Israel’s Raids on Palestinian Cities: An Explainer
A closer look at the IDF operations that are intensifying violence in Israel/Palestine.
A Palestinian boy runs away from an Israeli military vehicle during a raid on the old city of Nablus in the occupied West Bank on February 22nd.
At 10:00 am on February 22nd, Israeli soldiers in armored vehicles invaded the crowded Old City of Nablus to carry out an arrest raid against three Palestinian fighters. Israel said without offering evidence that the targets were planning attacks on Israeli civilians, and that the purpose of the raid was to prevent these attacks from happening. The three wanted militants were part of the Lions’ Den, a new Nablus-based armed resistance group that draws members from a diverse array of Palestinian factions such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Fatah. One of the men had allegedly been involved in the killing of an Israeli soldier, who was shot last October while protecting a demonstration by Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank.
Over the course of the four-hour raid, the Israeli troops surrounded a home where the three wanted men had taken shelter. Palestinian residents threw stones at the invaders. Gunmen fired from inside the house. According to witnesses, the Israeli troops responded by firing indiscriminately, shooting up stores and destroying cars. The soldiers also reportedly blocked ambulances and rescue teams from reaching injured people during the fighting. By the end of the raid, Israeli soldiers had killed 11 Palestinians and injured over 100. Among the dead were at least six members of the Lions’ Den and at least four Palestinian civilians, according to a Reuters report. A widely shared video showed two apparently unarmed men running down a residential street and then falling to the ground as gunshots rang out. An Israeli army spokesman said the video footage was “problematic,” and that the army would investigate the incident.
The Nablus raid was the deadliest such operation for Palestinians in the West Bank since the UN began keeping records of casualties in 2005. The second-deadliest raid occurred only last month, on January 26th, when Israeli soldiers invaded the Jenin refugee camp and killed nine Palestinians. The Israeli army said “three terrorists” and three other “armed suspects” were killed in the Jenin raid. But the Palestinian human rights group Defense for Children International-Palestine showed that the army had killed two minors who were not involved in the fighting: 17-year-old Abdullah Mousa and 16-year-old Wasim Abu Jaes, the latter of whom was not only shot but run over by an Israeli military vehicle.
While the Nablus and Jenin raids resulted in unprecedented casualty tolls, such operations are a common feature of Israeli military rule in the occupied West Bank. The week after soldiers invaded Jenin, another deadly raid took place in the normally quiet city of Jericho, where Israeli forces killed five Palestinian members of the militant group Hamas. Such operations have dramatically increased in frequency since March 2022, when the army responded to a string of Palestinian attacks on Israelis by launching “Operation Breakwater,” a mission that consists of near-nightly raids on Palestinian cities and villages, and which remains ongoing a year later. Due in part to Operation Breakwater, 2022 was the deadliest year in the West Bank and East Jerusalem since 2004, with Israeli forces killing 146 Palestinians. According to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, at least 63 of the victims posed no imminent threat to the soldiers who killed them; the group said such shootings are “unlawful and immoral and cannot be justified.” In this same period, Palestinian militants killed 22 Israelis and three foreign nationals. This year is already on track to exceed the last in deadly violence. In the first two months of 2023, Israeli forces and settlers have killed over 60 Palestinians—an average of more than one per day.Jewish Currents put together this guide to help readers understand why Israel is conducting raids, how they are understood by both Israelis and Palestinians, and how they may be impacting the politics of Israel/Palestine.
Why is Israel conducting these raids?
The current surge in Israeli raids is tied to an increase in Palestinian attacks, and can be traced in particular to an especially deadly week last spring. On March 22nd, 2022, a Bedouin citizen of Israel killed four Israelis in the southern city of Be’er Sheva, stabbing three and running another over with his car. On March 27th, two Palestinian gunmen from Umm el-Fahm, the third-largest Palestinian city within Israel, shot two Israeli police officers dead in Hadera. The Islamic State claimed both of those attacks. Then, two days later, a Palestinian from the northern West Bank town of Ya’bad who was a member of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade shot and killed five Israelis in B’nei Brak. The attacks made for the single deadliest week in Israel since 2006.
In response, on March 31st, the Israeli army launched “Operation Breakwater.” An Israel Defense Forces (IDF) spokesperson told Jewish Currents that the goal was to “prevent terrorism before it reaches the Israeli home front.” The army began by arresting 31 Palestinians in overnight raids across the West Bank—some of whom the army said were tied to the B’nei Brak killings, and some of whom it claimed were planning future attacks targeting Israelis. The same night, the IDF also killed three Palestinians in Jenin, a city near Ya’bad known for its armed resistance to Israel’s occupation. IDF chief of staff Aviv Kochavi vowed that the operation would continue “as long as it takes in order to stop terrorism and allow Israelis to lead a normal life.” Naftali Bennett, the Israeli prime minister at the time, said he was granting “full freedom of action” to Israeli forces, with “no restrictions.”
While two of the three attacks that set off the operation were carried out by Israeli civilians, Breakwater has focused on the northern West Bank; according to Israeli military correspondent Yaakov Lappin, this is due to Israeli intelligence that indicated the existence of “multiple shooting terror cells plotting attacks from the West Bank.” While Israeli security forces did launch an “intensive offensive” around the same time against Palestinian citizens of Israel linked to the Islamic State, which had called on its followers to continue targeting Jewish Israelis, the number of people identified as militants within Israel has been far smaller than in the West Bank, according to former Israeli official Kobi Michael.
Who is the Israeli army targeting in these raids and what are the effects on Palestinian cities?
Raids typically target Palestinian militants who the army alleges are linked to past attacks against Israelis or involved in planning future assaults—including members of established political factions such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad as well as of a new generation of armed Palestinian groups, such as the Lions’ Den and the Balata Brigade in Nablus and the Jenin Brigades. Many of these younger militants have lost faith in the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) strategy of negotiating with Israel, which Palestinians hoped, with the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, would lead to an independent state. The new generation doesn’t “know the history of the Oslo Generation,” said Mariam Barghouti, the senior Palestine correspondent for the news website Mondoweiss, on the Rethinking Palestine podcast. “These are people who grew up in the 2000s, when the apartheid wall was being built. Now, it’s almost complete. So the agreements that were made before mean nothing to them. What means something is the reality on the ground.”
But Palestinian militants are not the only people killed in the raids. Last year, 42 of the 146 Palestinians killed in the West Bank and East Jerusalem were known or alleged to be armed when they were slain, according to B’Tselem; most of them had opened fire at Israeli forces or civilians. But B’Tselem found that at least 44 of those slain were killed despite them not posing a deadly threat to Israeli forces: Six Palestinians were killed while documenting or watching Israeli incursions into their communities, 21 were killed while throwing stones, and 14 were killed after attacking or trying to attack Israeli forces, but when “the danger they posed—if any—had passed, or when non-lethal means could have been used to thwart it.” In addition, three members of the militant group Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade were “executed” when, according to B’Tselem, Israeli police stood in the path of their car and fired dozens of bullets at the vehicle.
In their pursuit of militants, Israeli forces invade dense civilian neighborhoods within Palestinian cities, vastly increasing the number of casualties. “The Israeli army is using the city as a battlefield,” said Dror Sadot, a spokesperson for B’Tselem. “On this battlefield, we see that the army shoots without any notice, takes homes as places to shoot from, and uses the whole area—the streets—as if it’s theirs and there’s not a civilian population around.”
Such practices have instilled deep fear within Palestinian communities. “The raids are not that targeted. They often have civilian casualties. They are not conducting these raids in a way that demonstrates that they care about the civilian population,” said Dana El Kurd, an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Richmond. Barghouti agreed: “People are hyper-aware of the likelihood they could be killed at any moment,” she said, “whether from being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or because they were driving in the wrong direction and a soldier felt threatened, or in a settler invasion with the protection of the army.”
Not only do the raids impact entire neighborhoods, but they are often accompanied by widespread arrests: Israeli troops have arrested over 2,500 Palestinians over the course of Operation Breakwater. Palestinian analysts say that the crackdown amounts to a form of collective punishment of entire Palestinian communities. “When there’s a raid on Nablus, all of the villages around Nablus are affected,” said Sahar Francis, the general director of Palestinian prisoners’ rights group Addameer. Raids severely inhibit freedom of movement for Palestinian civilians. “Checkpoints become more restrictive,” she said. “It affects the ability to go to your daily workplace. If you need to go to the hospital, you’re stuck.”
How do Palestinians and Israelis view the raids?
Israeli officials and analysts say the raids are necessary to prevent attacks on Israeli civilians, and that they are targeted at Palestinian militants who pose an active threat. “The IDF’s counterterrorism activity is based on precise intelligence and ongoing situational assessments,” an IDF spokesperson said. “During those activities, various individuals suspected of carrying out security offenses were apprehended, and many illegal weapons and munitions were seized. In certain instances, intense exchanges of fire developed between IDF forces and terrorist operatives.” In addition, Israeli analysts have argued that the raids are occurring because the PA isn’t doing its part to dismantle armed groups, per its agreement to cooperate with Israel on matters of security.
Palestinians, however, say Israel’s justifications do not provide the full picture. “In the Israeli narrative, these raids are happening as a result of attacks,” El Kurd said. “But those attacks don’t happen out of the blue. They happen because there’s settlement expansion and settler impunity and assassinations in broad daylight,” she said. Francis agreed: “Israel’s violations—the house demolitions, land confiscation, checkpoints—are the main reason behind all the tension taking place.”
How do Israel’s raids impact the PA?
Many of the Palestinian urban centers targeted by Israeli raids—especially since the start of Operation Breakwater—are in “Area A,” the section of the West Bank that is supposed to be fully controlled by the PA under the Oslo Accords. By raiding these areas, Palestinian analysts say, Israel undercuts the standing of the PA. “[The raids] feed into an existing negative view of security coordination” between Israel and the PA, said Ghaith al-Omari, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former adviser to PA President Mahmoud Abbas. (Security coordination involves intelligence sharing and cooperation between the PA and Israel to halt Palestinian militant attacks against Israeli targets.) “It sends a message that the PA is completely powerless, and makes it look like it is complicit with the Israeli agenda. It undermines the basic legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority.”
Palestinian analysts say that this legitimacy crisis is only deepening as the occupation grows more entrenched—and as the construction of Jewish settlements on Palestinian land accelerates. “[The PA] no longer has the moral authority to say, ‘There’s some sort of [negotiation] process out there, there’s something working, so stick to that,’” said Diana Buttu, a Palestinian political analyst and former adviser to Abbas. This has led to the growth of new armed Palestinian groups like the Lions’ Den, as well as a recent increase in the proportion of Palestinians who support armed resistance.
In the immediate aftermath of the Jenin raid that killed nine people in late January, the PA announced that it was ending security cooperation with Israel. But many Palestinians viewed the move as a face-saving measure rather than a real policy shift. “People rolled their eyes,” said Buttu. In remarks to CIA director William Burns, Abbas reportedly said that the intelligence sharing aspect of security coordination with Israel continues despite the PA’s announcement. The remarks underscored Abbas’s perilous position: Despite its deep unpopularity with the Palestinian public, security coordination is “vital to the survival of the PA itself,” as Middle East Institute fellow Khaled Elgindy wrote in Foreign Policy. In exchange for the PA’s cooperation, Israel collects tax revenue on its behalf and allows it to receive shipments of weapons for its security forces. Security cooperation also helps secure hundreds millions of dollars annually in security aid and humanitarian aid from the European Union and the US. The US government is pressuring the PA to root out groups like the Lions’ Den and reassert control in northern West Bank cities like Nablus and Jenin. “PA–Israel security cooperation represents a lose-lose situation for Abbas,” wrote Elgindy. “To permanently cut security ties with Israel risks triggering sanctions and other punitive measures by Israel and, most likely, the United States—thus jeopardizing the PA’s very existence. On the other hand, continuing to cooperate with the Israeli military while the occupation grows more repressive and violent erodes what little domestic legitimacy Abbas has left.”
Despite US and Israeli pressure on the PA to dismantle armed Palestinian groups targeting Israel, the PA has largely refrained from doing so in recent months, according to al-Omari. For instance, it has largely halted its practice of arresting Palestinian militants in an effort to avoid confrontations with Palestinians who support them. In September, after the PA arrested two militants, Palestinian fighters opened fire on PA forces while Palestinian demonstrators pelted PA cars with stones. Al-Omari pointed out that the unpopularity of security coordination makes it difficult for the PA to play the role of enforcer. “When you feel that you don’t have political standing, it’s very hard to conduct security operations,” he said. “There’s the sense that if you engage in a security operation, you’re not only engaging with your targets, you’re engaging with the whole community.”
Have the raids succeeded?
The goal of the arrests and killings has been to stem the surge in Palestinian armed resistance. In August 2022, military correspondent Yaakov Lappin wrote that Operation Breakwater had resulted in “a plummet in the number of attacks within Israel and a significant drop in terrorism in the West Bank.” But while the number of attacks has gone down, according to Lappin, they haven’t completely halted. On Sunday, a Palestinian gunman shot and killed two Israeli settlers while they were driving in Huwara, a village near Nablus, on a road that both Palestinians and settlers use. The gunman was reportedly wearing a shirt with the insignia of the Lions’ Den, which had vowed to enact revenge after the deadly raid in Nablus. On Monday, a Palestinian gunman shot and killed an Israeli American near the city of Jericho.
Michael, a former Israeli official who served in Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs and a senior researcher at the Israeli think tank Institute for National Security Studies, acknowledged that the raids haven’t achieved their ultimate goal. “We’ve reached some significant achievements in the tactical and operational levels, but we haven’t succeeded in creating the strategic impact to stop or dramatically decrease the motivation of the Palestinians to continue terrorizing Israel,” he said. While the PA has demanded that Israel stop its incursions into Area A, Michael predicted that the raids would continue. “The PA is not capable and has no political will and legitimacy to do [the raids] instead of the IDF,” he said. “Someone has to do the job.”
Barghouti, the Palestinian journalist, told Jewish Currents that the army’s raids will only drive more Palestinian armed resistance. “These raids, extrajudicial assassinations, and mass killings will only provoke further confrontation that will try to match the intensity of Israel’s persistent abuses,” she said. Buttu said it’s no surprise Palestinians have turned to arms in their struggle for liberation from occupation: “Israel has denied Palestinians their freedom for more than seven decades. In the pursuit of freedom, Palestinians have the right to resist military rule.”