Will Netanyahu’s Pyromaniac Allies Burn the West Bank?

Israel’s incoming government seems likely to escalate the already alarming violent instability in the West Bank.

Senior Israeli security officials are reportedly warning the politicians – both outgoing but mostly incoming – of further decline in the security situation in the West Bank, urging restraint and self-discipline.

Well, good luck to anyone trying to restrain and discipline Itamar Ben-Gvir, Bezalel Smotrich and their fellow travelers, as well as thousands of Israeli soldiers policing the West Bank, who see the November 1st election results as a license to brutalize Palestinians and Israeli anti-occupation activists.

Official IDF data released this week indicates how serious the security deterioration has been this year. According to the data, 281 terrorist attacks by Palestinians against Israelis were recorded through November 2022. Most targeted soldiers. 42 targeted civilians. That number, 281, is threefold the number of such attacks (91) in 2021. In addition to increased Palestinian violence, this year has also seen a rise in Israeli setter violence targeting Palestinians. The IDF recorded 838 such attacks in 2022, through November, twice as many as in past years (446 in 2021, 353 in 2020, and 339 in 2019). It is worthwhile to note that according to the IDF’s data, only one in eight of the 838 were investigated, and only 28 of these investigations resulted in indictments against suspects. It is not known how many of these indictments resulted in serious convictions. Typically, the proportion is minuscule.   

This year also saw a rise in the number of Palestinians killed in clashes with the IDF in the West Bank: 136 in 2022 through November (compared to 76 in all of 2021). According to official Palestinian Authority records, that number is 205. The chief cause for this increase was a surge in anti-occupation Palestinian demonstrations. According to some reports, another reason was the change in IDF opening fire regulations. Since December 2021, Israeli soldiers may use live ammunition against Palestinian rock throwers, even after a Palestinian has already thrown a rock no longer poses an immediate risk. According to reports by eyewitnesses and human rights organizations, many Palestinian rock throwers have been shot dead this year.  

Just as we see the hardening of positions regarding the conflict among the Israeli public, this is also the case among Palestinians. Palestinian public opinion polls show a constant rise in support for militant positions, a rejection of the Palestinian Authority and its aging President Mahmoud Abbas, and a growing despair toward and lack of support for Abbas’ policy of seeking a diplomatic resolution to the conflict with Israel.

In the absence of national popular elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip since 2006, student council elections serve to gauge Palestinian political sentiments. In elections for the student council at Bir Zeit University this past summer, Abbas’ pragmatic Fatah faction suffered a bitter defeat to Hamas. The Islamist Hamas movement has several times in the past won a plurality of the student council’s 51 seats. But last May, for the first time, Hamas won a majority, 28 seats. This victory reverberated in the West Bank.

The surge in Palestinian violence, settler violence, and Palestinian popular attitudes has prompted Israeli security officials to warn the outgoing Bennett-Lapid government of a possible acute security crisis in the West Bank, which might lead to a broader violent conflict. The scenarios included a possible mass popular uprising, an armed uprising, the collapse of the Palestinian Authority and its security apparatus, and more. The security chiefs urged calm, bolstering the Palestinian Authority and Israel’s relations with it, and strengthening Israel’s security coordination with Egypt and Jordan.

Israel’s leading think tank, in this policy brief, suggests a set of measures that the incoming Israeli government could take to prevent catastrophic collapse of both the security and political situation in the West Bank.

Whether the pyromaniacal zealots that Benjamin Netanyahu is ushering into his government would heed such advice is a very big question.