At 4 P.M. on Tuesday, only about 10 young Palestinian men remained on the road adjacent to the separation barrier near Abu Dis, east of Jerusalem. One, in a red shirt, occasionally ran across the road to hurl rocks and swear in Hebrew at the Border Police officers facing him. He kept a safe distance from the tired, seemingly bored policemen, who periodically fired a rubber-tipped bullet or two in the direction of the protesters, for the sake of propriety.
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The previous night, the army demolished the skeleton of a building and tall mound of dirt next to the barrier on the eastern, Palestinian side. Here the barrier is a high wall, a huge concrete monster that bisects Abu Dis. The berm had grown gradually over the past few months, to a height of five meters next to the seven-meter wall. Local Palestinian climbed it to hurl rocks and firebombs at passing Israel Defense Forces jeeps on the other side of the wall. The Palestinian Authority rebuffed an Israeli attempt to see if it might remove the mound itself, so the IDF took action.
The army expected at least 600 protesters at the demolition, as these measures have become rare events of late. But Sari Nusseibeh, the president of Al-Quds University nearby, got wind of the IDF's plan and canceled classes for the day. Around 12,00 students stayed at home and there were no more than 200 demonstrators at any time. Two were shot by Border Police officers and wounded slightly, two others were arrested. The protest fizzled out after a few hours.
It is difficult to reconcile the various reports coming out of the West Bank these days. On one hand, popular protests against the Jewish settlements and the separation barrier have lost some of their momentum in the past several months, witness the fact that even a demolition did not provoke mass protests.
During Ramadan, in July and early August, hundreds of thousands of West Bank Palestinians celebrated in West Jerusalem and in Tel Aviv, crossing over easily with the permission of the army and the Israel Police and the IDF. (The Civil Administration recently received a letter from the owners of a certain shopping mall in Jerusalem, thanking the agency for the sharp spike in sales due to the Palestinian tourists during the month-long holiday.)
On the other hand, this relative calm, the seeming indifference of most West Bank Palestinians (which the IDF insists on calling "the street"), seems incongruent with the numerous recent incidents reported in the Israeli media.
On the same night as the demolition in Abu Dis, the Police Special Anti-Terror Unit (Yamam) cornered a wanted member of Islamic Jihad, Mohammed A'atzi, hiding in a cave in Bil’in, west of Ramallah. A’atzi, who according to the Shin Bet was responsible for a bombing that killed civilians in Tel Aviv in November, was killed by a rocket after exchanging fire with the police.
An incident like this, in which a wanted man was prepared to fight until the death, has not been seen in the West Bank in more than two years. It joins a number of exception incidents in the past month: the murder of IDF soldier Tomer Hazan, the death of Givati Brigade soldier Gal Kobi by sniper fire in Hebron, the murder of Seraiah Ofer in the Jordan Valley, the bulldozer attack on an IDF base last week and the attack that injured a 9-year-old girl in the settlement of Psagot.
A senior officer from the IDF Central Command, who was involved in the incident that ended in A’atzi's death, admits that there has been a change.
He, like his counterparts throughout the West Bank, doesn't see a significant correlation among the various incidents, but nevertheless sees them as part of a common pattern. Local, isolated attacks, undertaken primarily by individuals not associated with any organization, have been effective in the past. Attacks like these have all the “success” of terrorism, they get widespread media attention and encourage others to act against Israeli security forces and civilians. Terrorists understand that independent activity, instead of action as part of a group, makes it more difficult for the Shin Bet to identify the responsible party and arrest them before they carry out their plan.
In the meantime, these actions are not inspiring the masses or turning the streets into battlegrounds, as they were during the early stages of both intifadas, but they are enough to increase motivation amongst other young Palestinians. Also, Palestinian Authority security forces in the West Bank have weakened, both in the cities, but primarily in the refugee camps, where many have begun to carry weapons in the open, in violation of Palestinian security protocols.
The IDF continues to use the methods at its disposal to deal with the resurgence in the area. There has not yet been any decision on calling in reinforcements, or any kind of collective punishment, renewing of curfews or local closings. The number of soldiers in the West Bank is much smaller than it was during the intifadas, with only 16 battalions currently in the area (as opposed to 23, three or four years ago), and currently, IDF command is considering further cutbacks next year.
In 2014, the number of reserve units on operational duty will be reduced to a minimum, forcing the regular units to spend longer periods of time in the West Bank.
The unrest in the area is also reflected in the Israeli attempts to step up its preemptive actions, exemplified by the operation against A’atzi. Israeli concerns are also connected, in a roundabout way, to the ongoing negotiations with the PA, which continue in a rare, relative silence. If A’atzi, or someone like him, were to succeed in carrying out a multi-casualty attack, it could put an abrupt end to the negotiations and create tension between Jerusalem and Washington. There is also concern about prisoner releases. Next week, 29 Palestinian prisoners will be released, the second of four rounds of release that will see 104 total prisoners go free. Any other terrorist attack will reignite the internal government arguments over the release of prisoners.
On Saturday, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh in the Gaza Strip called for a new intifada in the West Bank. His calls were not taken seriously by Israel or in the West Bank. Haniyeh’s call seems like an attempt by Hamas, given the tight Israeli and Egyptian grip on the Gaza Strip, to hitch a ride on the momentum created by recent events in the West Bank to inspire more attacks that will disrupt the activities of its rival, the PA.
If a broader movement of unrest does happen, it won’t be started by Hamas in Gaza. The primary danger is the increasing tension on the Temple Mount, where Palestinians (and Jordanians) are increasingly criticizing what they see as efforts from the Israeli right wing to disrupt the status quo. The increasing frequency of visits by rabbis and Jewish worshippers to the site, as well as the activities of various groups, fuel concern among the Palestinians.
An isolated incident on the Temple Mount, similar to what transpired after Ariel Sharon’s visit in September 2000, could make the situation worse and spread the current tension to other areas, which would be much worse than what we’ve seen of late.
Local, isolated attacks, undertaken primarily by individuals not associated with any organization, have been effective in the past. Attacks like these have all the 'success' of terrorism, they get widespread media attention and encourage others to act against Israeli security forces and civilians. Terrorists understand that independent activity, instead of action as part of a group, makes it more difficult for the Shin Bet to identify the responsible party and arrest them before they carry out their plan.