High Risk of Violence at Protests Over Israel and the Palestinians

As supporters of Israel and Palestine rally across the United States in response to the ongoing crisis, the risk of violence at demonstrations is high.

The violence in Israel and Gaza has already brought out demonstrators in force across the United States. This week, competing rallies took place in Boston, New York City, Tampa, and several other U.S. cities. With the exception of some punches thrown and other minor violence, demonstrations so far have otherwise remained peaceful. But some demonstrations may devolve into serious violence or be the target of planned attacks.

Violence at demonstrations in the United States has grown increasingly common over the past three years, according to data from the Center for Strategic and International Studies. In 2020 and 2021, 47 percent of all violent extremist incidents in the United States were linked to demonstrations, up from a mere 2 percent the year before. In 41 percent of those cases, demonstrators were the target of the violence, including at demonstrations linked to Black Lives Matter and anti-vaccine mandates. What explains this disturbing trend, and how might it manifest in demonstrations related to the unfolding events in Israel and Gaza?

Demonstrators light flares and wave Palestinian flags during a rally in support of Palestinians in Rome on Oct. 13.

Four possible causes stand out. First, the United States has experienced an increased number of large protest movements over the past three years. From 2020 to 2023, the United States experienced nine large protest movements, according to data from the Carnegie Global Protest Tracker. That’s up from just four large protest movements in the three years prior. To some extent, it is a matter of probability that an increased frequency of demonstrations creates more opportunities for violence to arise. Already, the events in Israel and Gaza have motivated a wave of protests across the United States. The number of demonstrations will continue to grow in the coming weeks and months, particularly as Israel’s response to the Hamas attacks unfolds and civilian casualties mount.

Second, the issue of Israel and Palestine is an increasingly polarizing topic. According to polling from March 2023, 31 percent of Americans feel more sympathy toward Palestine than Israel, the highest rate in history. Conversely, Americans with greater sympathy toward Israel than Palestine has declined in recent years, down to 54 percent in 2023. Such polarization can be expected to contribute to the presence of counterprotestors at demonstrations, which makes escalation possible. Younger generations, who are more likely to protest and are more prone to violence, are also the most evenly split demographic. 42 percent of millennials (born 1980-2000) sympathize more with Palestinians, compared to 40 percent who sympathize more with Israelis.

Third, the level of anger motivating demonstrators to take to the streets is particularly high. The long, complicated, and violent history of the conflict between Israel and Palestine creates sharp divisions between supporters of either side. Already this week, demonstrators in the United States have used violent rhetoric and engaged in acts of hate, short of violence. For many in the United States, reactions to the conflict are so severe because the events in Israel and Gaza directly impact the safety and security of family members and friends in the region. Following Israel, the United States has the second-largest Jewish population in the world.

Although exact figures on the number of Palestinian immigrants and refugees in the United States are difficult to determine, there are robust Palestinian communities in major cities across the country, including in New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles. When a strong-held belief linked to one’s identity comes into direct opposition with another, it can lead to the dehumanization of the other and the acceptance of violence as legitimate or necessary.

Fourth, the nature of the violence in the region and high visibility enabled by social media thickens the anger of demonstrators, increasing the risk of violence. Almost immediately following Hamas’ initial attack, horrific videos and images spread across the world on social media. In a world filled with cameras connected instantly by the internet, the violence committed by either side will continue to be broadcast to global audiences with little to no filter. At the same time, the popularity of social media, demand for information, and unreliability of internet sources increases the spread of potentially escalatory misinformation. The world is likely to witness in unprecedented detail a bloody protracted conflict in the region, increasing the risk of sustained and highly emotional demonstrations in the United States all the more susceptible to devolve into violence as a result.

It is also worth noting that in addition to the risk of escalation between opposing groups at demonstrations, these four factors also contribute to the increased risk of a planned attack targeting demonstrators. In June 2020, police arrested a 26 year old man who plotted to attack Black Lives Matter protestors using improvised explosive devices. In cases where a radicalized individual or group may be planning an attack, demonstrators with opposing ideological views in open public spaces make an appealing target. Other targets, however, such as religious places of worship, are traditionally at higher risk of a premediated attack during times of increased tensions.

Supporters of Israel or Palestine are not uniquely prone to engaging in violence at demonstrations. During the 2014 Gaza War between Israel and Hamas, demonstrations took place across the world in support of either side. In the United States, violence broke out at some of these demonstrations, though serious incidents were largely avoided. The risk of violence should also not be manipulated to suppress the right of Americans to demonstrate. Rather, law enforcement and demonstrators alike must be aware of the increased risk of violence when demonstrations are frequent, polarizing, highly emotional, and fueled by images of violence. Already, law enforcement across the country is mobilizing to provide additional security at demonstrations, as well as at synagogues and mosques. It will take political leaders and participants on both sides who are determined to preserve peace at demonstrations to ensure that the United States remains safe for those expressing their political beliefs.

Riley McCabe is a research assistant and program coordinator for the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.

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