Palestinian gunmen at the funerals of the three militants
Palestinian gunmen at the funerals of the three men killed on Saturday March 22 in Jenin. Photo by Reuters
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Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Israeli soldiers inside a tunnel discovered between the Israel-Gaza border in October, 2012. Photo by Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The fatal incident Saturday morning in the Jenin refugee camp was not just one more violent disturbance. According to descriptions from the Israeli side and confirmed by Palestinian eye witnesses, there were relatively long exchanges of fire during the attempt by Border Police anti-terror unit, the Israel Defense Forces and the Shin Bet to arrest armed Hamas operative Hamza Abu al-Haija.

The incident ended with the death of Abu al-Haija, the son of a senior Hamas operative imprisoned in Israel, and two other activists, plus the wounding of seven Palestinians and two members of the special forces.

For more than a year now, the Palestinian Authority and its security apparatus have not been in control of some of the West Bank refugee camps. The Jenin camp was the arena of the fiercest battle in the West Bank during the second intifada. At the height of that intifada, even Yasser Arafat feared clashing with the armed men who had taken charge of the camp.

Seven years ago, when the PA – under President Mahmoud Abbas and then prime minister Salam Fayyad – sought to restore law and order to the West Bank, Jenin (with considerable international assistance) was the first place where the plan was successfully implemented.

However, disappointment with the PA, the continually declining economic situation in the West Bank and lack of progress with the peace talks have once again turned the refugee camps, particularly Jenin, into places where armed groups operate as they see fit.

Israeli troops entering the camps on nighttime arrest raids have more than once encountered violence and shooting, and the Palestinian security forces often find the same resistance.

The Israeli special forces were sent into the camp following an intelligence tip that Abu al-Haija was on the verge of launching an imminent attack on either soldiers or settlers. Armed with an M16 rifle, he opened fire on the forces approaching the house in which he was hiding. He was subsequently joined by other operatives who fired on and hurled explosive devices at the troops.

One of the two other Palestinians killed in the incident is a known Islamic Jihad operative in the West Bank.

A senior IDF officer said the soldiers and police acted with restraint. “We could have killed 15 people in the camp without breaking the rules of engagement,” he said.

The Hamas network in the northern West Bank to which Abu al-Haija belonged is nothing like the terror network that sent dozens of suicide bombers into Israel just a decade ago. And despite signs of decline in the security situation in the West Bank, intelligence coordination between Israel and the Palestinians is still tight, with Hamas and Islamic Jihad cells having difficulty operating.

In Gaza, by contrast, Hamas is the sole landlord. The fact that Hamas has chosen not to clash militarily with Israel now, and usually also reins in the smaller Palestinian groups, stems from concern over Egyptian punitive measures, apparently combined with acknowledgement of the IDF’s superior intelligence and operational capabilities.

But Hamas continues to prepare ambitious plans for attacks – for example, the tunnel discovered last week, leading from the Gaza Strip into the Western Negev.

Although Hamas claims the tunnel was old and revealed due to the rain, the IDF says it was the third discovered this year and is part of a comprehensive operation to reveal such tunnels. Tools found on the Israeli end of the tunnel reveal that it had been worked on recently.

That makes sense. Most of Hamas’ achievements were thanks to tunnels – from the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit, which led to the release of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, to the blowing up of IDF armored personnel carriers when Israel still held the Gaza Strip.

Hamas wants to carry out kidnappings and attacks on soldiers or communities near the fence through the tunnels, both as a strategic step or as a response to an extensive Israeli operation. According to the Shin Bet, there are still dozens more undiscovered tunnels along the border.

An investigation into the “friendly fire” shooting death of Capt. Tal Nahman during border surveillance last month has revealed numerous acts of negligence on the part of the IDF. And the detonation of an explosive device on the Golan Heights last week, as well as the exchange of fire, reveals what can be described as operational rust at the level of field commanders.

When violence erupts, the IDF’s learning curve takes time to kick in. But at the rate these incidents are occurring, it seems likely the IDF will not have to worry much longer about lack of operational experience.