CENTCOM and Extremism
May 9, 2021
Sheikh Jarrah Neighborhood
Since Ramadan began, clashes between the Israeli and Palestinian communities have been escalating. The Counterterrorism Group’s (CTG) CENTCOM and Extremism teams estimate with a high degree of confidence that the unrest in the region, stemming from conflicting interests between Israelis and Palestinians, will highly likely trigger further tension, with political, violence and extremist implications.
A hate crime against a Rabbi in Jaffa seems to be the catalyst for growing outbreaks between Arabs and Jews. On April 18, violent clashes broke out in Jaffa and the Old City, Jerusalem.
Israel’s far-right group, Lehava, organized an anti-Arab march that instigated mass overnight clashes on April 22, which resulted in more than 100 Palestinians and approximately 20 Israeli police being wounded. Such clashes are ongoing.
Terrorists in the Gaza Strip fired multiple rockets at Israel on April 24, 2021, further fueling the social unrest seen in the region. These came after Hamas called for violence against Israel following the April 22 clashes in East Jerusalem.
The Jerusalem District Court has ruled that at least six Palestinian families must vacate their homes in the occupied East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. While a long ongoing struggle, Palestinians view this as an expulsion so Sheikh Jarrah can be established as a fully Israeli settlement, and will likely lead to further apprehension.
Israeli settlers attacked Jaloud, a village in the West Bank, by setting fires and throwing stones. This was reportedly in retaliation for a shooting at a bus station at Tapuah junction that resulted in the death of three Israelis.
Members of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have become regular targets of stabbing attacks by Palestinians in the West Bank, with at least two such attacks being thwarted by IDF soldiers this week. Although stabbing attacks were already a common form of terrorism in the region, they became more frequent after the clashes between Palestinians and Israelis.
It is likely that Hamas and other terrorist groups operating in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank will use current social unrest as an opportunity to advance their anti-Israel objectives, who they see as an occupier and an illegitimate regime. Considering Iran’s consistent threats to Israel, CTG expects Iran to use its proxies in the region, including in Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria, to exploit Israel’s current vulnerability and political crisis. Any future escalations and support from Hamas will likely lead to a Third Intifada, which would seriously test Israel’s resilience to instability. To prevent any terrorist infiltrations and attacks, Israel will likely toughen its counterterrorism policies, increase its authority over certain parts of the West Bank, and pressure the Palestinian Authority to support its counterterrorism efforts. Additionally, Israel will almost certainly continue to hit Hamas’ and other terrorist groups’ positions in Palestine and neighboring countries to prevent and disrupt terrorist operations.
CTG assesses that it is likely that existing tensions between Israelis and Palestinians will trigger a Third Intifada. On April 24, there were following clashes with Israeli Police officers in East Jerusalem. At least 36 rockets were fired at Israel by terrorists in the Gaza Strip, and the IDF hit multiple Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip as retaliation. While Hamas did not take responsibility for the rocket fire, the group’s spokesperson Abd al-Latif al-Qanou stated that the “Palestinian resistance is ready to respond to aggression, even the score with the occupation and prevent its violations against our people,” demonstrating Hamas’ complicity in the attack. Considering recent escalations in East Jerusalem and the targeting of Hamas’ infrastructure by Israel, Hamas finds itself in a privileged position to justify any potential retaliatory attacks against Israel and trigger a Third Intifada. Such a scenario is likely to challenge Israel’s security apparatus, particularly now that the country is immersed in a political crisis. As long as a caretaker government remains in power, Israel will likely struggle to apply long-term solutions that respond to the threats of terrorism and social unrest in the region. This could incentivize Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups to encourage a national uprising and deepen the crisis.
Current popular support is proof of the plausibility of a Third Intifada scenario. Various attacks by both Palestinians and Israeli settlers have taken place in recent weeks, further increasing tensions. On May 7, worshippers were seen holding Hamas’ flags on Temple Mount (see image below) and chanting: “We are all Hamas, waiting for your orders, commander Mohammed Deif. Hamas — shoot a rocket at Tel Aviv tonight.” These developments demonstrate the volatility of the region and the position of power that Hamas currently holds in the conflict. If Hamas decides to move forward with an escalation, it is highly likely it will reach a full-scale intifada, seeing that popular support is high.
Hamas flags being waved during Ramadan prayers
Exploitation of social unrest by Iran and/or Iran-backed militias
Iran and Iran-backed militias can conveniently exploit the clashes between the communities. Pro-Iranian groups can use this to further their narrative that Israel is the enemy and justify any actions taken against them. Iran's President, Hassan Rouhani, stated during a cabinet meeting on May 5 the likelihood of this tactic: "The Zionists are the enemies of the region and of the security of the Palestinian people. They are the enemies of the nations of the region and the tormentors of the atrocities in history which have displaced millions of people from their homes.” Such statements aim to capitalize on the local Palestinian grievances to garner support for Iran’s broader strategic intentions. By framing these clashes with a clear enemy in mind, Rouhani’s words may likely be interpreted by pro-Iranian groups as permission to strike against Israel and its people.
Already, Hamas has warned Israel over their action in Sheikh Jarrah. Hamas’s military wing leader, Mohammed Deif, has issued a statement warning that “the Qassam Brigades will not stand idly by in the face of attacks on the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood” and that Israel will pay a “heavy price.” A new wave of violence by Hamas is of concern. As the Israeli population is recently mourning the death of 19-year-old Yehuda Guetta, who was shot and killed in a drive-by shooting at the Tapuah junction, Israeli forces foiled a “major attack” by three Palestinians who intended to commit a shooting in central Israel. CTG assesses that more attacks are likely to occur as Hamas has shown its support for the Palestinian cause.
CTG assesses that it is almost certain that there will be a spread of COVID-19 at mass gatherings held in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. While Israel has one of the world’s highest vaccination rates, only approximately 250,000 Palestinians have received their first dose of the vaccine. This is a significantly low number considering Palestine’s total population of 5,227,193. With protests and clashes likely continuing in the coming weeks, it is highly probable that some of those involved will be infected with COVID-19 and will expose others to the virus. Photos and videos from previous clashes and demonstrations reveal that social distancing and mask-wearing were not always respected, suggesting that the same is likely to occur at any future mass gatherings. With COVID-19 cases increasing in Palestine, social unrest will almost certainly contribute to a worsening of the pandemic if the vaccination rate remains low. This is likely to cause further pressure on the already fragile Palestinian health system, particularly in Gaza, which health authorities say is currently in a critical state due to the expansion of the British coronavirus variant in the territory.
Tensions between the Israeli and Palestinian communities come at an already fragile time. Israel and Palestinians face political uncertainty: Israel had its fourth election in two years, with a fifth election looking likely, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has postponed Palestinian elections until Israel allows for an Arab vote in East Jerusalem. As Palestinians struggle to find a way to respond to Abbas’s unilateral decision, groups such as Hamas are likely to seek a stronger foothold amongst Palestinians and capitalize on the political crisis. As Hamas opposes Abbas’s decision and, in turn, garners support from the Palestinian community, the group will likely strategically insert themselves in the clashes between Israeli forces and Palestinians in East Jerusalem. The political uncertainty for both Israelis and Palestinians will likely spill over into the local clashes in East Jerusalem.
In the event of continued escalations in the region, it is very likely that Israel will be forced to balance between maintaining its security apparatus against terrorists while also not disrupting its relations with the United States (U.S.). By reversing Donald Trump’s policies in the Middle East, the Biden administration restored aid to Palestinians, urged Israel and Palestine to resume talks over a two-state solution, and worked to renew relations with Palestine. This may indicate that Israel’ received support from the Trump administration has likely come to an end, impelling Israel to reassess its current counterterrorism measures and foreign policy. Members of the U.S. Congress, including Congresswoman Cori Bush and Betty McCollum, have also urged the United States to reevaluate U.S. policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, suggesting that this debate is alive in the United States. Such developments will likely pressure Israel to change its approach in the Middle East, not just regarding Palestine but also Iran, considering the Biden administration’s interest in reentering the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) deal. Nonetheless, Israel will probably reinforce its security measures and control over parts of the West Bank to protect itself against terrorism. Additional measures will likely include targeting terrorists’ infrastructure, especially Hamas’, and pressuring the Palestinian Authority to collaborate in its counterterrorism operations in the West Bank.
Congresswomen Cori Bush condemning the attacks
The international community is also reacting to the clashes and attacks that are ongoing in East Jerusalem. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has been warning that the evictions from Sheikh Jarrah could trigger war crimes and has emphasized that under humanitarian international law, “the occupying power … cannot confiscate private property in occupied territory.” Additionally, many countries, including Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Russia, Egypt, Pakistan, Kuwait, the European Union, and Iran, have denounced and criticized Israel’s actions. While international pressure on Israel is likely to continue, some countries condemning Israel’s action could be seen as suspicious considering their agendas. Iran, for instance, has stated multiple times that Israel is the enemy; therefore, it is highly likely that it is exploiting the evictions to legitimize its narrative. Through its proxies in the Middle East, Iran could use this as an opportunity to hit Israeli targets. As Palestinians achieve international support, groups such as Hamas are likely to strengthen their presence amongst Palestinian communities.
The Counterterrorism Group’s CENTCOM and Extremism teams recommend that Israel does not go forward with the expropriation of Palestinian families in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem as it could be a catalyst in a potential Palestinian uprising against Israel. CTG also recommends Israel to tighten its counterterrorism measures against likely attacks by Palestinian terrorist groups, especially those backed by Iranian forces. Additionally, seeing that Palestinians’ discontent towards Israel could be exploited by terrorist groups to garner support and attack Israel, CTG suggests that Israel provides support to the Palestinian health authorities as a way to reduce the pandemic’s effects in Palestine and potentially decrease some of that discontent. The CENTCOM and Extremism teams will continue to monitor the situation in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip, in anticipation of future escalation in the region through open-source intelligence (OSINT) and social media intelligence (SOCMINT). Additionally, we will further increase monitoring of Iran’s and Iran-backed militias’ activities in Israel and Palestine, as well as in neighboring countries considering their geographic proximity to Israel’s territory.
_______________________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)
 Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. In the background, the city center of Jerusalem by David Shankbone licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported
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