Rising Palestinian casualties as Israel escalates the war

Amira Howeidy , Friday 10 Feb 2023

Israel’s most right-wing government in years is accelerating its summary executions and mass evictions of Palestinians.

Palestinian protesters in Jericho (photo: AFP)
Palestinian protesters in Jericho (photo: AFP)


Israel’s ultra-right-wing government is continuing to expand its collective punishment of the Palestinians, despite calls for calm last week by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. On 5 February, Israeli forces killed seven Palestinians in Jericho, including two civilians, in a raid they said targeted resistance fighters.

In another overnight raid later on Monday, the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) shot 17-year-old Hamza Askar in the head, killing him instantly during an incursion in the West Bank city of Nablus, according to medical sources.

This week’s operation raises the number of Palestinians killed since the start of this year to at least 43. The Palestinian death toll jumped two weeks ago following a deadly Israeli raid on a refugee camp in the West Bank that killed nine Palestinians in a single day.

The tenth casualty, a 16-year-old, was among the 20 wounded civilians in the camp and succumbed to his wounds on 4 February.  

The high Palestinian death toll has become a new normal, as Israel continues its daily, mostly night-time raids across the Occupied West Bank to “flush out” resistance fighters that started in March 2022.

The IOF’s escalation is driven by both the policies of successive Israeli right wing governments, which vocally reject the premise of a two state solution, advance land grabs in favour of illegal Israeli settlements, and carry out the summary executions of Palestinians, and Palestinian resistance to these policies.

In this environment of impunity, observers are cautioning against a new and more ferocious phase in the 75-year conflict and one in which even more Palestinian lives will be lost in ever-greater numbers.

By officially embracing policies that virtually translate into the genocide and mass expulsion of Palestinians, the Israeli government is declaring war on the Palestinians, warned Israeli columnist Amira Hass in the left-leaning Ha’aretz newspaper on Monday.

“During a war, it will be easier to reprise the Nakba [expulsion] of 1948,” Hass said.

On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was sworn in on 29 December, approved the establishment of a new illegal Israeli settlement near the border with the Gaza Strip.

The settlement aims to house 500 settler families in a nod to the Israeli government’s acceleration of illegal settlement expansion on Palestinian land, a policy that has already been in force, albeit less publicly, over the past 30 years.

There are more than 50 Jewish settlements around Gaza that are home to at least 55,000 settlers, according to Israeli figures in 2019. Israeli and Palestinian estimates indicate that there are about 650,000 settlers living in 164 illegal settlements and 116 outposts in the Occupied West Bank.

The Israeli premier also announced that his government would loosen restrictions on private gun ownership in Israel and expand the licensing of weapons for thousands of civilians.

The new ultra-orthodox ruling coalition in Israel has declared that “the Jewish people have an exclusive and unquestionable right to all areas of the land of Israel.” This includes the Occupied Palestinian West Bank that Netanyahu has promised to annex.

To accelerate this declared land grab policy, rights groups say that the Israeli authorities see opportunities for implementing the collective punishment of Palestinians under the pretext of deterring “terror attacks” against Israelis.

Following two separate “lone-wolf” attacks that killed six Israelis and a Ukrainian two weeks ago, Israeli forces took control of and sealed off the homes of the Palestinians suspected of the shootings.

The home of Khairi Alqam, the 21-year-old Palestinian who carried out the first shooting in the illegal settlement of Neve Yaakov in Occupied East Jerusalem on 27 January, will be razed to the ground, the Israeli authorities said. Alqam was killed at the scene of the attack.

The international rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW) described Israel’s punitive measures as a war crime.

“Just as no grievance can justify the intentional targeting of civilians in Neve Yaakov,” said HRW Palestine and Israel Director Omar Shakir, “such attacks cannot justify the Israeli authorities intentionally punishing the families of Palestinian suspects by demolishing their homes and throwing them out on the street.”

The months of violence in the West Bank were triggered by a Jerusalem court decision to evict 13 Palestinian families from their homes in the East Jerusalem district of Sheikh Jarrah in 2021 to replace the area with a Jewish settlement.

Widespread solidarity with the families in Sheikh Jarrah ignited protests across the West Bank into Arab areas inside Israel up to the besieged Gaza Strip against this act of Palestinian dispossession. Israel’s attempt to quell the protests from escalating into a nationwide Palestinian uprising led to the May 2021 Israeli shelling of Gaza for 11 days.

The ripple effects of the solidarity protests and the aftermath of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza have cut across the borders, check points, and apartheid walls dividing the Palestinians and bear the characteristics of a Palestinian awakening or new reality still in the making.

In this new phase, the traditional Palestinian factions appear to be fading into the background or becoming irrelevant, perhaps with the exception of Hamas, which is the only movement in possession of long-range missiles in Gaza, as emerging armed groups in the West Bank come to the forefront.

The Jenin Brigades, a loose coalition of younger generation resistance factions from Fatah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad, that emerged a few months after the Sheikh Jarrah incident in 2021 in Jenin, and the newer Lion’s Den group that appeared last year in Nablus, are responsible among others for what is being described as the “historic resurgence of the Palestinian resistance.”

In this new phase, the numerous “lone-wolf” attacks by Palestinians with no political or organisational affiliation have become part of the Palestinian reaction and resistance to excessive Israeli violence and are proving to be hard to thwart or predict by Israeli intelligence.

The influence and public appeal of the emerging resistance groups has been demonstrated multiple times in situations such as when the Palestinians heed their calls for a general strike or in slogans at protests at which they chant the names of their leaders.

It was against this backdrop that the massive joint operation between the IOF, Israeli intelligence, and the Israeli police attacked the Jenin Refugee Camp, a long-time stronghold of the Palestinian resistance, in the early hours of 26 January.  

Witnesses at the scene described “war-like” scenes, with apocalyptic destruction, dozens of cars and a community centre crushed by Israeli bulldozers, and bullet-riddled and damaged houses as evidence of the all-out nature of the operation.

At least half of the Palestinian casualties were civilians, including two children and a 61-year-old mother of six who was fatally shot in the neck inside her home.

The following day on 27 January, Alqam, the 21-year-old Palestinian from East Jerusalem, killed seven people outside a synagogue at the illegal Israeli Neve Yaakov settlement. It was later revealed that Alqam’s grandfather was killed by an Israeli settler in 1998.

The independent news website Mondoweiss also disclosed that Neve Yaakov is home to the Israeli military’s central command for the occupation of the West Bank and that it has been central to cementing Israeli control over Occupied Jerusalem.

During 2022, Israeli forces killed 151 Palestinians in the West Bank, including 35 children, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, more than in any other year since the UN began systematically recording fatalities in 2005.

In a statement on 2 February, HRW highlighted the way in which the Israeli authorities have used the Neve Yaakov attack to step up the punishment of Palestinian property owners for “illegal construction” in East Jerusalem. This has already led to the demolition of the properties, including the homes, of Palestinians for whom building permits are nearly impossible to obtain.

The Israeli authorities have also said they plan to “strengthen” West Bank settlements, which violate international law, and have put forward a law to revoke the citizenship or permanent residency of anyone who commits “an act of terrorism.” This passed its first reading in the Israeli Knesset on 31 January.

Israeli human rights groups have documented an upsurge of settler violence in the West Bank since the Neve Yaakov attack. Between 2005 and 2021, Israeli police closed 92 per cent of investigations against settlers who attacked Palestinians without an indictment, according to the Israeli human rights group Yesh Din.

As Al-Ahram Weekly went to press, the Israeli authorities were advancing to demolish an East Jerusalem residential building in the Palestinian Silwan neighbourhood of the city with 100 tenants living in it in order to enforce demolition orders for “unauthorised construction.”

Israeli settlers have been seizing Palestinian homes in Silwan under Israeli police protection for years, claiming ownership without delivering documents. Illegal Jewish settlements in Occupied East Jerusalem have also increased by 39 per cent according to human rights groups.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 9 February, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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