Quarterly Updates for (16 Nov 2016 — 15 Feb 2017)

Palestinian and Israeli casualty rates decreased slightly this quarter, reflecting a general decline in violence over the course of 2016 (see JPS 46 [1, 2]): 29 Palestinians were killed as a result of Israeli actions (down from 32 last quarter), and 5 Israelis were killed as a result of Palestinian actions (up from 2 last quarter). Therefore, by mid-February 2017, the comprehensive death toll since the beginning of the 2d intifada in 9/2000 had reached 10,898 Palestinians (including 57 Palestinian citizens of Israel [PCI] and 19 unidentified cross-border “infiltrators”); 1,259 Israelis (433 IDF soldiers and security personnel, 246 settlers, and 576 others); and 71 foreign nationals (including 2 British suicide bombers). These numbers include individuals who died in noncombatrelated incidents if their death was a direct result of Israel’s occupation or of the ongoing conflict (e.g., ailing Palestinians who died because they were denied access to medical care and Palestinians killed in smuggling tunnel accidents). They do not include 5 Palestinians who were killed when the Egyptian authorities flooded the smuggling tunnels they were working in (12/3 [4] and 2/13), or the Hamasaffiliated engineer who was killed in Tunisia on 12/15, despite allegations that Israel’s Mossad agency was responsible.

Overview of the Violence

The number of protests, clashes, and random attacks that had characterized the habba (surge or revolt) since its eruption in the wake of the Jewish High Holidays in 9/2015 continued falling this quarter (see JPS 45 [2]–46 [2]). Therefore, the number of Palestinians killed in the West Bank and East Jerusalem decreased from 25 last quarter to 14 this quarter. Six Palestinians died of injuries sustained in clashes with the IDF (12/18, 12/22, 12/23, 1/10, 1/16, and 1/29), and 8 died after carrying out alleged ramming or stabbing attacks on Israeli settlers and troops (11/22, 11/25, 12/8, 12/14, 1/8, 1/17, 1/25, and 2/10; see Chronology for details). Another Palestinian was killed in the West Bank (2/8) when an Israeli settler drove into him. Meanwhile, the number of Palestinians injured in the West Bank decreased significantly: at 219 between 11/15 and 2/6, down from 521 over the preceding 12 weeks, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). All 4 Israelis killed by Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem this quarter were victims of alleged ramming attacks by Palestinian drivers outside the Old City on 1/8.

An Israeli military court in Tel Aviv found (1/4) IDF soldier Elor Azaria guilty of manslaughter for the killing of a prone, defenseless, and injured Palestinian at the height of the habba on 3/24/2016 in c. Hebron. The ruling made Azaria eligible for up to 20 years in prison, although many analysts guessed that the sentence would be much lighter (see JPS 46 [4]). Israeli PM Netanyahu and a slew of other right-wing officials, as well as Zionist Union MK Shelly Yacimovich, said they supported pardoning Azaria. Outside the court, hundreds of Jewish Israelis demonstrated in solidarity with him, sparking minor clashes with the police. Meanwhile, outraged that Azaria was tried on manslaughter chargers, rather than for murder, the family of the victim pledged to take the case to the ICC. The PA’s Foreign Ministry called the case a “show trial.”

In Gaza, 13 Palestinians died as a result of Israeli actions or in connection with complications cause by Israel’s blockade: 1 in clashes with IDF troops along the border fence (11/18); 1 who succumbed to injuries sustained in clashes with the IDF in 2005 (2/15); 1 who succumbed to heart problems after the Israeli authorities denied his exit from Gaza for medical treatment (1/14); 1 fisherman who went missing after a confrontation with Israeli naval forces (1/4); 5 who died in tunnel collapses (12/4, 12/7 [2], 1/20, and 2/13), including 2 Hamas fighters; 2 other Hamas fighters who died during undisclosed military activities (12/15 and 2/4); and 2 who died on 2/8 in an air strike that Palestinian witnesses claimed was carried out by Israeli aircraft, although the IDF denied involvement. Meanwhile, Israelis caused substantially fewer Palestinian injuries in Gaza this quarter: 23 between 11/15 and 2/6, according to OCHA, down from 61 over the preceding 12 weeks.

Sporadic bouts of cross-border violence continued to punctuate the relative calm in Gaza since the cease-fire ending Israel’s 2014 assault on the territory. Down from 7 last quarter, there were 6 such incidents (12/19, 1/15, 1/24, 2/6, 2/8, and 2/12; see Chronology), leading to 2 Palestinian deaths (2/8) and 9 Palestinian injuries (2/6, 2/8, and 2/12).

As in previous quarters, the IDF strictly enforced the unilaterally defined buffer zone along Israel’s boundary with Gaza, aka Access Restricted Areas (ARA). IDF troops violently dispersed Palestinian protesters gathering along the border fence 5 times (11/18, 12/2, 12/23, 12/25, and 2/3), down from 11 last quarter; fired on Palestinian land or property 17 times (12/13, 12/15, 12/17, 1/2, 1/3, 1/7, 1/8 [2], 1/10, 1/17, 1/18, 1/20, 1/21, 2/1, 2/7[2], and 2/15), up from 11 last quarter; fired on Palestinian shepherds, bird-hunters, and other people 15 times (11/18, 12/20, 12/21, 12/24, 12/26, 12/30, 1/5, 1/14, 1/18, 1/24 [2], 1/29, 1/31, 2/4, and 2/5), down from 16 the previous quarter. Israeli forces conducted 9 limited incursions to level land along the border fence (11/29, 12/13, 12/27, 1/12, 1/15, 1/25, 1/26, 2/6, and 2/8), down from 15 in each of the previous 3 quarters. Israeli aircraft also sprayed weed killer on Palestinian agricultural fields along the border fence on 1/23. (The IDF said that the operation was designed to clear sightlines for troops in the area.) IDF troops arrested almost twice as many Palestinians attempting to cross into Israel, a total of 11 (11/17 [2], 11/26 [2], 11/27, 12/9, 1/29 [2], and 1/30 [3]) compared to 6 last quarter. The Israeli authorities claimed that the Palestinian arrested on 11/27 was a Hamas operative attempting to sneak into Israel on a military mission. His family, however, denied (12/29) the accusation, saying that he had no affiliation with Hamas and suffered from mental disabilities.

In a related development, the Israeli press reported (1/9) that DM Lieberman approved a NIS 3.34 b. (approximately $868 m.) project to construct a “smart fence” along Israel’s border with Gaza, including an underground concrete barrier and sensors to detect tunneling activities.

At a rate approaching 1 incident per day, Israeli naval forces continued to harass Palestinian fishermen working off Gaza’s coast and did not carry out the promised extension of the fishing zone from 6 to 9 naut. mi. off the coast, after postponing the measure 3 times last quarter (see JPS 46 [2]); they also opened fire on or otherwise confronted fishermen on 58 occasions (see Chronology for details), up from 50 last quarter. Over the course of these incidents, they capsized 1 fishing boat (1/4), injured 5 fishermen (1/14, 1/17, 1/20, and 1/23 [2]), arrested 9 others (12/6 [4] and 1/16 [5]), and confiscated at least 3 fishing boats (12/6 and 1/17). In the incident on 1/4, 1 fisherman went missing. His family later declared (1/6) him dead and the fishermen’s union in Gaza went on a 2-day strike (1/5–6) to protest the nr.-constant targeting by the Israeli navy.

Movement and Access

In the absence of any breakthrough in the Palestinian national reconciliation process or any prospective deal between Hamas and the Israeli govt., Palestinians’ freedom of movement and access in the Gaza Strip changed little this quarter; there were only marginal developments. On 12/5, Israeli officials announced the resumption of public postal service to Gaza, 5 mos. after suspending the service in 7/2016 (see JPS 46 [1]). They also revoked (12/6) permission for elderly Gazans to visit Haram al-Sharif on Fridays. According to a Palestinian official, the Israelis cited reports of some worshippers not returning directly to Gaza after their visits. Overall, the number of Palestinians permitted to leave Gaza for the West Bank and Israel remained relatively low this quarter, after plummeting in 10/2016 to levels not seen since the immediate aftermath of the Israeli assault on Gaza in the summer of 2014 (see figure 1).

Evidencing the Egyptian govt.’s attempts to improve relations with Hamas and to ameliorate humanitarian conditions in Gaza (see “Egypt” below), Cairo opened the Rafah border crossing on 17 days this quarter. Although this represented a decrease from 21 days last quarter, it marked a significant uptick over the previous 2 quarters of 2016, when the crossing was open for only 14 days in total. Overall, 9,743 individuals were able to leave Gaza via the Rafah crossing, and 7,391 were able to enter, compared with 8,429 and 8,809 last quarter, respectively.

The Israeli crackdown in response to the habba subsided this quarter. Despite fewer village closures and punitive restrictions, the IDF nevertheless maintained nr.-daily raids, house searches, and mobile checkpoints, hampering Palestinian movement and access in the West Bank and East Jerusalem (see Chronology for details). On 12/7, the IDF’s Coordinator of Govt. Activities in the Territories (COGAT) announced a temporary easement of restrictions on Christmas Day (12/25). As a result, an unlimited number of Christian Palestinians in the West Bank were permitted to visit their relatives in Israel; some 400 were permitted to fly abroad from Ben Gurion International Airport; 100 were allowed to visit families in Gaza; and 700 Gazan Christians were permitted to visit the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Separately, the Israeli cabinet discussed (12/18) a possible 40% increase in the number of work permits granted to West Bank Palestinians, a move that would increase the current number of permits from 56,000 to 78,000. The plan, designed in part to relieve the labor shortage in Israel’s construction industry, did not move forward, however. Meanwhile, the Islamic Waqf, which administers Haram al-Sharif, announced (12/31) that 2016 set a new ceiling in terms of the number of right-wing Jewish activists’ entry to the sanctuary, with a total of 14,806 infractions; there were 2,856 such “visits” in 10/2016, alone, the highest monthly figure for all of 2016.

Maintaining Stability

Amid persistent rumors about the weakness of the PA, and ahead of Pres. Abbas’s projected retirement (see “Intra-Palestinian Dynamics” below), the Israeli authorities took 2 major steps this quarter to shore up PA institutions and preserve the status quo established by the Oslo Accords.

First, the IDF’s COGAT Yoav Mordechai signed (1/15) an agreement with PA Min. of Civil Affairs Hussein al-Sheikh to restart the Joint Water Comm., which the Oslo Accords established to oversee water and sanitation issues in the oPt. The Palestinians have refused to take part since 2010, arguing that Israel was using the comm. to secure Palestinian approval for projects serving the West Bank’s settler population without approving sufficient projects for Palestinian communities. With the comm. dormant for several years, water scarcity and allocation issues have contributed to increasingly dire humanitarian conditions in the oPt as well as periodic crises (see “Hydro-Apartheid” in JPS 46 [1]’s Update). Under the latest 1/15 agreement, the comm. is to consider allocating additional water resources to the West Bank and Gaza and expanding the water supply with new drilling projects, as well as dealing with environmental issues, agricultural water use, and other matters. The agreement also gave the PA limited autonomy to deal with certain projects.

Second, the security cabinet granted (1/15) Israeli banks working with Palestinian banks immunity from terrorist-related lawsuits domestically and indemnity from suits filed abroad. With 2 Israeli banks reportedly threatening to end partnerships with Palestinian banks, fearing the prospect of litigation in the U.S., the cabinet offered them protection, purportedly strengthening the Palestinian commercial banking sector and averting shocks to the Palestinian economy.

Palestinian Prisoners

High-profile hunger strikes continued to galvanize the Palestinian public this quarter, but they did not result in Israeli policy changes. As brothers Muhammad and Mahmoud al-Balboul were being released from prison after high-profile strikes last quarter (see JPS 46 [2]), 2 other prisoners’ efforts caught the Palestinian public’s attention. Ahmad Abu Fara and Anas Shadid went on hunger strike on 9/25. By 12/11, they were refusing medical treatment at Assaf Harofeh Hospital nr. Tel Aviv. When Israel’s High Court of Justice rejected (12/12) an appeal for their release, Shadid and Abu Fara were “facing death,” according to the Palestinian Prisoners’ Society, and Abu Fara had lost sight in his right eye. “I appeal to human rights organizations in Israel and abroad, to the countries of the free world, to anyone who has a conscience, to help me so I may live,” Abu Fara said, in a statement recorded and transmitted to the media by MK Yousef Jabareen (Joint List), adding, “I’m dying and I don’t want to die.” The 2 prisoners began (12/13) refusing water in response to the court’s decision but reached an agreement with the Israel Prison Service 8 days later (12/21). They would end their strikes immediately (12/22) and go free following the renewal of their respective administrative detentions for 4 mos. A few weeks later, Palestinian journalist Muhammad al-Qiq was rearrested (1/15). Al-Qiq had ended a 94-day hunger strike against his administrative detention on 2/26/ 2016 (see JPS 45 [3, 4]), and after the Israeli authorities placed him under 6-mo. administrative detention, he began (2/6) a new hunger strike, setting the stage for another public campaign against Israeli targeting of Palestinian journalists.

Meanwhile, the total number of Palestinians in Israeli prisons decreased this quarter for the 1st time in a year. From 7,000 between 2/2016 through 12/2016, it dropped to 6,500 in 1/2017, according to the Palestinian prisoners’ rights NGO, Addameer. Likewise, the number of Palestinian administrative detainees dropped below 700 for the 1st time since 2/2016, to 536.

Settler-Related Violence

The incidence of settler-related violence decreased again this quarter, with 20 instances of Israeli settler attacks against Palestinians or their property between 11/15 and 2/6, down from 28 last quarter, according to OCHA. Of these, 9 led to Palestinian injuries and 11 resulted in damage to Palestinian property (see figure 2 and Chronology for details). Included in these figures are the 5 reported attacks on Palestinian olive groves (12/11, 1/12, 1/18, 1/20, and 2/6), which led to the uprooting or destruction of hundreds of trees.

Gaza’s Electricity Crisis

On 1/6, the administrators of Gaza’s sole power plant shut down 1 of its 2 operating generators because of a severe fuel shortage. This left most of Gaza’s 2 m. inhabitants with only 3 hours of electricity per day, exacerbating Gaza’s longstanding shortages and precipitating a crisis. According to the Gaza Electricity Distribution Corp. (GDEC), recent problems with power lines in the n. Sinai Peninsula were to blame for fluctuations in the number of megawatts Gaza received. But even prior to this, Israel and Egypt were providing only some 140 of the 600 megawatts needed to fully power Gaza. GDEC also indicated that because some of its customers were unable to keep up with their bills, the utility company was experiencing difficulties in securing sufficient fuel for the power plant. Unofficial sources were more candid about the true reasons for the crisis. The Palestinian Center for Human Rights charged (1/10) the “parties administrating [sic] the Gaza electricity sector” with lacking in any “real solutions.” Others blamed Hamas officials for allegedly funneling fuel to their cronies, and some blamed the PA for imposing high taxes. Observers on all sides agreed that the power plant had not been able to operate at full capacity for years because of the difficulty involved in acquiring sufficient resources under the Israeli blockade.

As the blackouts continued, the crisis took on an increasingly political turn. Thousands of Palestinians gathered (1/12) in protest across Gaza, blaming the blackouts on Hamas. Local police fired into the air to stop protesters in Jabaliya refugee camp (r.c.) from reaching GDEC offices, allegedly assaulted a number of journalists attempting to cover the event, and carried out violent raids in which they arrested at least 30 people reportedly responsible for organizing the demonstrations. The next day, Hamas released a statement blaming Abbas and the PA for “conspiring to cut electricity” in Gaza and organized a counterprotest in Jabaliya r.c. A Fatah spokesperson denied the accusation (1/13), saying that Hamas could not “escape the crisis it had caused.”

Before the crisis could spiral further out of control, Turkey and Qatar stepped in. On 1/14, a GDEC spokesperson announced (1/14) that Turkish pres. Erdoğan had offered to ship fuel directly to Gaza, and senior Hamas official Ismail Haniyeh confirmed (1/14) that the amount would be sufficient to run the power plant for 3 mos. The next day, PA PM Rami Hamdallah announced that Qatar had pledged $12 m. to cover fuel costs at the plant for an additional 3 mos. The 1st $4 m. tranche from Qatar arrived on 1/16, allowing the plant to turn on 3 of its 4 generators. Gaza then returned to its pre-crisis schedule of on/off power at 8-hour intervals.

But tensions over the precarious electricity situation lingered. On 2/12, the head of Qatar’s Comm. to Rebuild Gaza, Mohammed al-Amadi, outlined a 3-stage plan for resolving the problem. He called for: 1) settling the PA-Hamas dispute over payment of taxes on fuel for the plant; 2) reaching an agreement with Israel for the construction of a power line from Israel to Gaza; and 3) securing a long-term supply of gas for the plant. He also alluded to efforts to resolve the underlying issues, saying, “We proposed the establishment of a technical comm., free of politicians, that would be responsible for handling Gaza’s energy problem,” and blamed the PA for holding up such efforts. Fatah, for its part, rejected (2/12) al-Amadi’s accusations.

Demolitions and Displacement

For the 2d quarter in a row, Israeli forces demolished fewer Palestinian structures in the West Bank and East Jerusalem than they had in the preceding quarter. According to OCHA, between 11/15 and 2/6, the IDF destroyed 155 residences and other buildings—108 of them in Area C of the West Bank, 3 in Areas B and C, and 44 in East Jerusalem—down from a total of 267 the previous quarter. These demolitions displaced 161 Palestinians, a significant drop from the 382 displaced in the earlier period.

Israeli forces carried out only 1 punitive demolition of a Palestinian home this quarter. On 12/22, Israeli forces entered Kafr ‘Aqab, East Jerusalem, and destroyed the family home of the Palestinian man summarily executed on 10/9 for his alleged killing of an Israeli civilian and a police officer in East Jerusalem (see Chronology for details). The demolition sparked clashes in the village; 1 Palestinian youth was killed and several were injured.

While demolitions of Palestinian property may have been on the wane in the oPt, several high-profile demolitions of Palestinian property within Israel’s borders garnered significant attention. Home demolitions in the bedouin community of Umm al-Hiran and the Jerusalem-area village of Qalanswa elicited an international outcry that the Israeli govt. was discriminating against and targeting its Palestinian minority.

The demolitions exposed a festering source of tension between Israel’s Palestinian and Jewish communities stemming from the govt.’s infrequent approval of new zoning codes or permits for new housing to accommodate population growth in Palestinian communities. After Israeli forces demolished 11 homes built without the proper permits in Qalanswa on 1/10, the mayor of the town resigned in protest, explaining that he didn’t “have the power to change anything” and that people in the village had been trying for years to get the proper permits, to no avail. “People are forced to build illegally,” he said, and “now they are left without money, without life.” Adding insult to injury, the Qalanswa home demolitions reportedly stemmed from Netanyahu’s order to demolish unlicensed Palestinian structures in the context of his battle with right-wing coalition mbrs. over the illegal Amona settlement outpost (see “The Palestinian-Israeli Conflict” above). In response, the Higher Follow-Up Comm. for Arab Citizens of Israel (a representative body for PCI) called a general strike for 1/11.

In 2016, the High Court of Justice had rejected (1/17/2016) Umm al-Hiran’s appeal to avert Israeli govt. plans to demolish the village, pay the residents to move to a nearby municipality, and build a new Jewish settlement, dubbed Hiran, at the site. When the Israel Land Authority announced (11/21) that 2 homes and 8 other structures in the 60-year-old village were to be demolished within 24 hours, protesters descended on Umm al-Hiran from across the country, including Joint List MKs Ayman Odeh and Ghattas. An Israeli court postponed, but did not annul, the demolition (11/22), and Israeli demolition crews arrived 2 mos. later, early on 1/18, sparking clashes with protesters and residents. One bedouin and 1 Israeli police officer were killed and Odeh was injured (see Chronology and Photos from the Quarter for more). The Higher Follow-Up Comm. called (1/19) another general strike and Palestinian civil society groups donated (1/28) mobile residences to the families whose homes had been destroyed.

The demolitions gained international attention when Odeh published an op-ed in the New York Times on 2/11 highlighting Israel’s discriminatory policies, and pointing out the similarities between the “race-baiting tactics” of PM Netanyahu and U.S. pres. Trump. He argued that by enforcing “unjust land use and housing policies,” the Israeli govt., like Trump, was “bulldozing” democracy.

Ostensibly in response to the blowback, Israel’s cabinet approved (2/12) a NIS 3-b. (approximately $800 m.) plan increasing services to bedouin communities in the Negev, including the creation of 10 new industrial zones; strengthening enforcement of existing zoning regulations; and calling for the construction of 25,000 new housing units over 5 years. Sana Ibn Bari, a lawyer with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, argued (2/12) that the plan was just an extension of Israel’s discriminatory policies. Rather than involving the community in future plans, she argued, the govt. “are trying to force a strategy of concentrating the population in the existing townships.” Ibn Bari elaborated further, saying, “It’s clear the intention is to invest in the recognized settlements . . . to prepare infrastructure that . . . will absorb [bedouin] from the unrecognized villages. The 25,000 units . . . are almost certainly intended for the residents of the unrecognized villages [and] this means massive destruction [of homes] to force residents to relocate against their will to the townships.” (See Ahmad Amara’s article, “The Negev Land Question: Between Denial and Recognition” in JPS 42 [4] for more on the issue of so-called unrecognized villages in the Negev.)