Quarterly Updates for (16 May 2017 — 15 Aug 2017)

The flare-up of violence in response to the new Israeli security measures at Haram al-Sharif in 7/2017 led to the first significant quarterly increase in the number of Palestinian and Israeli casualties in over a year. Overall, 38 Palestinians were killed as a result of Israeli actions (up from 21 last quarter), and 6 Israelis were killed as a result of Palestinian actions (up from 1 last quarter). Therefore, the comprehensive death toll since the beginning of the 2d Intifada in 9/2000 reached 10,957 Palestinians (including 64 Palestinian citizens of Israel and 19 cross-border “infiltrators”); 1,266 Israelis (including at least 249 settlers and 437 IDF soldiers and other security personnel); and 73 foreign nationals (including 2 British suicide bombers). These numbers include individuals who died in noncombat-related incidents if their death was a direct result of Israel’s occupation or the ongoing conflict (e.g., ailing Palestinians who died because they were denied access to medical care, and Palestinians killed in smuggling tunnel accidents). These figures do not include the 3 Palestinians killed this quarter in clashes with Egyptian forces in the n. Sinai Peninsula (5/18 and 6/2 [2]), ailing Gazans who succumbed to medical complications as a result of the PA’s refusal to fund their medical transfers (see “IntraPalestinian Dynamics” below), or the 2 Jordanians killed by an Israeli security guard outside the Israeli embassy in Amman on 7/23 (see “Jordan” below).

Overview of the Violence

The number of Palestinians killed as a result of Israeli actions in the West Bank and East Jerusalem increased this quarter. With the Palestinian prisoners’ mass hunger strike (see Palestine Unbound and Update on Conflict and Diplomacy, JPS 46 [4], for more on the “Dignity Strike”) concluding in 5/2017 and unrest erupting in Jerusalem in 7/2017, widespread protests, clashes, and individual, random attacks spread across the oPt. Twenty-nine Palestinians were killed (up from 12 last quarter), including 19 in 7/2017 alone; 14 died of wounds sustained in clashes with Israeli forces, 14 were killed after committing or allegedly committing stabbing, shooting, or ramming attacks on Israelis, and 1 was killed after accidentally detonating a piece of unexploded Israeli ordnance. The number of Palestinian injuries also spiked. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 1,794 Palestinians were injured between 5/16 and 8/14 (up from 724 last quarter), of whom 1,516 were injured at the height of the Haram al-Sharif access crisis between 7/18 and 7/31 alone.

Although the West Bank and East Jerusalem remained the epicenter of tension and violence this quarter, there were intermittent border clashes and protests in the Gaza Strip over the new Israeli security measures at Haram al-Sharif. However, fewer Palestinians were killed as a result of Israeli actions in Gaza this quarter (6, down from 7 last quarter): 3 died in clashes with the IDF along the border (6/6, 6/9, and 7/28); a senior Hamas military officer was fatally injured in an explosion at a “resistance site” on 6/7; 1 woman died (8/8) of cancer after the Israeli authorities denied her a permit to travel to Jerusalem for treatment; and a child died (7/29) of Ekiri syndrome, a complication of shigellosis infection, which he contracted while swimming in the polluted waters off Gaza’s coast (see “Gaza Electricity Crisis” below). On the other hand, the number of Palestinians injured in Gaza as a result of Israeli actions increased considerably this quarter: there were 162 reported injuries between 5/16 and 8/14, according to OCHA, up from 13 last quarter.

Meanwhile, Gaza saw fewer incidents of cross-border violence this quarter. Gazan fighters and the IDF exchanged fire on only 3 days this quarter (6/26, 7/23, and 8/8), down from 9 last quarter. These exchanges followed a familiar pattern: after 1 or 2 rockets were fired into s. Israel, causing minimal damage, if any, the IDF launched air strikes or fired artillery at Hamas military sites across the territory. On 6/26 and 7/23, IDF strikes damaged Hamas sites. IDF air strikes in n. Gaza on 8/8 caused 4 Palestinian injuries (see Chronology for details).

As in previous quarters, the IDF strictly enforced the unilaterally defined buffer zone, so-called Access Restricted Areas, along Israel’s border with Gaza. Israeli soldiers violently dispersed Gazan protesters gathering along the border fence on 16 different occasions, up from 3 last quarter; they fired on shepherds, farmers, and bird-hunters 6 times (5/22, 5/29, 6/11, 6/17, 7/10, and 7/13); and fired on Palestinian land or other property 6 times (5/22, 5/24, 6/4, 6/14, 6/28, and 7/26). Israeli forces also conducted 16 limited incursions to level land in Gaza (6/1, 6/4, 6/5 [2], 6/12, 6/19 [2], 6/22, 6/28, 7/3, 7/6, 7/22, 7/25, 7/26, 8/3, and 8/14), and arrested 6 Gazans attempting to cross into Israel for work or for allegedly intending to carry out attacks on Israelis (6/12, 7/1, 7/9 [2], 7/24, and 8/6).

The temporary expansion of the fishing zone off Gaza’s s. coast did nothing to reduce Israel’s violent enforcement of the zone’s boundaries this quarter (see “Movement and Access” below). Matching the total from last quarter, Israeli naval forces opened fire on or otherwise confronted Palestinian fishermen on 52 separate occasions. Over the course of these incidents, 3 fishermen were injured (5/30 and 7/16 [2]), up from 2 last quarter, and 2 were arrested (8/11 [2]), down from 14 in the previous quarter. On 1 noteworthy occasion, IDF troops stationed at a coastal watchtower nr. Jabaliya r.c. opened fire on Palestinian fishermen working along the water line on the far side of the boundary; 1 fisherman was injured.

Movement and Access

A handful of major Israeli policy changes affected Palestinian movement and access in the Gaza Strip this quarter. On 8/1 COGAT imposed a ban on Gazans carrying laptop computers, hard-shell suitcases, shampoo, or toothpaste across the border into Israel, citing security concerns. The following week, COGAT announced (8/7) that “businessmen and [other Palestinians from East Jerusalem] who want to help improve the economy, infrastructure, and humanitarian conditions in the Gaza Strip” would be allowed to visit Gaza. No more than 150 people at a time would be allowed to enter, and the Israeli authorities would evaluate on a case-by-case basis who met the criteria of “want[ing] to help.” Finally, as mentioned above (see “Overview of the Violence”), COGAT reduced the fishing zone off Gaza’s coast to 6 naut. mi. on 6/27, almost 2 mos. after expanding it to 9 naut. mi. on 5/3. The PA Ministry of Agriculture reported that the expansion had significantly increased both the quality and quantity of the catch in 5–6/2017.

Although the PA slashed its financial support for Gaza in an effort to put pressure on Hamas this quarter (see “Intra-Palestinian Dynamics” below), the Ministry of Transportation announced (6/1) that it planned to open, on 6/20, the application process for commercial trucks from the West Bank to enter Gaza in an effort to strengthen the local economy. According to OCHA, the volume of goods entering Gaza did not change significantly after the new rule went into effect. In 7/2017, 10,889 truckloads of goods entered Gaza, marking a 12% increase over the monthly average so far in 2017 (see figure 1).

Also of note: The Israeli press reported (8/10) that the IDF was planning a $1.1-b., 2-year project to build a new underground wall around Gaza in an effort to further stymie Hamas’s tunneling strategy. Senior IDF officers said the wall was set to include an aboveground section standing approximately 20 ft. tall, and that the underground section would plunge to 130 ft., and include advanced sensors to detect tunnel activity. A Hamas spokesperson downplayed (8/10) the significance of the project: “Judging from experience, the resistance will find a way to overcome these obstacles.”

The Egyptian authorities kept the Rafah border crossing closed for all but 2 days this quarter (8/14–15), down from 8 last quarter (see “Egypt” below). The crossing was open only to Muslims performing Hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca) leaving only a few hundred Gazans able to exit.

As in previous quarters, nr.-daily IDF raids, house searches, and mobile checkpoints hampered Palestinian movement and access in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. According to OCHA, the number of raids increased as the quarter went on, with more than 390 reported in 7/2017, the mo. that new Israeli security measures went into effect at Haram al-Sharif (the monthly average in 2016 was 190). In addition to the new security measures at the sanctuary and the increased number of raids, the Israeli authorities added further restrictions to their arsenal. Following the 7/14 attack in the Old City, they instituted a de facto ban on visits to Haram al-Sharif by residents from the attackers’ hometown of Umm al-Fahm. Although the measure was never officially announced, Israeli forces blocked a group of residents from entering on 7/29 and turned 4 busloads of worshippers back to Umm al-Fahm on 8/8.

After the unrest had largely dissipated, the Israeli authorities began a new program to ease restrictions on certain Palestinians. They disseminated (8/14) leaflets in Hebron offering residents who were banned from entering Israel to apply for their bans to be lifted, on the condition that they “behave.” The offer was available for 1 day only, 8/15. When reports of the leaflets hit the press, the IDF disclosed that it had already tested out the program the previous week in Idhna, and that 52 bans had been lifted as a result. As an IDF statement explained (8/14), “these campaigns are part of the security forces’ efforts to help peaceful Palestinian residents who do not partake in terror attacks.” Although the program was a boon for a small number of Palestinians, a PA official in Hebron complained (8/14) that it was “nothing but an Israeli attempt to circumvent [PA pres. Abbas’s] decision to halt security coordination with Israel” (see “The PalestinianIsraeli Conflict” above). The official also noted that the Oslo Accords “ban Palestinians from dealing with Israel directly.”

As in previous years, the Israeli authorities eased restrictions on Palestinian movement during Ramadan (5/26–6/24). COGAT announced (5/21) that it would be: requiring Palestinian males between the ages of 12 and 40 to acquire a permit to pray at Haram al-Sharif; extending hours and expanding facilities at various border crossings to accommodate the crowds; issuing up to 500 permits for West Bank Palestinians to fly abroad to visit family; permitting up to 200,000 West Bank Palestinians to visit family in Israel (these were among the permits revoked on 6/16; see “The Palestinian-Israeli Conflict” above); allowing up to 100 elderly Gazans to visit Haram al-Sharif every Friday during Ramadan; and issuing up to 300 permits for “special groups” of Gazans, including unions and employees of international organizations, to visit the sanctuary throughout the mo.

The only other significant change in access and mobility happened in the context of the U.S.-led peace initiative (see “The PalestinianIsraeli Conflict” above). After the Israeli cabinet announced (5/21) plans to open the Allenby border crossing more frequently, COGAT later confirmed (6/10) that, beginning on 6/20, the crossing would be open 24 hours per day, 5 days a week. The extension was scheduled to end on 9/10 and resume at some point in the summer of 2018. “The decision is intended to be permanent and will serve the residents during the summer mos. during which there is a rise in the number of crossings,” Mordechai added (6/10).

Maintaining Stability

Under pressure from the U.S., and amid renewed rumors of Abbas’s imminent departure from politics (see “Intra-Palestinian Dynamics” below), the Israeli govt. continued its efforts to shore up PA institutions and uphold the status quo established by the Oslo Accords.

The Israel Electric Corporation (IEC) and the PA signed (7/10) an agreement setting new parameters for Israel’s supply of power to the West Bank at the inauguration of a new electricity substation in Jenin. It built on their previous (9/3/16) agreement (see JPS 46 [2]), to administer the repayment of outstanding Palestinian debts and transfer control to the PA of the power lines supplying major West Bank towns.“Israel is interested in improving the Palestinian economy, and here we have a project that is beneficial for both parties,” said Israel’s energy minister Yuval Steinitz. “It will provide Palestinians with greater electricity at a more consistent rate, and it’s good for Israel because it guarantees . . . that the additional electricity to the Palestinians will not fall on the [IEC’s] shoulders.” PA PM Rami Hamdallah, who cut the ribbon with Steinitz, said (7/10) that the new agreement was “pivotal to enhance our independence so we can meet the growing needs of our people in the electricity sector.” According to the IEC, the new substation was capable of transmitting 135 additional MW of electricity purchased from Israel to the n. West Bank. Three more substations are set to open nr. Ramallah, Nablus, and Tarqumiyya by the end of 2017.

Days after the opening ceremony, U.S. special rep. Greenblatt announced (7/13) that the Israeli govt. and the Palestinians had reached an agreement to cooperate on a new water infrastructure project related to the planned Red Sea-Dead Sea pipeline, which they first agreed to in 12/2013 (see JPS 43 [3]). Under the new agreement, Israel would sell up to 33 m. m3 of surplus water per year to the Palestinians at a reduced rate. The Trump admin. was eager to take credit for the deal, given Greenblatt’s role in announcing it, and Greenblatt himself said it was a “harbinger of things to come.”

Finally, Hamdallah and Israeli finance minister Moshe Kahlon agreed (5/30) to expand the PA’s authority in certain Israelicontrolled areas of Area C of the West Bank. According to a PA spokesperson, they agreed on the “cessation of home demolitions under the pretext of not being licensed” and the establishment of an industrial zone nr. Tarqumiyya, and also finalized the details regarding the Allenby Bridge border crossing (see “Movement and Access” above). A COGAT statement later in the day confirmed only that “Israeli enforcement policies in specific defined areas [of Area C]” would be “adjusted,” and that it had been agreed to upgrade facilities and expand hours at certain border crossings in the West Bank.

Gaza’s Electricity Crisis  

The electricity crisis in Gaza, which began in 1/2017 (see JPS 46 [3, 4]), became a fullfledged catastrophe this quarter, with intraPalestinian tensions exacerbating an already dire situation. As the quarter opened, Gaza’s sole power plant had been shut down for 5 weeks due to lack of fuel. Most Palestinians in Gaza were receiving as little as 4 hours of electricity per day, according to OCHA. “These . . . levels of electricity have a grave impact on the supply of safe drinking water, on the treatment and management of sewerage, on the availability of health services, on businesses, on schools, and much more,” OCHA reported (5/20).

COGAT recommended (5/25) that Israel acquiesce to the PA’s 4/27 request to reduce its supply of electricity to Gaza (see JPS 46 [4]). The PA had been paying Israel NIS 40 m. (approximately $11 m.) per mo. in exchange for 120 MW to be transferred to Gaza, and the Palestinian leadership was now requesting a 40% reduction. Despite Mordechai’s recommendation, it was unclear whether the Israeli govt. would agree. Further deterioration of conditions in Gaza had the potential of sparking unrest and violence, and at least 1 senior Israeli official, Steinitz, opposed the move on the grounds that it constituted an intervention in intra-Palestinian politics. The security cabinet ultimately approved the requested reduction on 6/11, and the Israeli authorities began implementing it on 6/19. Between these cuts and the power plant shutdown, Gaza was receiving only a tiny fraction of the 450–500 MW needed in mid-6/2017.

Meanwhile, tensions between Hamas and the Fatah-dominated PA in Ramallah impeded efforts to address the electricity crisis. Days after Mordechai recommended the reduction, the dep. chair of the Hamas-run energy authority in Gaza, Fathi Khalil, insisted (5/28) that all of the PA’s stipulations for ending the impasse had been met, including more rigorous bill collection and the appointment of a nonpartisan comm. to monitor the energy authority’s performance. (These steps were reportedly PA prerequisites for tax exemptions on purchases of fuel for Gaza’s power plant.) The Ramallah-based Energy and Natural Resources Authority denied (5/29) making such stipulations and insisted that the only resolution to the crisis would be the PA’s assumption of control in Gaza, after which the Gaza Electricity Distribution Company (GEDCO) would begin transferring the revenues collected from Gazans’ electricity bills to the PA, allowing “the [Ministry of Finance] to buy the fuel needed to run the only power plant in Gaza and [to restructure] the GEDCO.”

Hamas’s overtures to the Egyptian govt. further complicated the situation (see “Egypt” below). Shortly after a Hamas delegation returned from Cairo, a source close to the movement said (6/20) that the Egyptians had agreed to sell Hamas enough diesel fuel to enable Gaza’s power plant to resume operations for a limited period. Some 1 m. L of fuel were shipped into Gaza from Egypt on 6/21, and another 1 m. on 6/22, providing the plant with enough fuel to run for several days, according to GEDCO. However, clashes that broke out between the Egyptian army and the armed insurrection in the Sinai on 7/7 interrupted the shipments. By that time, the PA had intervened. According to Gaza’s energy authority on 7/8, “[the PA] stopped all the financial transactions through Palestinian banks to Egypt to buy fuel” on 7/6. A PA spokesperson refused (7/8) to comment directly on the allegation, but did say, “The main reason for the worsening situation in Gaza is Hamas” because they “rejected” Abbas’s initiative to end the split between Palestinian factions.

The energy authority in Gaza reportedly found alternative means of paying for the Egyptian fuel transfers, and limited transfers resumed on 7/10 allowing the power plant to resume operations intermittently through the end of the quarter. However, the Egyptian fuel supplies were insufficient to meet the overall shortages.

Sewage, in particular, became a dire problem. According to the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, 73% of Gaza’s beaches were polluted with untreated sewage in 7/2017, partly because the local sewage treatment plants did not have enough power to operate at full capacity. Although Gaza’s seawater pollution problem predates the electricity crisis, the water treatment plants’ shutdown reportedly caused a 23% increase in pollution at the beaches since 4/2017. The massive pollution problem had wide-ranging effects of its own, not the least of which was the death of a 5-year-old child on 7/29. The boy died of Ekiri syndrome, a complication of shigellosis, an infection commonly contracted through a fecal-oral route, 10 days after swimming at one of Gaza’s polluted beaches.* The sewage problem was so severe that Israel’s Health Ministry was forced to shut down (7/5) beaches in s. Israel due to excessive bacterial and fecal pollution levels just n. of the boundary with Gaza.

Despite numerous international efforts to mediate the intra-Palestinian impasse, Gaza’s electricity crisis continued through the end of the quarter.

Palestinian Prisoners

The mass hunger strike by Palestinian prisoners, which Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti launched on 4/17, drew to a close less than 2 weeks into this quarter after galvanizing the Palestinian public throughout last quarter (see JPS 46 [4]). Following 20 hours of talks, the Israel Prison Service (IPS) reached (5/27) an agreement with the strike leaders, the International Comm. of the Red Cross (ICRC), and the PA to end the strike. No details of the agreement were officially made public, but the press reported that prisoners had secured major concessions, including greater access to telephones, the return of sick prisoners to a newly refurbished prison hospital, improved conditions for imprisoned minors, new sports equipment in prison yards, and more family visits. This last concession, in particular, was a key victory. Family visits had been a point of contention since the ICRC decreased the number of monthly visits it facilitated from 2 to 1 in 5/2016 (see JPS 46 [1]). Barghouti celebrated the victory on 5/30 with a statement calling the strike a “turning point” in the prisoners’ relationship with the Israeli authorities. The IPS denied even negotiating with the prisoners, let alone making any concessions. Israeli authorities only acknowledged that the ICRC was going to facilitate more visits, adding that the change stemmed from a separate agreement between the ICRC and the PA.

In the wake of the strike, Israeli authorities reneged on at least 1 of their reported concessions. According to the Ma‘an News Agency and to WAFA, the PA’s official news agency, Israeli forces turned back (7/2) 8 Palestinian families from Hebron on their way to visit incarcerated relatives. The prisoners concerned had all taken part in the strike at Nafha Prison, and the Israelis revoked (7/3) all 37 of the families’ entry permits. The IPS did not comment, and it was unclear whether the move reflected a new policy, a one-off denial, or if it would affect the families of all prisoners who participated in the strike.

Also of note: Hamas accused (6/29) the Israeli govt. of suspending the family visitation rights of Hamas-affiliated prisoners from Gaza. The IPS didn’t comment on the allegation, but an ICRC spokesperson reported (7/10) that only 14 Palestinians had been allowed to visit imprisoned relatives that day, down from 80 the previous week. It was unclear why the Hamasaffiliated prisoners were being targeted, but suspensions were concurrent with reports of indirect Hamas-Israel negotiations on a possible prisoner swap (see “Prisoner Swap” below), leading to speculation that the two were connected.

Prisoner Swap

Ever since Israel’s 50-day war on Gaza in the summer of 2014 (see JPS 45 [1–3]), there have been periodic reports and rumors of talks between Hamas and Israel about a prisoner swap. As at this writing, Israel seeks the return of the remains of 2 IDF soldiers who died during the fighting and of 2 Israeli civilians who had strayed into Gaza afterwards, while Hamas is intent on the release of the greatest number possible of Palestinians in Israeli custody. In late 6/2017 and early 7/2017, reported talks were apparently inconclusive.

The first reports emerged on 6/26 when Israel’s Channel 1 relayed that an unnamed third party, widely assumed to be Egypt, was mediating a new round of talks, and that these had moved forward since Hamas’s incoming deputy leader, Yahya Sinwar, led a delegation to Cairo on 6/4–12. A couple of weeks later, the Lebanese newspaper Al-akhbar reported (7/8) that the 2 sides were close to a preliminary confidence-building agreement ahead of a broader deal. Prior to the 2011 prisoner swap, when Israel freed 1,027 Palestinians in exchange for the release of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit (see JPS 41 [2]), Hamas and Israel had followed a similar process, with Hamas providing a video showing that Shalit was alive in exchange for Israel releasing 25 female Palestinian prisoners. A senior Hamas official downplayed (7/8) the latest reports, however: “In recent times there have been several attempts to mediate between Israel and Hamas about the prisoners. However, we made it clear that we do not intend to start negotiations until the 58 prisoners from the Shalit deal who were freed and rearrested are released.” Israel was only willing to discuss the release of 27 of these prisoners, according to 2 Palestinian sources.

The 7/8 report prompted the Israeli govt.’s first official response. DM Lieberman confirmed (7/9) that indirect talks were ongoing and that various parties were involved “such as Egypt and others,” but he reaffirmed that the Israeli govt. had “no intention of ever holding direct negotiations with the murderers in Hamas.”

After delegations from both sides met in Cairo in mid-7/2017, Al-akhbar reported (7/19) that Israel had put forth a new proposal: in exchange for video proof of the condition of Israeli civilians allegedly being held in Gaza, Israel offered to release a number of Palestinian women, children, and parliamentarians. However, Hamas had reportedly already rejected the offer. Various sources close to the talks said that while they had made progress, it was unclear how close they were to an actual agreement by the end of the quarter.

Settler-Related Violence

There were 33 recorded incidents of settlerrelated violence in the West Bank and East Jerusalem between 5/16 and 8/14, down slightly from 34 last quarter, according to OCHA. Settlers damaged Palestinian homes or other property in 15 instances while the other 18 led to Palestinian injuries (see figure 2 and Chronology for details). There was 1 major incident of Palestinian violence against Israeli settlers. Omar al-Abed, a Palestinian from Kaubar village northwest of Ramallah, slipped (7/21) into the Halamish settlement late at night, stabbed 3 settlers to death, and seriously injured a 4th before an off-duty IDF soldier shot and injured him. Earlier in the day, al-Abed had stated in a Facebook post: “I’m going to die for al-Aqsa,” referencing the controversial new Israeli security measures at Haram al-Sharif (see “The Palestinian-Israeli Conflict” above).

 Demolitions and Displacement

Israeli forces demolished fewer Palestinian buildings in the West Bank and East Jerusalem this quarter than in the previous period. Continuing a yearlong trend, they destroyed 55 Palestinian structures between 5/16 and 8/14, according to OCHA, down from 73 last quarter (see Chronology for details), including 29 in the West Bank and 26 in East Jerusalem. Four of these demolitions were by way of collective punishment for Palestinian attacks on Israelis (8/10 [3] and 8/15). As a result of the decreased rate of demolitions, the number of Palestinians displaced also fell from 205 last quarter to 56 in the current quarter.