.
Israeli cabinet members did not comment on the results of this meeting that was initiated by Egypt and attended by Palestinian, Israeli, Jordanian and US officials. Among other commitments, the Palestinian and Israeli sides affirmed their commitment to bolstering security and stability, halting the escalation, continuing confidence-building measures, and addressing outstanding issues through direct dialogue.
The real test of Israel’s commitment will be the application of these results on the ground. The start of Ramadan is also the deadline for many Palestinian families to vacate their homes in Jerusalem, after Israeli Minister of Internal Security Itamar Ben-Gvir threatened to accelerate demolitions and evictions in the city.
The homes threatened with evictions are in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood and the nearby town of Silwan in Occupied Jerusalem. Another 87 families, or 700 to 800 residents, face the threat of eviction from their homes in the Batn Al-Hawa neighbourhood to make way for Israeli settlers.
In addition to the threats of eviction and demolition, Ramadan this year coincides with the Jewish Passover holiday, during which radical right-wing groups in Israel intensify their calls to storm the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.
In the past, such incursions have resulted in clashes between the Palestinians and the Israeli police force that secures entry for Israelis to the Al-Aqsa compound.
In addition to these triggers for escalation, Israel is fearful of the developing relationship between Hamas and Islamic Jihad on the one side and Lebanon’s Hizbullah group on the other. Israel suspects the latter of being involved in the infiltration of a Lebanese gunman into Israel, whom it said it killed last week.
The Israeli army claims that the Lebanese man bombed a target in the Megiddo region of northern Israel that seriously injured one Israeli after he succeeded in infiltrating the border and planting the device. He apparently was wearing an explosive belt, and a decision was made to kill him.
According to the Israeli Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, the modus operandi of the attack and surrounding circumstances indicate that Hizbullah was at a minimum a partner in the attack and may also have initiated it. This would imply a shift in the group’s strategy, which has previously avoided carrying out attacks deep inside Israel.
The newspaper pointed to closer ties between Hizbullah and Hamas in Lebanon after the appointment of Saleh Al-Arouri as deputy head of Hamas’ politburo, which is in charge of the group’s activities in the West Bank. Israel accuses Al-Arouri of shifting the focus of forceful resistance against Israel to the West Bank.
The newspaper claimed that Hizbullah’s fingerprints were obvious on the operation, suggesting that due to the socio-political crisis in Israel the group’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, had decided to revive relations with Hamas in order to take armed action against Israel without indicating a direct link to his group.
In what appeared to be a response to this claim, Islamic Jihad announced on Sunday that Israeli agents had assassinated a prominent military commander of the Al-Quds Brigades in the Syrian capital Damascus. “Ali Ramzi Al-Aswad, 31, on the Syrian front, was shot in a cowardly assassination bearing the fingerprints of Israel,” it said, holding Israel “responsible for this crime.”
In the past, Israel has assassinated members of Islamic Jihad operating in Syria. Most prominently, it attempted to kill Akram Al-Ajouri, a military commander in the group and member of its politburo in late 2019.
Islamic Jihad is a military group in the Gaza Strip and acts with fewer reservations against Israel than its counterpart Hamas, which manages Gaza’s affairs. Hamas tries to avoid confrontations with Israel to alleviate the economic crisis in Gaza and work on building its military capabilities.
These factors make it more likely that Islamic Jihad will carry out further attacks against Israel, whether from the Gaza Strip or the West Bank. However, Hamas has also unexpectedly laid claims on attacks in the West Bank, the most recent of which was in Hawara and killed two Israelis in February.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 23 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly