West Bank Sees Lowest IDF Troop Levels Since First Intifada

IDF Central Command officials say terror threat still alive, but that army and Shin Bet have improved their preemptive capabilities.

Israeli troop levels in the West Bank are at their lowest level since the start of the first intifada over two decades ago. The West Bank Division now deploys only half the number of combat brigades it did during the peak of the second intifada in the early part of the last decade.

IDF troops Reuters

Officials at Israel Defense Forces Central Command attributed the troop reduction not to any reduced motivation on the part of terror groups, but to the improved preemptive capabilities of the IDF and Shin Bet security service.

After the 2006 Second Lebanon War, the army expanded training for regular army battalions and scaled down call-ups of reserve units for operational activity.

The number of battalions stationed in the West Bank has dropped steadily over the past four years. The latest downgrade occurred early this year as two additional combat battalions were recalled from the West Bank and reassigned elsewhere. Amid the broader reduction in troop levels and efforts to facilitate freedom of movement for Palestinians, the army removed dozens of roadblocks and checkpoints over the past few years.

Despite the data, however, there has been no similar reduction in the scope of resources dedicated to surveillance, intelligence gathering and special operations, including the Duvdevan undercover unit and the Central Command combat intelligence battalion.

Dozens of regular and reserve battalions have been deployed in the West Bank since the start of the first intifada in late 1987, though troop levels dropped somewhat as the intifada was suppressed in the early 1990s and eclipsed by the signing of the Oslo Accords and the subsequent IDF withdrawals from Palestinian cities.

Troop levels peaked amid the wave of suicide bombings at shooting attacks of the second intifada 10 years ago.

For much of that period, dozens of combat battalions were stationed across the West Bank. That situation led to the creation of the Kfir Brigade, which unified six brigades under a single command with the sole purpose of maintaining order in the West Bank. Following the 2005 Gaza disengagement, the infantry and tank presence along the Gaza security fence was also significantly reduced.

Enhanced cooperation with PA

Greater cooperation between the IDF and Shin Bet, and between Israeli and Palestinian security forces has also contributed to the relative calm in West Bank cities and towns. Army officials singled out the Palestinians' U.S.-trained "Dayton forces" as particularly worthy of praise.

Central Command officers said targeted killings of militants and improved intelligence-gathering capabilities have undermined terror groups' ability to attack Israeli interests.

Still, they noted that the terrorists' motivation to attack remains unwavering. They cited the handful of Hamas-orchestrated shooting incidents three months ago, amid renewed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, in which four Israelis were killed and four others wounded in the West Bank.

The officers said such attempts would likely become more frequent with any renewal of peace talks.

Smaller-scale attempts to commit terror attacks have continued, most often using firearms or improved explosives, though in most such cases the would-be perpetrators have been caught before they were able to harm soldiers or civilians.

IDF officials said that thanks to the reduced troop presence in the West Bank, regular-army battalions have returned to conducting two large-scale annual training drills. At the same time, reserve training has increased in scope, while the average number of days reserve soldiers are required to serve has dropped.