Israeli Military Offensive in Hebron May Be Inevitable

Despite the deep misgivings of the top military brass, the army may be compelled to launch a major operation ordered by a government under pressure.

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Israeli security forces react during clashes with Palestinian demonstrators in Hebron. November 10, 2015.
Israeli security forces react during clashes with Palestinian demonstrators in Hebron. November 10, 2015.Credit: Reuters

The current assumption is that sooner or later the IDF will launch a large operation in the Hebron region. The ongoing violence and the fact that nearly half the perpetrators of terror over the last two months hail from the Hebron area will compel the army to initiate a showcase move.

The army has doubled its troops in Hebron and the surrounding area over the past two months. Hundreds who are suspected of involvement in acts of terrorism and violence have been arrested in Hebron and adjacent villages. Soldiers inspect about 1,500 Palestinian cars daily before allowing them to enter the main roads in the Hebron and Bethlehem region.

But the ongoing violence may force the army to do more. A lethal terror attack could push the Israel Defense Forces into imposing a curfew in some neighborhoods of the city and conducting house–to–house searches and mass arrests, even if the IDF General Staff is not keen to do so.

“If there’s one thing that keeps me awake at night it’s whether we’ll be able to detect turning points on time,” a senior Central Command officer said this week, when asked if the IDF’s moves are enough to stop the violence.

But the government has other worries. The first concerns the political pressure from the right – the settlers, Yisrael Beiteinu, the coalition and even the cabinet. Voices from these quarters are calling for Operation Defensive Shield 2 in the West Bank to end the terror attacks once and for all.

Jenin during Operation Defensive Shield in 2002. The right is pushing for a repeat operation in the West Bank.Credit: Pavel Wohlberg

The General Staff remains skeptical. If any act on our part could bring about such results, we’d have done it already, officers say. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon says it more sharply. The way he sees it, those who criticize him and the army for showing weakness in the West Bank are false messiahs. In a speech on Wednesday at the Israel Democracy Institute Ya’alon said, “like in the days of the Israel-Gaza conflict in 2014 we’re hearing slogans now. Some say let’s strike now. Those are statements with no basis, thought or judgement behind them.”

Behind the scenes a political battle is evolving. Minister Naftali Bennett, whom Ya’alon was referring to, has been openly critical of the defense minister’s policy, while the settlers’ leadership has blasted the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, a unit in the Defense Ministry. The settlers are singling out the unit as a collaborator of the Palestinian Authority, as they did at the beginning of the second intifada.

Ya’alon, in retaliation, has made several statements supporting the rule of law and the High Court of Justice in particular, in stark contrast to the approach of Bennett and his Habayit Hayehudi colleagues (as well as many of the Likud’s central committee members).

When the storm around MK Yinon Magal (Habayit Hayehudi) erupted this week (over Magal’s inappropriate behavior toward a former employee) Ya’alon was the first public figure to speak out firmly against sexual harassment, even though Magal was a former subordinate of his in the special commando unit Sayeret Matkal.

In the midst of this argument the IDF’s recommendations to ease the restrictions on the Palestinians were published. The recommendations were drafted in the summer, before the last round of violence and the prime minister’s aides hastened to clarify that one of the moves, giving the Palestinian Authority light weapons and ammunition for its security forces, will not be applied at this time. But the list included moves like giving the Palestinian security branches, who have been asking for this for years, fortified vehicles to deal with armed militants in the refugee camps. Another recommendation is to release prisoners and increase the number of work permits for Palestinians in Israel.

In Hebron, Palestinian stone-throwers hide behind a board during clashes with Israeli security forces. November 10, 2015.Credit: AFP

Netanyahu is afraid of any headline that associates him with giving the Palestinians “weapons” even if it’s fortified jeeps. Ya’alon, on the other hand, did not object to this in public.

The army is continuing with its complicated policy of rules of engagement, requiring the combatants to handle a terrorist who attacks a soldier or civilian firmly, but forbids them to continue shooting at the assailant after he has been disarmed or wounded. The policeman who fired at the two Palestinian teenage girls who stabbed a man with scissors in Jerusalem this week acted in violation of the army’s regulations.

The army also stresses the need to avoid unnecessary killing of demonstrators, claiming it will only lead to additional attacks against Israelis. It is difficult to explain this approach to soldiers and policemen in the field, especially when ministers, coalition lawmakers and Internet sites are calling on them to shoot to kill terrorists whenever they come into contact with them.

Paratroopers Brigade Commander Col. Nimrod Aloni said yesterday in an interview on Army Radio that in the territories “we’re playing defense almost to the goal line. From there we try to prevent the attack from happening.”

Changing the policy, he said, depends on a decision of the government, not the army. One of his colleagues admitted to Haaretz this week that “we’re acting now mainly in response. The soldier on the ground feels that he’s mainly waiting to be attacked, to stop some action. This raises questions among them like what about a wide operation?”

The recent confrontation with the Palestinians has so far had limited resonance around the world. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Israel briefly this week but the bloodshed here has taken a back seat to the civil war in Syria and the struggle against ISIS both in terms of international coverage and the agenda of world leaders. The fact that the violence has so far not led to any political shift and the relatively low number of participants in the clashes compared to the previous two uprisings enable Israel to describe the events as a temporary development that may soon fizzle out.

The Central Command called it a “limited uprising.” In fact this term is a form of whitewashing. After almost two months we are facing an intifada for all intents and purposes, even if its impact is lower and its form slightly different compared to its predecessors.

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