West Bank Powder Keg (Hard Questions Tough Answers July 10, 2023)


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: Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) has ordered his security forces back into Jenin. The Netanyahu government has reportedly approved new economic benefits for the PA. Are better times ahead for Israeli-Palestinian relations?

A: Both the PA and Israel appear to assess that a modest window of opportunity was opened by Israel’s recent Operation in the Jenin refugee camp. The PA is now reportedly reintroducing its authority there and pushing back against the influence of Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and independent extremist Palestinian gangs.

But all indications point to a different, more somber outlook: not better times, but desperate times.

Q: Hold on. Wasn’t the IDF’s Jenin operation a success? 

A: A lot of terrorist ordnance and bomb-factories were destroyed by the IDF during its 44-hour siege of the Jenin camp. Between 10 and 14 Palestinian terrorists were killed. Because the IDF sent its elite Commando Brigade into Jenin, the operation was pin-point and exacting: no Palestinian civilians were reported killed (around 100 wounded) and only one IDF soldier was killed.

Yet this was at best a qualified, temporary success. The IDF did not kill or capture hundreds of terrorists: most of the 300 or so Palestinian combatants in Jenin fled the camp and only returned once the IDF withdrew. What some Israeli officers described as Palestinian cowardice seemed much more like the classic guerilla tactic of evading a superior force in order to fight another day. So the IDF fought well and the terrorists fought smart.

Throughout the operation, Palestinian workers from the rest of Jenin city (not the refugee camp in its center) continued to commute daily to Israel. This, like the smooth integration of commandos and a multitude of drones during the IDF operation, are clearly Israeli tactical achievements.

Tactical, not strategic. Israel’s forces may have temporarily improved Israelis’ freedom of movement in the northern West Bank. But they did not deter the terrorism emanating from there, which continued even inside Israel during the two-day operation.

It was perfectly clear to all concerned that this IDF operation would have to be repeated soon, despite the usual nonsense bravado of PM Netanyahu: “We’re changing the equation in the face of terror.”

As for destruction of ordnance, the IDF exacted a daunting toll on the Jenin refugee camp in churned up streets (2.5 km of road were plowed because the Palestinians had buried explosive charges under the asphalt) and walls broken to enable IDF commandos to move from house to house without drawing fire. The PA’s first act after the IDF withdrawal was to bring in diplomats from some 30 countries in order to recruit assistance for rebuilding--something Hamas and PIJ know they cannot do for lack of an international support structure (beyond Iran).

Q: Why is Israel enabling the PA to restore its presence in Jenin? After all, for years now Israel under Netanyahu has sought to weaken the Palestinian Authority.

A: If indeed Israel collaborates in a PA “return” to Jenin, this will constitute at least a temporary reversal of Netanyahu’s anti-PA, anti-two-state solution policy. Hitherto, Netanyahu has effectively weakened the PA and aided and abetted Hamas in the West Bank despite the warnings of IDF intelligence and the Shin Bet. Note that, within Netanyahu’s current government, National Security Minister Ben Gvir and Finance Minister (also minister in the Defense Ministry) Bezalel Smotrich, and their allied ministers, openly advocate eliminating the PA and taking full control over the West Bank.

Here we note that Netanyahu has taken to ignoring Ben Gvir and Smotrich and their agenda when he needs to make security-oriented decisions. The two messianic fascists appear to be prepared to look the other way as long as the prime minister gives them a free hand in expanding settlements and outposts. This extreme dissonance is hardly a formula for West Bank stability.

In assisting the PA, Netanyahu is yielding to Biden administration pressure and to admonitions from Israel’s Arab partners next door and in the Persian Gulf. He knows the Saudis expect these gestures if they are ever to normalize relations with Israel. Perhaps, too, Netanyahu finally noticed that a stronger Hamas and PIJ in the West Bank mean more Iranian influence there, politically and militarily.

Too little, too late. President Biden reacted quickly on Sunday, noting on CNN that the Netanyahu government is “one of the most extreme” he has encountered and that the prospect of an Israeli-Saudi breakthrough is slim: “We’re a long way from there.”

Q: Abu Mazen is 87, and reportedly ailing. Can he register a comeback? Do his West Bank constituents still want him? Still want the Palestinian Authority?

A: Angry Jenin residents actually expelled Abu Mazen’s deputy, Mahmoud al-Aloul, from the funeral of the terrorists the IDF killed there. Abu Mazen got the message and called upon Fateh leaders in Jenin to “rebuild themselves” and “defend the PA”.  He ordered PA security forces back into Jenin apparently in the hope of forestalling a Hamas takeover there along the lines of what happened in the Gaza Strip in 2007.

Conceivably, then, Netanyahu and Abu Mazen actually agree on the Hamas danger in the West Bank. But Palestinian public opinion does not support Abu Mazen. According to a June opinion poll by Khalil Shikaki’s Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR), 80 percent of Palestinians want Abu Mazen to resign. Half say that the collapse or dissolution of the PA would serve the Palestinian interest.

This hardly puts the Palestinian public in the same camp with Israel’s Kahanist-racist Smotrich and Ben Gvir, who advocate that Israel dismantle the PA and take over the entire West Bank. Indeed, according to Shikaki, two-thirds of the Palestinian public do not believe that Israel will survive another 25 years to its centennial. A small majority still believe that the Palestinian people will eventually recover all of Palestine and that descendants of the 1948 refugees will return to homes long-abandoned, crumbling or bulldozed.

This mode of Palestinian wishful thinking about the future corresponds, according to Shikaki’s findings, with Palestinians’ prolonged sense of victimhood. Looking back 75 years to the Nakba, the Palestinian expulsion and exodos provoked by the 1948 Arab-Israel war, most Palestinians blame other Arabs, the international community, and the Zionist movement. Few blame internal Palestinian weakness, i.e., themselves.

Q: Bottom line?

A: These Palestinian views underline the huge gap that continues to prevail between Palestinians and Israelis and that guarantees more rather than less conflict, particularly in the West Bank. Consider the following: in the aftermath of recent West Bank settler pogroms in Palestinian villages, Shikaki stated that he fears in the not-too-distant future settler massacres of Palestinians--presumably reminiscent of Dir Yassin, a village near Jerusalem where in 1948 more than 100 Palestinians, mostly civilians, were killed by right-wing Israeli underground fighters.

Israel’s far-right pro-settler press, incidentally, is full of calls for state-sponsored “revenge” against entire Palestinian villages. Then there is Bezalel Smotrich himself, who called four months ago to “erase” the Palestinian village of Hawara where settlers were attacked.

“It's not just killing, it’s expansion of settlements, confiscation of land, policies the Israeli government is currently adopting that are creating a tremendous level of threat perception among Palestinians,” states Shikaki. Note that the Palestinian pollster is seen by not only the international community but the Israeli Shin Bet internal security service as a reliable observer and interpreter of Palestinian views of the conflict.

Imagine another Palestinian intifada, based in the West Bank. The settler population there is growing apace. The settlers are armed. They play increasingly prominent roles in the IDF and the Shin Bet, not to mention the Knesset and the government. Now imagine settlers, fearing Palestinian attack, greedy for Palestinian land, and backed by prominent ministers in the Israeli government, setting out to torch Palestinian homes and kill their inhabitants in the belief that they can provoke flight by large numbers of Palestinians.

As we saw a few weeks ago in five Palestinian villages, pogrom-like behavior by extremist settlers has already begun even as, according to Shikaki, expectations of a third intifada are actually dropping among Palestinians.

So Shikaki may or may not prove right. But even allowing for tactical concessions to the PA, the Netanyahu government does not consider it a partner for a two-state solution. Nor does Netanyahu even want a two-state solution. Accordingly, the recent Jenin operation, for all its tactical military prowess, constituted little more than a skillful act of managing a hopeless conflict, “mowing the lawn”, as we descend a slippery slope to binational hell.