Hard Questions, Tough Answers- West Bank Escalation (September 12, 2022)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q. More than 220 live fire attacks against the IDF and settlers in the West Bank have been thwarted this year. At least 85 Palestinians have been killed by the IDF response. Some 1,500 West Bank Palestinians have been detained by the IDF. The northern West Bank is erupting with violence. Another intifada? When will Israel wake up?

A. Apparently, Israel will not wake up to this reality anytime soon. The public is preoccupied with Iran and Knesset elections. The IDF successfully responded to terrorist attacks inside Israel last winter and spring by besieging the terrorists in the refugee camps of Jenin and Nablus in the West Bank (Operation Breakwater). That operation, which accounts for the statistics above, is ongoing. IDF casualties in the West Bank are low because soldiers often fire in towns and villages from inside armored vehicles.

So far the violence is largely contained in the West Bank. The public within Israel proper is barely aware of what is transpiring across the green line Israel-West Bank armistice line.

Q. IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi points the finger at Palestinian Authority and PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) for not enforcing law and order in the northern West Bank.

A. Abbas, 87, is in the twilight of his West Bank rule. He has avoided anointing a successor. He confronts the total absence of a peace process with Israel and general neglect on the part of the growing number of Arab countries that are at peace with Israel.

Israel’s prolonged policy--first under Netanyahu, but continuing under Bennett and Lapid--of treating the West Bank and Gaza as separate entities and ‘managing’ the conflict with economic carrots and sticks may work at times with the Gaza Strip, where Hamas has no aspiration to negotiate with Israel. But not in the West Bank, where settlement activity continues unabated and house demolitions by the IDF (of the homes of Palestinian terrorists) reportedly hit a record 111 in August alone.

Is there any wonder that Abbas wants a political process, and in its absence has little incentive to order his security forces to maintain order? The only major Israeli government minister who converses with him directly is Defense Minister Benny Gantz. And their conversations are limited broadly to security issues.

Israel is nevertheless offering West Bank Palestinians additional economic incentives. And it is trying to recruit Jordanian, Qatari and other Arab pressure on Abbas to tighten governance and security. He is resisting. Instead, he is falling back, not for the first time, on a default strategy of internationalization.

Abbas is exploiting the accidental shooting of popular TV journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, almost certainly by IDF forces operating around Jenin, to generate international criticism of Israel. He will soon be bringing the Palestinian issue once again to the United Nations General Assembly. He somehow believes that whipping up anti-Israel sentiment internationally can replace the stable leadership and governance strategy that he seems incapable of providing--or perhaps uninterested in providing.

Q. Who is behind the West Bank violence?

A. The vast majority of IDF encounters are with non-affiliated young Palestinian men from the refugee camps of Nablus and particularly Jenin--both traditional hotbeds of Palestinian nationalism going all the way back to the ‘Arab Revolt’ against the British Mandate in 1936-39.

Militant Islamist groups like Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad do not appear to be playing a central role. Palestinian fighters prefer the fame of TikTok to the anonymous discipline of an organized framework. This Palestinian spontaneity--no command structure, no obvious leaders to be either negotiated with or eliminated--renders the IDF’s task, as an occupying army, all the more difficult. (On the other hand, intelligence experts note, it also renders it more difficult for Iran to infiltrate this growing Palestinian struggle.)

One way or another, the IDF is more focused on the northern West Bank challenge than it should be or would like to be. Since the early spring of this year, IDF training exercises have been curtailed in favor of deploying forces and engaging in glorified police tasks in the West Bank.

In one extreme expression of the new situation, the task of accompanying and securing fervent Israelis on their monthly prayer visit to Joseph’s Tomb in the heart of hostile Nablus--a practice embedded in the Oslo Accords--now requires at least four IDF infantry battalions. A year ago only one battalion was required to deal with the aggressive Palestinian reaction to this perceived provocation.

Some IDF commanders in the West Bank identify strongly with the West Bank settlers and settlements that are on the front line of the current violence. That this is the case constitutes a thought-provoking statement about increasing national-religious influence in IDF higher ranks. Still, other commanders emphasize that their preventive and preemptive actions in Jenin and Nablus are in effect keeping lone-wolf attackers from entering and attacking Israel as they did last winter.

Q. Meanwhile, violence continues at a frightening pace among Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel. Given close proximity and commercial and family connections, is this linked to West Bank Palestinian violence?

A. Violence within the Arab communities of Israel is family- and gang-oriented for the most part. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not directly at issue and one can only speculate about the extent that Arab violence in Israel is influenced at the societal level by the conflict. Certainly the fact that all Jews and all Arabs between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea are on a slippery slope, sliding toward some sort of conflicted bi-national entity, explains to some degree the violence and tensions afflicting their lives.

Here we recall that in May 2021, a mini-war with Hamas in Gaza was accompanied by Arab-Jewish violence inside Israel’s mixed cities. More recently, the terrorist attacks last winter inside Israel--in Tel Aviv, Hadera and Bnei Brak--were initially the work of Arab citizens of Israel. Certainly, one definite area of commonality concerns much of the weaponry used by Arab citizens of Israel. It is smuggled in from the West Bank and in some cases from Jordan via the West Bank. In other words, most of the weaponry comes from the same sources.

So far in 2022, Arab Israelis have killed 75 other Arab Israelis in gang violence and settling of accounts. Prime Ministers Bennett and Lapid, whose succession of governments beginning in April 2021 pledged to curb the violence by augmenting enforcement and budgetary allotments, can actually point to modest progress this year compared to last.

Still, the Arab violence statistics are daunting. One key to further progress in curbing the violence will be continued participation in the next governing coalition by the Arab-Islamist Raam party, which prioritizes this issue and refuses to engage in Israeli-Palestinian conflict-politics. But first Raam has to pass the four-mandate threshold, meaning persuade Arab voters in Israel, and then it has to persuade Jewish coalition partners.

Q. Bottom line?

A. On Sunday, Shin Bet head Ronen Bar warned publicly that Israel’s enemies, led by Iran, are closely following the growing fragmentation of Israeli society and drawing encouragement from it. A fragile right-center-left Israeli governing coalition (Bennett, Lapid) that does not dialogue with the Palestinians lest the coalition fall apart, thereby encouraging Palestinian violence, is a major manifestation of this painful fragmentation. So is the violence within Arab society in Israel.

Anyone who believes the violence can long be confined to the northern West Bank and to Arab towns in Israel is mistaken.