A critical moment for Palestine and Israel

A surge in violence risks drawing both sides into conflict

Palestinians protesting the killing of nine people in Jenin refugee camp during an Israeli raid. EPA
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Jerusalem, a key location for all three Abrahamic faiths, is once again beset by violence. In Palestine and Israel, the peaceful messages of its religions are once again not being heeded.

At least seven people were killed and 10 injured in a shooting at a synagogue on the outskirts of East Jerusalem on Friday. The attack took place as worshippers attended Shabbat services on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Speaking at the scene, Israel police commissioner Kobi Shabtai called it "one of the worst attacks we have encountered in recent years".

The shooting came in the aftermath of an even deadlier Israeli raid on the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank. Nine Palestinians were killed, including a 61-year-old woman. The house of the assailants being targeted by Israeli forces was destroyed by an ensuing fire. The family living there has been threatened with expulsion. It is the highest death toll in a single army operation for more than 20 years. In another blow to calming of the situation, the Palestinian Authority subsequently announced that it would suspend security co-operation with Israel.

And in a similarly shocking attack, a Palestinian boy shot and injured two people in East Jerusalem on Saturday morning. The attacker was only 13. The attacks come in a deadly month; more than 30 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces this month alone.

Mourners during the funeral of Rafael Ben Eliyahu, a victim of a shooting attack on Friday in East Jerusalem. AP

The situation is critical. This sort of violence has the potential to lead to yet more death and destruction, even war. Ibrahim Ramadan, governor of Nablus, told Sky News that he predicts a third intifada, or uprising, is coming. The previous two intifadas led to the deaths of more than 5,000 Palestinians and 1,400 Israelis

The only responsible call from politicians right now is for peace. On Saturday, Mr Netanyahu said his government would not be seeking an "escalation"; yet actions are more important than words.

But fears remain that Mr Netanyahu's new government, the most right-wing one in Israeli history, will choose an aggressive response. Alongside Mr Netanyahu at the scene of Friday's synagogue shooting was Itamar Ben-Gvir, the new National Security Minister, and one of the most controversial extreme political figures in the new government.

He has in the past called for a complete annexation of the West Bank and a relaxation of the rules of engagement that Israeli forces are currently bound by. And on Sunday, Mr Netanyahu said he plans to "strengthen the settlements" in the West Bank in response to the two shootings.

Mr Ben-Gvir's complete annexation of the West Bank seems far-fetched. And Mr Netanyahu did not give much detail about what his strengthening of the settlements will entail. Nonetheless, the fact that Israel's occupation of Palestinian lands is so central to today's divisions makes these sentiments at the heart of the new government deeply troubling. They risk enflaming the situation, and making a settlement to what might be a spiralling of violence harder to reach.

Mr Netanyahu has said a priority of his government will be strengthening ties further with some neighbouring Arab countries. As violence mounts – something that has the potential to set off a calamitous series of events, not just in Palestine and Israel but the whole region – partners in the Middle East stand committed to reducing tensions.

Both sides must do as much as possible to avoid more violence, and they will find plenty of potential mediators in the wider region to help defuse tensions. The next few days will be critical, and it is to be hoped that both sides make responsible choices. In the long term, a solution to the occupation and a peaceful resolution is a must.

Published: January 30, 2023, 3:00 AM