At 2 P.M. Thursday, while the burial service was underway in Hebron for the Palestinian prisoner who died of cancer Maysara Abuhamdieh, the Israel Defense Forces was holding a ceremony to mark a changeover of commanders of the Judea and Samaria Division at Nebi Samuel, north of Jerusalem.
Under the current circumstances, commanding the forces in the West Bank is one of the most sensitive in the IDF. The incoming commander, Brig. Gen. Tamir Yedai, has relatively meager operational experience in the sector he took command of Thursday. Yedai did most of his service on both sides of the border with Lebanon, among other positions as commander of the Golani Brigade during the Second Lebanon War.
The commander Yedai replaced, Brig. Gen. Haggai Mordechai, ended his term as Judea and Samaria Division commander with a sense that he is passing things on in relatively reasonable shape; during his term another intifada did not erupt.
The major achievement with which the IDF and the Shin Bet security service presented successive Israeli governments − the suppression of the terror of the second intifada around 2005 − is still in place. Since 2007, the security and political situation in the West Bank has been fairly convenient for Israel: Suicide bombings stopped, violence in the West Bank itself has declined and the Palestinian Authority security forces that answer to the Abbas-Fayyad government in Ramallah have worked in close coordination with their Israeli colleagues.
But the more time passes, the harder it becomes to ignore the signs on the ground that Israel and the PA will have trouble maintaining the high level of cooperation over time. Since November there have been more demonstrations in the West Bank, more incidents of stones and incendiary devices thrown at Israeli vehicles, more Israeli civilians injured, and more cases of what the Shin Bet calls “popular terror” (terror attacks by individuals without organizational affiliation, usually not involving firearms).
Most importantly, more unarmed Palestinians have been killed − eight since January, including the two teens killed Wednesday night east of Tul Karm by IDF fire.
Sources in the IDF’s Central Command say the preliminary investigation into that nighttime incident reveals that the two Palestinian teens, together with others, had moved close in the dark to an IDF fortified position carrying seven incendiary devices. It is hard to argue with the sense of danger the soldiers must have felt. And yet, the usual questions arise as to the kind of judgment used by the junior commander and the inherent contradiction between the commander who is instructed to “make contact” under any conditions and the IDF’s desire to avoid the deaths of unarmed civilians.
Yedai spoke Thursday at the ceremony about the “historic shakeup” in the region and that “no one knows how it will turn out.”
He may also be concerned over whether he will be able to hand his successor a better security situation than his predecessor left him − in which no Israelis were killed as a result of terrorism in the West Bank. And while Yedai was speaking, reports were flowing in of protests and incidents throughout the West Bank, from Jenin to Hebron.
Sources in the IDF say they sense that while the PA leadership is turning public outrage over the prisoner’s death to its own advantage, it hopes that matters in the West Bank will not get out of hand. PA President Mahmoud Abbas, is concerned that too much violence will derail the political channel in which he is mainly invested now. Abbas believes in the American pledges to jump-start the peace process.
Palestinian excoriation of Israel over Abuhamdieh’s death from cancer while in an Israeli prison also has a political goal − the opportunity for the PA to pressure Israel into releasing the 123 Palestinians incarcerated since before the Oslo Accords in 1993.
Gaza and the West Bank are two sides of the same coin, with similarities to the situation in the Golan Heights and in Egypt. On all those fronts, Israel is dealing with incidents whose magnitude is still fairly low, but whose frequency is rising. In the last 72 hours alone there were a number of instances of shots fired at the Syrian border, Palestinians killed in the West Bank, a rocket attack unusual for this period from Gaza, and deployment of an Iron Dome battery near Eilat due to increasing concerns over a possible rocket attack from Sinai.
All this is not now essentially affecting the quality of life or sense of security of most Israelis. Security incidents are confined mainly to the borders, except for a few outbursts, such as Hamas rocket fire on Tel Aviv and Jerusalem during Operation Pillar of Defense. Thus, cuts can still be discussed in the defense budget (necessary in any case) in light of the decline in conventional threats from the Arab countries.
When someone like GOC Home Front Command Eyal Eisenberg, in an interview here last week, reminds people how poorly the home front will look in the next war, if one breaks out, he is immediately accused of a plot to take funding away from education and health. The reality is that the situation is more complicated and therefore more difficult to convey to people. In short, it is reflected in recent intelligence assessments, two parts of which are complementary although they seem contradictory: the likelihood of an Arab country starting a war against Israel is low, but the danger of an unintentional flare-up due to continuing escalation is growing.
The better part of wisdom will be for Israel to keep the conflicts in the various fronts on a low flame, and perhaps − in a particularly optimistic scenario − agree to an American initiative to move ahead somewhat in talks with the Palestinians.
Thursday night a conference was held at Tel Aviv University on a new book by Prof. (and reserve major general) Itzhak Ben-Israel on Israel’s concept of security. Ben-Israel reminded his listeners that the principles David Ben-Gurion set in the 1950s have not changed, despite changing circumstances. “When the General Staff meets to discuss a military operation, 80 percent of the discussion revolves around deterrence,” he said.
Israel, he added, cannot really overcome its enemies in the long run. Even the great victory of the Six-Day War provided only six months of quiet until the War of Attrition began. “In Israel’s conception of security, wars are actually rounds of violence in one long war,” he said.
According to Ben-Israel, victory under such circumstances is “to see to it that from one round to the next the enemy’s desire to return to the conflict is reduced.”