Extremist settler activity could set the West Bank ablaze, GOC Central Command Maj. Gen. Avi Mizrahi warned on Monday at a brigade-wide training exercise at the Tze'elim military base in the Negev.
The Kfir Brigade exercise focused on urban warfare - including the capture of a simulated Arab city - and pitted Israeli troops against Palestinian security forces.
Senior officers present at the exercise, the most extensive session the infantry brigade has undergone since it was founded just over four years ago, said Monday there were no indications that Israel would have to fight the security forces.
However, the army said it needs to be prepared for all eventualities.
Mizrahi said he doesn't expect tensions to rise in the West Bank in the near future.
"I don't think something will happen anytime soon, unless there's a very serious incident on the Temple Mount or in the Cave of the Patriarchs," he said. However, he said he was "very anxious" about an escalation being set off by settler violence.
"Most of the settlement movement is fine, very normal, but a mosque set on fire and another mosque set on fire adds up," Mizrahi said.
Defense officials are concerned over a series of mosque burnings in the past six months, including a fire that destroyed books and prayer rugs in a mosque near Nablus that firefighters said earlier this month was caused by arson.
Mizrahi said that while the council that officially represents settlers is willing to listen to defense officials, the army is worried about what some of the more radical settlers might do.
"The Yesha Council is sane. Even if they might have become more militant, they understand what's going on and we can talk to them," Mizrahi said. "But in Yitzhar, in Maon and in Havat Gilad, they don't believe in us at all as a state. They want something else, and when someone doesn't know the limits anymore you don't know where it will end up."
Mizrahi said the army and the Palestinian security forces, trained in Jordan by Keith Dayton, an American general, have been cooperating, but that Israeli soldiers still need to know how to fight them if the need should arise.
"This is a trained, equipped, American-educated force," Mizrahi said. "This means that at the beginning of a battle, we'll pay a higher price. A force like that can shut down an urban area with four snipers. It's not the Jenin militants anymore ¬ it's a proper infantry force facing us and we need to take that into account. They have attack capabilities and we don't expect them to give up so easily."
In the training exercise, three battalions went from house to house, where they faced Israel Defense Forces soldiers posing as members of the regular Palestinian security forces, Palestinian civilians or reporters.
Until now, soldiers serving in the brigade have been serving only in the West Bank, but Armored Corps commander Brig. Gen. Agai Yehezkel said the exercises would enable the brigade to fight on the Gaza and Lebanon fronts as well as in the West Bank, if necessary. He said Kfir battalions would be deployed for operational duty within the Green Line as early as next year.
The Kfir Brigade, which was created in December 2005, consists of six battalions whose soldiers man 30 percent of the roadblocks in the West Bank and are responsible for 60 percent of arrests. They have succeeded in decreasing the number of terrorist attacks in the West Bank.
Much of the brigade's responsibilities have diminished recently, due to the increased activities of the Palestinian security forces.
It should be noted that the main perpetrators of crimes against Palestinians belong to the Kfir Brigade, according to statistics on Military Police investigations, which the Israel Defense Forces provided to the human rights organization Yesh Din.
In 2007 the Military Police opened 351 probes for crimes in the territories, compared to 152 cases in 2006. The Military Police managed to tie the complaints to specific IDF units in only 55 percent of the cases, compared to 78 percent in the previous year.
Sixty-six of the investigations opened in 2007 were against Kfir soldiers, compared to 35 in 2006; 52 were against the paratroopers brigade (19 in 2006); 14 against Nahal (only one in 2006); 10 against Givati (one in 2006); six against the tank corps (none in 2006); and five each against Golani and the West Bank division.
The Kfir brigade is posted in the West Bank permanently, which means it spends several more months a year there than any other brigade. It also has more regiments than other infantry brigades.
The Military Police is investigating a variety of crimes in the territories, from the killing of Palestinians and the illegal use of firearms to abuse and plunder.