Israel and the Palestinians may be on course for outright conflict amid a spate of violence that critics say is being fuelled by hardline ministers in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s latest coalition government. If not prevented by “responsible adults” in the Israeli cabinet, analysts said a massive outbreak of violence could seriously damage Washington’s efforts to normalise relations between its allies in the Middle East. Since the new administration took power in late December, 80 Palestinians and 14 Israelis have been killed in military or police raids and terrorist attacks mostly arising from confrontations between Jewish settlers and Palestinian residents in the occupied West Bank. Thousands march in Israel as Netanyahu allies push overhaul Senior officials from the US, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt and Jordan met at the Red Sea resort of Aqaba on February 26 to agree on measures to prevent a further escalation of violence. The meeting yielded a joint communique issued by the US State Department, which included an Israeli commitment “to stop discussion of any new settlement units for four months and to stop authorisation of any outposts for six months”. But it was immediately disowned by the Israeli government, which is pressing ahead with plans to amend domestic laws to accelerate the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The same night, some 400 Israeli settlers sought vengeance for the killing of two brothers by rampaging through the West Bank Palestinian village of Hawara, killing one person, injuring dozens and setting scores of cars and homes on fire. Major General Yossi Fuchs, the head of Israel’s military operations in the West Bank, described the incident as a “pogrom”, evoking a comparison with the historic persecution of European Jews. But Finance Minister Bezazel Smotrich, who is also the defence ministry’s minister responsible for civilian affairs in the West Bank, shocked the international community by calling for Hawara to be “wiped out” by the Israeli authorities. US State Department spokesman Ned Price called Smotrich’s comments “irresponsible, repugnant and disgusting”. Alongside their moves to displace thousands more Palestinians from territory seized from Jordan during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, Netanyahu’s extremist coalition partners are pressing him to approve Jewish rituals being conducted at Temple Mount in Jerusalem in early April, when Passover will coincide with Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting. Temple Mount houses both the Wailing Wall, the most sacred site in Judaism, and the Dome of the Rock, one of the most revered places in Islam. If the rituals go ahead, Israel’s diplomatic partners and analysts alike have warned that it could trigger the first Palestinian uprising, or Intifada, since 2005. “The coming months will likely witness more intense clashes between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers and Jewish settlers. If the Israeli government takes more provocative steps, for example changing the status of Al-Aqsa Mosque, then there will certainly be more bloodshed,” said Nur Arafeh, a research fellow at the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Centre, a think tank based in Beirut. This is “especially likely”, she said, because Israel’s police force is now under the authority of National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir , who last month gave orders to prepare for a sweeping security operation in Palestinian areas of the West Bank, similar to the one conducted during the second Intifada between 2000 and 2005. Israeli far-right minister visits contested Jerusalem holy site Ben-Gvir’s allies have appealed to the Israeli police, as they have done unsuccessfully every year, to get permission to perform rituals such as animal sacrifice, “which is related to their plan of building a Jewish temple in place of the Al-Aqsa mosque”, Arafeh said. “If Ben-Gvir agrees to such rituals, and intensifies use of lethal force against Palestinians, then severe clashes are to be expected and a new Intifada might break out and extend to Arab areas inside the 1948 borders” of Israel, she said. Ben-Gvir on March 6 ordered Israeli police to continue with the demolition of “illegally built” Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem during Ramadan, setting aside a long-standing police practice to defuse religious passions. But the holidays are “not themselves a driver, just a potentially exacerbating factor”, said Jonathan Panikoff, director of the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank. “The inability of Prime Minister Netanyahu to control far-right coalition members, and the Palestinian Authority leadership’s diminished control and authority in large swathes of the West Bank, are driving the potential for renewed, intense violence,” he said. Renewed violence and conflict between Israelis and Palestinians would lead to “increased criticism by Arab states across the region toward Israel”, he said, including by the half-dozen Arab states that have normalised relations with it. The United Arab Emirates, which developed relations with Israel following the 2020 Abraham Accords, has reportedly declined to host a visit by Netanyahu in protest. Middle East’s new BFFs? Israel-UAE ties grow as US calls for China rethink “They might also be inclined to recall their ambassadors as a public protest,” said Panikoff, who is a former US deputy national intelligence officer for the region. “Extensive and intense violence could lead to the temporary suspension” of the working groups of the Negev Forum, formed last year to advance ties between Israel and its Arab diplomatic partners, he said. However, “it’s unlikely that any of the countries that have normalised would at this point withdraw their recognition of Israel”, Panikoff said. Israeli analyst Nir Boms said he expects that “some measures of de-escalation will take place and that attempts, such as that we have seen at the Aqaba summit, will continue”. Neither Israel, nor Jordan or the Palestinian Authority will benefit from another round of extreme violence Nir Boms, Israeli analyst While the coalition government includes “a number of factions that may contribute to possible escalation, there are still a few remaining ‘responsible adults’ that understand the risks” of greater violence, he said. “Neither Israel, nor Jordan or the Palestinian Authority will benefit from another round of extreme violence and I assume that there will be more attempts to at least try and lower the height of the expected flames,” said Boms, a research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Centre for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University. The normalisation process between Israel and Arab nations was aimed – among other things – at achieving additional stability in the region and it “had a hope that it could also possibly improve relations between Israelis and Palestinians”, he said. But it will be “very difficult to make progress when violence is rampant on the streets and when the Palestinian arena is burning”, Boms said.