Israeli Political Decisions Could Spark West Bank Violence, Defense Officials Warn

Offsetting the money that Israel transfers to the Palestinians, the leadership crisis in the Palestinian Authority or a violent incident on the Temple Mount could all ignite violence

Yaniv Kubovich
Palestinians clash with the Israel Defense Forces near Ramallah, March 1, 2019.
Palestinians clash with the Israel Defense Forces near Ramallah, March 1, 2019. Credit: AFP
Yaniv Kubovich

A series of what defense officials term election-driven decisions against the Palestinians could spark violence in the West Bank, especially when combined with the territory’s poor economy, these officials warned the government recently.

Among the most important of these was the decision to deduct all the money the Palestinian Authority pays jailed terrorists from the tax revenue Israel collects on the PA’s behalf. Defense officials attribute this decision to rightist parties’ need to woo their bases ahead of April’s election.

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The officials said the PA isn’t going to stop paying terrorists, but the Israeli decision could nevertheless cause unrest among Palestinian prisoners in Israel.

The PA’s leadership is weak and isn’t taking significant steps against Israel, they added, but this has created a crisis of confidence between the leadership and West Bank residents. This could result in either a change of government or an outbreak of violence among West Bank Palestinians, they warned.

Defense officials also posited several other scenarios that could ignite the West Bank. One was an incident that offends both national and religious sensibilities, like Israel’s decision to station metal detectors at the entrance to the Temple Mount following a terror attack at the site in July 2017. Others included a clash at the Temple Mount, a large number of casualties in the West Bank and Palestinian unhappiness with the Trump administration’s peace plan once it is unveiled.

Riots in the West Bank could bolster Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ status among his people, the officials said. They added that Abbas could use the PA’s poor economic condition – its budget has been slashed by around 20 percent, or some $1 billion, over the last year – to incite Palestinians against both Israel and Hamas.

One senior defense official said that while the PA hasn’t been able to get the public to demonstrate over diplomatic issues or internal politics, the Palestinians would turn out en masse if Abbas changed the pension law or otherwise hit them in the pocketbook.

Defense officials said that ever since Israel built the West Bank separation fence, Palestinians have felt hopeless, as if there were no diplomatic horizon. Therefore, the PA has focused on consolidating its power, internal issues and the economic situation. But Abbas has no encouraging economic data to present, and Palestinians see Trump’s “deal of the century” as an Israeli-American plot. Thus Abbas is caught between his inability to confront Israel, which has turned its back on him, and his need to show the Palestinian public some achievements.

The defense establishment opposes any measures that would damage the West Bank’s economy, because it views a poor economy as something that could bring Palestinians into the streets for anti-Israel demonstrations. For this reason, the Shin Bet security service, the Israel Defense Forces and the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories all seek to ease conditions for the approximately 100,000 Palestinians who enter Israel or the settlements each day to work.

“A million people eat off the money earned by employment in Israel or for Israelis,” one defense official said.

An outbreak of violence in the West Bank would have significant ramifications even if it was very limited. The IDF would need more troops to protect West Bank settlements and roads, as well as Israel proper. In every assessment of the last two years, defense officials have warned that an escalation in the West Bank is difficult to deal with because it abuts the heavily populated center of the country.

Consequently, defense officials say Israel and the Palestinians must maintain a dialogue at least on issues of common concern, like water and sewage. “But nobody is really saying what he wants to happen in the West Bank in the long term,” said a source who recently participated in a meeting of top defense officials.

The security situation in the south is also explosive, and senior defense officials consider an escalation with Hamas highly likely. IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi has said Israel must be prepared to fight in Gaza in the near term, and since taking office last month, he has approved operational plans for doing so. On Sunday, the General Staff began a two-day exercise to examine the army’s readiness for a large-scale operation in Gaza.

A recent assessment by Military Intelligence’s research division said that Hamas is interested in launching a major offensive against Israel to return international attention to Gaza. Hamas knows Israel’s response would exact a heavy price from it, defense officials said, but Gaza’s humanitarian woes, public pressure and pressure from other armed groups like Islamic Jihad are all pushing Hamas to act. Israel is therefore monitoring Hamas and trying to decipher the intentions of its leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar.

Nevertheless, defense officials think a new round of fighting in Gaza would last only a few days, not several weeks like the Gaza wars of 2009 and 2014.