1 December 2023

7 min read

Vol 9, 2023 | Tug-of-war: the wider repercussions of the Israel-Hamas conflict

Global Risk Bulletin
A group of activists protesting for ceasefire

Following Hamas’s incursion into Israel, demonstrations in support of Israel and Palestine have taken place in Europe and North America, alongside attacks against Jewish and Muslim communities and businesses. As the conflict continues, escalating tensions could also encourage acts of violent extremism against Western targets, writes Shannon Lorimer.

Since the Israel-Hamas conflict began on 7 October, European and US citizens have engaged in widespread demonstrations demanding the release of hostages held by Hamas, and a ceasefire in Gaza. Many have rejected their politicians’ continued support of Israel’s government and its offensive in Gaza, which has resulted in strikes on civilian targets like schools and hospitals with severe humanitarian consequences. Amid rising tensions, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic incidents have also increased, prompting concerns that some governments’ perceived endorsement of Israel’s offensive could embolden radicalised individuals to stage more severe acts of violent extremism against people, businesses and government entities.

(Mostly) peaceful protests

Since 7 October, over 2,800 demonstrations relating to the conflict were reported in Europe and North America, with most pro-Palestine in nature. Tensions have run high in the US, UK, France, Germany, and other countries where governments have strongly supported Israel. Large pro-Palestine marches have occurred in Washington, DC, New York City and Oakland, where hundreds of thousands of activists have occupied federal buildings and corporate headquarters. London has also seen large pro-Palestine demonstrations pressuring Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to back calls for a ceasefire, including a historically large march in London in November, attended by 300,000 people.

Most protests, particularly those calling for a ceasefire, have been peaceful. However, authorities, including in France and the UK, have restricted and cracked down on pro-Palestine demonstrations over fears of disruptions and violence, particularly following former Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal’s call for a “day of jihad” in October, which encouraged Muslims to demonstrate in solidarity with Palestinians and denounce Israel’s actions in Gaza. These restrictions have prompted further outrage among Palestine sympathisers, as well as condemnation by London’s Scotland Yard and organisations like Amnesty International, who have warned against restricting civil liberties. Government efforts to stymie activism may yet encourage defiant unrest, driving further crackdowns and the potential for localised violence. In the US, police have already been criticised for using disproportionate force at non-violent demonstrations; around 90 people were reportedly injured in clashes with police outside the Democratic National Committee in Washington, DC, during peaceful calls for Democrats to support a ceasefire.

Businesses targeted in unrest 

While activists have mainly encouraged boycotts of Israeli companies and products, smaller groups have occasionally also targeted Jewish-owned businesses and companies with ties to Israel’s military in protest action and malicious damage:

UK: Kosher restaurants and businesses in London’s Golders Green district have been targeted in acts of theft and vandalism, while in Shenstone, activists damaged the roof of an Israeli-owned drone engine factory, alleging that the company cooperates with an Israeli arms manufacturer. In Bedfordshire, pro-Palestine groups blockaded a military aircraft firm for its provision of aircraft and supplies to Israel.

US: At the Port of Oakland, California, protesters attempted to delay the departure of a military vessel allegedly carrying weapons destined for Israel.

Escalating hate crimes

US and European authorities report that anti-Semitic and Islamophobic incidents targeting people, businesses and religious sites have spiked since the conflict began. France and Germany have seen more than 850 and 994 anti-Semitic acts respectively, while the US experienced a 388 percent year-on-year increase in anti-Semitic incidents compared to 2022. Muslim communities have been similarly affected; the Council on American-Islamic Relations received 774 reports of Islamophobic incidents between 7 and 24 October, increasing 182 percent from 2022. In a particularly violent incident in Illinois, a landlord targeted his Palestinian tenant and her son in a stabbing attack, killing the child and seriously injuring the mother. In France, a letter addressed to a mosque in Nantes threatened to burn mosques, Muslim businesses, and neighbourhoods.

Most incidents have manifested as intimidation, verbal assaults, and antagonistic online posts or graffiti. However, with fighting in Gaza and political rhetoric by radical politicians intensifying existing anti-Semitic and Islamophobic narratives across the US and EU, Jewish and Muslim communities will likely face greater exposure to sporadic violence during such incidents in the coming months.

Demonstrations in Europe and North America

Protest areas

1. CANADA On 17 November, more than 200 protesters clashed with police at the headquarters of a multinational bank in Toronto during a day of global protests in solidarity with Palestine.

2. FRANCE Despite the interior minister’s efforts to ban all pro-Palestine protests, demonstrations have continued. One of the largest demonstrations, a march in Paris, attracted around 15,000 participants on 22 October.

3. GERMANY 170 demonstrations took place in the first three weeks of the conflict, with more than a dozen turning violent in Berlin, and multiple clashes occurring between police and pro-Palestinian protesters.

4. THE NETHERLANDS  Authorities detained 19 activists who protested at the entrance to the International Criminal Court, denouncing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a war criminal.

5. UK  In London, on Armistice Day, a group of far-right counter-protesters clashed with police while “defending” the Cenotaph war memorial from a pro-Palestine demonstration calling for a ceasefire. Police also pursued and arrested members of far-right groups attempting to reach the march.

6. US  Demonstrators calling for ceasefires and an end to support for Israel’s military offensive have targeted several government buildings and private companies in protest action, mostly manifesting as occupations of lobbies and entrances. Targeted sites include the White House, the Ronald V. Dellums federal building in Oakland, California, the New York Times headquarters, and a multinational investment firm in New York City.

Deepening extremism?

As hate crimes proliferate, concerns have emerged that Western governments’ support for Israel, and suppression of pro-Palestine activism, could also drive intent among radicalised Islamic threat actors to escalate acts of violent extremism. Western authorities have warned of an elevated potential for extremist incidents, with FBI director Christopher Wray commenting that since October, “multiple foreign terrorist organisations have called for attacks against Americans and the West.” Already, in France, the stabbing of a teacher by a Chechen extremist in October has been labelled an act of ‘Islamic terrorism’ and linked to the Israel-Hamas conflict. In Belgium, on 16 October, a Tunisian extremist fatally shot two Swedish nationals and injured a third to 'avenge Muslims.' A week later, Belgian authorities arrested a Palestinian asylum seeker planning a suicide bombing in retaliation for Israel’s operations in Gaza, where the individual’s family remains.

Such incidents are isolated. However, frustrations among minority communities in the EU and US – particularly those with little perceived protection or sympathy from Western host governments – could elevate the opportunity for extremist groups like Islamic State and Al Qaeda to encourage self-radicalised individuals to attack Western targets over the coming months.

Tensions persist

The conflict in Gaza will continue to have wider repercussions in the West, with governments and their respective populations often diverging on the question of support for Israel’s government and its military campaign. Despite an increasingly restricted space for activism, demonstrations are unlikely to subside, and could in fact see escalating violence between protesters and security personnel at unauthorised events. With tensions running high, further acts of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are likely in the coming months, particularly as other pervasive societal fears like a perceived loss of civic culture, competition for government support and state benefits, or fears over safety feed into such sentiment.

As European and US authorities remain on high alert for potential extremist violence motivated by these dynamics, their counterterrorism capabilities to monitor and prevent planned attacks are substantial. Nevertheless, efforts to ensure societal functioning and public safety also have the potential to foster perceptions of exclusion and isolation among certain communities, creating fertile ground for radicalisation. As the conflict drags on, so will the ideological and political tug-of-war that has spilled over into security environments far beyond the Middle East.

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