An arrest operation that ended in Israel Defense Forces soldiers killing three Palestinians in the Qalandiyah refugee camp Monday morning - the gravest incident of its kind in the West Bank over the past year - was not planned as an exceptional action. Almost every evening, IDF soldiers and border policemen arrest Palestinian residents in the West Bank on suspicion of security violations. These operations usually meet little resistance.
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The wanted person who was arrested Monday was suspected of being involved in relatively serious offenses - weapons trading and, according to one version, also explosive devices. One can assume that given both his residence, in the heart of a refugee camp between Jerusalem and Ramallah, and the fact that several weeks ago he managed to escape a similar arrest operation by a military unit, security forces decided to send in the West Bank's undercover Arab unit on this mission.
This is a very experienced unit that specializes in working in small teams, which disguise themselves as Arabs to arrest suspects who are hard to get to through regular military actions.
In general, an arrest operation by the undercover unit is built in two rings. The small ring includes soldiers or police disguised as Arabs carrying concealed weapons, who are able to surprise a suspect by breaking into his house or forcing him into a car in a public place. The goal of this team is to act quickly and avoid having its cover blown for as long as possible.
If those around the suspect understand that the man has been arrested by Israelis only after they have evacuated the place, the goal is achieved. If the force meets armed resistance to the arrest, or is put in mortal danger, the undercover forces are authorized to engaged in limited shooting until they are rescued.
In the second, wider circle, regular army forces - and sometimes forces from the undercover Arab force, too - operate in army fatigues, as well, armed with weapons and the means to break up demonstrations. It is a force that will be put into action as needed to save an arrest team if its cover is blown, and for suppressing violent protest should any develop.
Contradictory versions of what happened in Qalandiyah were heard as to what went wrong Monday. The army hinted that the arrest in the home of the suspect took longer than planned. The border police deny this, and claim that this part of the operation went smoothly. Both sides agree that the undercover police were pulled out relatively quickly and carried out only precise shooting, injuring a youth who threw a concrete block at the force.
At the same time, the complications began. According to the Israeli description, which is backed by that of Palestinians, within minutes hundreds of residents surrounded the undercover force (which managed to leave the camp with the arrestee), as well as the backup force from the artillery unit placed in the area. Sources in the army and the police estimated the number of participants in the riots at some 1,500 people.
According to video footage filmed by Palestinians, which was uploaded to the Internet, the soldiers were stoned with concrete blocks and stones from close range. Army officials also report that Palestinians threw Molotov cocktails. Three Palestinians were killed and dozens injured in the incident. From a first glance at the video clips, it looks like the soldiers were exposed to a clear and present danger.
It's likely the military prosecution will be ordered to open an investigation, according to a regulation reinstated in the territories two years ago after the end of the second intifada.
The operational investigation, which was already opened in the GOC Central Command, will have to deal with a number of other issues. One question regards the necessity of the arrest: Did, in a period in which peace talks were renewed, the wanted man constitute a danger that justified an operation in the heart of a refugee camp?
Another question regards the timing: The wanted man was arrested at around 6 A.M., in broad daylight. Without knowing the details of the incident itself, it can be assumed that the reason for postponing the arrest is connected to receiving belated intelligence about his whereabouts - but it is clear that an operation in broad daylight increases the risk of being exposed and running into trouble.
The third point requiring examination is tied to the performance of the army. Were the artillery soldiers trained enough to cope with a violent crowd of such a great size, and what was the quality of their commanders' assessments during the incident?
The incident in Qalandiyah is the second of its kind within a week. Last Tuesday, a young Palestinian was shot and killed in a widespread clash with soldiers during the arrest of a suspect by forces from the Haredi Nahal Brigade in the Jenin refugee camp. It's likely the aggressive Palestinian reaction stems from a rise in the number of arrests the IDF has carried out since the end of the month of Ramadan, when the number dropped considerably due to orders from above.
But it seems there is a broad connection here: After a few years in which the residents of the West Bank accepted Israel's nightly arrest operations as a kind of fate, the renewed resistance to them is growing - especially in the refugee camps where the frustration and animosity toward Israel and the Palestinian Authority leadership (perceived in many places to be Israel’s ally) is greatest. A wave of similar incidents occurred at the end of last year, before the Israeli election.
The PA, as it usually does in these situations, condemned Israel on Monday and demanded an international investigation into the incident's circumstances. The coming days in the West Bank, and especially in the Jerusalem and Ramallah region, will be tense and inflammable - but it is still too early to prophesy a larger outbreak of violence.
The incident in Qalandiyah is worrying because of its results, and because of the large number of youths called to participate in the confrontation with the soldiers. At this stage, though, it is still impossible to speak of a clear trend. Moreover, the PA is clearly interested in continuing negotiations with Israel, with the backing of the United States.