Signs in the West Bank Point to Cooling Off, but for How Long?

In dealing with the current unrest, Israel isn't exactly thinking out of the box, but these steps may suffice. The main danger is from a vicious cycle of attacks and counterattacks by Palestinians and Jews.

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A Palestinian youth uses a slingshot to throw stones towards Israeli security forces in Bethlehem on October 6, 2015.
A Palestinian youth uses a slingshot to throw stones towards Israeli security forces in Bethlehem on October 6, 2015.Credit: AFP

The day after reports surfaced that the Hamas men suspected of murdering Eitam and Naama Henkin were captured, the prime minister visited the Samaria Brigade. In front of the cameras at an old military base, just a few kilometers from where terrorists murdered the Henkins last week in front of their four children, Benjamin Netanyahu explained that he had instructed the commanders to “change their way of thinking with regard to dealing with terror.”

What this dramatic turning point means will become clear in the coming days. Meanwhile, according to remarks by Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, who joined the visit, Israel apparently does not intend to deviate from the policy that has generally served it well since the second intifada ebbed a decade ago. A temporary increase of forces, expanded arrest sweeps and efforts to restore close coordination with the Palestinian security forces should, according to Ya’alon, achieve the goal. Not exactly thinking out of the box, but these steps may suffice.

Throughout the afternoon the reinforcement battalions that the IDF had called up over the past week were organizing ahead of action in the northern West Bank. A sense of pressure among the troops, which emerged between the murder of the Henkins and the fatal stabbings of two people in the Old City, was replaced by what the army calls “heightened ongoing security.” There is no talk of intifada at the base, both because the term does not serve the government politically, and because the army brass believes that the term does not describe events in Jerusalem and the West Bank right now.

After the prime minister concluded his show of strength in the face of terror and took off in his helicopter in a cloud of dust, a senior officer in the Central Command sat down for a background briefing with journalists. His remarks toed the line set by Ya’alon, IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot and members of the General Staff. Senior security officials believe they have broad freedom of action in dealing with the threat; they do not feel that the sky is falling because of the rise in Palestinian terror; commanders in the field do not feel that they lack the necessary means or support to deal with the problem.

The question of support is very sensitive. Habayit Hayehudi ministers over the past few days have identified that question as a weak point for Netanyahu. When they criticize what they called a lack of support, they inserted a dual wedge: between soldiers in the field and their commanders on the General Staff, and between the prime minister and the army. No wonder Netanyahu, Ya’alon and the officers tried to hard on Tuesday to reject the idea of lack of support, which in this case seemed groundless.

During the somewhat tense cabinet meeting Monday evening after the holiday ended, Economy Minister Aryeh Dery asked Eisenkot if someone was tying the IDF’s hands in the territories. Eisenkot said no. He reiterated his answer at a short photo-op with Netanyahu, during which he also expressed concern over the rise in violence among settlers toward Palestinians following the last two murderous attacks.

The Central Command officer speaking with journalists went into greater detail. Augmenting forces does not mean calling up reserves. No request from the field to the General Staff was turned down; commanders see no restrictions on their operations, even the sensitive arrest operation in the hospital in Nablus was approved.

It is still too soon to tell if this is a trend, but there was less violence on Tuesday by Palestinians, and the atmosphere among the settlers has calmed somewhat, too, after a number of violent attacks on Palestinian property. The announcement of the arrest of suspects in the Henkin murder may have contributed to calming things down, although the army and Shin Bet security service understand well that a revenge attack could come, like the one in Duma more than two months ago.

The authorities have so far been able to cope with the Palestinian demonstrations. The main danger is from a vicious cycle of attacks and counterattacks by Palestinians and Jews. The murder of the Dawabsheh family in Duma, which the Shin Bet still has not solved, is still considered the main reason for the Palestinian foment, along with the tensions around the Temple Mount. Any additional Palestinian bloodshed in Jerusalem, especially on the Temple Mount, could change the picture for the worse. As for Israeli bloodshed, the concern is over knifings and vehicular terror attacks, which are carried out by lone perpetrators and require no real preparation.

Regarding the threat from Hamas, unlike in the past it does not impose military hierarchy throughout the West Bank because such organization is more likely to be discovered by Israel. Cells are local and usually organize quickly based on orders from Gaza or abroad.

On Tuesday the IDF identified a clear directive by the Palestinian Authority leadership to its security forces to rein in the violence. The directive by PA President Mahmoud Abbas could lead to a gradual calm despite the heights reached in the violence last week. But in the long term, it is clear that Israel is facing a real change in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Even if this round of violence ends, and that is far from certain at this point, it seems that sooner or later, increasing frustration among Palestinians will lead to a more serious and extended outbreak than what we are now seeing.

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