The two recent terror attacks, Saturday night's Jerusalem stabbing attack that left two dead and the attack on Thursday evening that killed Naama and Eitam Henkin, with all the emotions and symbolism it invokes – the murder of two parents in front of their four small children; an attack on a well-known family – apparently heralds a period of even greater escalation in the West Bank.
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The usual exhortations of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the evasions of the Palestinian Authority leadership to condemn such attacks sometimes look like a cheap effort to score PR points with the international community, thereby providing an excuse for the continuing diplomatic stalemate. This time, however, it appears there is considerable logic to his argument.
Not only has Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas refrained from condemning Thursday’s attack. Senior figures in his Fatah faction actually praised the murder of unarmed civilians as a heroic act, while alleged members of the organization’s military wing claimed responsibility for the attack (although the credibility of this statement is unclear). And all this before Saturday’s terror attack in Jerusalem’s Old City, which left two ultra-Orthodox men dead, a woman seriously wounded and a toddler lightly injured.
Abbas’ latest speech at the United Nations, last Wednesday, didn’t made good on the threats he made in the month leading up to his General Assembly address. He didn’t go for broke when it came to relations between the Palestinian Authority and Israel. Abbas has also, for the time being, retracted his threat to resign from some of the representative Palestinian bodies on which he sits.
The PA, however, is currently pursuing a blatant escalation of its rhetoric, which comes on top of the violence on the ground – from an increase in the number of large demonstrations, to rock-throwing ambushes on the highways, and going as far as the murder of the Henkins near Beit Furik. Internally, the extent of the PA’s control of the security situation, particularly in the refugee camps, is being undermined.
At crucial junctures in recent years, on more than one occasion Abbas has come to his senses and tried to rein in the outbreaks of violence. Over the next few weeks, the key question will be whether he will issue similar orders to his security forces, and whether the heads of the security forces will comply.
However, various developments in recent months could reveal that the brakes and constraints that the PA and Israel have both employed together over the past decade are beginning to slacken. Without continued joint efforts, the current approach – which is barely maintaining the prevailing situation (which in and of itself is not exactly great) – could collapse and drag the West Bank into another broad wave of violence, the beginnings of which are already visible.
The second intifada waned toward the end of its fifth year, in 2005. The Israeli disengagement from the Gaza Strip that same summer also marked a decline in the violence from the West Bank. A short time before that, in November 2004, Palestinian President Yasser Arafat died. His successor, Abbas, didn’t stick to Arafat’s dishonest double-speak regarding terrorism.
In 2006, Israel and the PA faced what they both saw as a common clear and present danger: Hamas’ victory in Palestinian parliamentary elections, which a year later was translated into a violent takeover of the Gaza Strip. It was then that the gradual process of restoring Palestinian security control over West Bank cities, the Jenin plan and U.S. Gen. Keith Dayton’s plan for the training of Palestinian security forces began.
The security cooperation worked because the PA had a vested interest in its success, in the light of perilous alternatives from its perspective: a return of the intifada (for which the Palestinians paid a huge price, even greater than Israelis did) followed by anarchy; or Hamas taking control of the remaining Palestinian territories in the West Bank’s cities.
In practice, the PA has taken upon itself the job of being Israel’s security subcontractor, which it justifies as being necessary to thwart the threat posed by Hamas. In exchange, Israel relieved the military pressure on the West Bank cities, assisted in the territory’s economic recovery and issued vague promises over a better diplomatic future.
Even when tempers flared in the West Bank and Jerusalem (with a wave of terror acts in 2013; the kidnapping and murder of three yeshiva students in the West Bank last year, followed by the murder of Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khdeir; and the wave of major terror attacks in the capital linked to the crisis over the Temple Mount last fall), the cooperation survived.
Even after Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip (late 2008-early 2009), in which more than 1,200 Palestinians died, and Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014, in which about 2,200 Palestinians died, the West Bank didn’t spin completely out of control. The PA ultimately intervened and calmed the situation, primarily because the possible price of increased violence – which could have included the collapse of PA governance in the West Bank and the loss of income for tens of thousands of its employees and Fatah members – was too high from its viewpoint.
It’s possible, though, that the current model is nearing its end. One of the reasons is the Palestinian sense of despair with respect to the diplomatic process, which has been expressed in Abbas’ recent speeches. If any doubt remained, that was dispelled following comments made by Netanyahu on the Knesset election campaign trail earlier this year. Abbas, 80, is also pondering his own legacy. He apparently no longer has delusions that it will include a permanent and stable peace agreement – something a significant number of Palestinians would find it difficult to make the necessary concessions for, anyway.
In recent years, Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon accorded prime importance to managing the conflict, rather than solving it. Their two main arguments have gained considerable support among Israelis: That the gap between us and the Palestinians is too wide to make a resolution possible in the near future; and that the instability shaking the Arab world, with all its inherent dangers, overshadows the severity of the Palestinian conflict and its annual death toll.
In the six and a half years of Netanyahu’s current period as prime minister, one year was particularly difficult – 2014, which saw the war against Hamas in Gaza. Most of the time between 2009-2015, though, it has appeared that, despite the terror attacks in the territories once every few months, the security reality was under control.
Now, however, Netanyahu is having more difficulty convincing the public – and those who have clearly lost confidence in the prime minister’s approach are the West Bank settlers. Over the past year, their sense of personal safety has been greatly undermined on West Bank roads. Efforts by the Yesha Council of Jewish settlements to market the northern West Bank as a local version of Tuscany during years of relative quiet keep crashing in the face of reality.
It’s also hard to ignore the conflict’s growing religious element, with the constant friction between Jews and Muslims over arrangements for visits and praying on the Temple Mount; Palestinian concerns over Israeli designs on the Mount; the murder of five men last November at a synagogue in Jerusalem’s Har Nof neighborhood; and hate crimes committed by Jewish terrorists, directed mostly against mosques and churches. And to some extent, events elsewhere in the Middle East are also exerting their influence: Several small cells have already been uncovered in the Gaza Strip and among Israeli Arabs, inspired by the murderous acts of Islamic State.
Most of the Palestinian terrorism is currently emerging at the grass-root level, from local organizations or even lone-wolf terrorists. Such attacks are not only difficult to detect in advance and foil, but the leadership of organizations outside the West Bank have limited control over them.
In addition, Hamas’ military wing in the West Bank was apparently hard hit by the wave of arrests conducted by Israel and the PA over the past decade. At the same time, despite major efforts and the enlistment of Palestinian prisoners released by Israel in exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit (the prisoners were expelled from the West Bank to Gaza), Hamas’ leadership in Gaza is at this point unable to dictate events in the West Bank.
Israel’s security services are still not seeing a totally new situation in the West Bank, despite recent events: It’s possible, though, that the situation on the ground has gotten ahead of intelligence assessments. Israel is currently dealing with the problem using old tools: sending in limited numbers of troops; arrest operations; and adamant vows by Netanyahu and Ya’alon to bring the killers to account.
At this point, it is clear we are standing on a slippery slope. Additional serious incidents in the West Bank – another fatal attack on a highway or a Jewish revenge attack on a Palestinian village – could intensify the confrontation, and release violent energies that the two sides have generally managed to keep on a low flame over the past decade.