Despite Israel's Rapid Arrest of Palestinian Killers, West Bank Remains Close to Total Eruption

The quick and bloodless capture of the suspects in the murder of an Israeli settler may restore some deterrence, but a weakened PA and rising settler violence mean Palestinian attacks are likely to continue

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An Israeli soldier during the arrest operation of suspects in the murder of Yehuda Dimentman, in the Jenin area of the West Bank, on Sunday.
An Israeli soldier during the arrest operation of suspects in the murder of Yehuda Dimentman, in the Jenin area of the West Bank, on Sunday. Credit: IDF Spokesperson
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

After the abduction of the three teenagers in Gush Etzion in the summer of 2014, and more so after the wave of “lone wolf” attacks began in the West Bank and Jerusalem in the fall of 2015, the Israeli military installed a network of thousands of cameras across the streets of the West Bank. Alongside them, the military added other means of collecting intelligence, able to rapidly meld together information from various sources and scan the Palestinian social media. By integrating these methods and tools, Israel's ability to work out terror cases greatly improved. It’s no coincidence that after every attack, Palestinian social media is full of calls to sabotage cameras in the area, to make tracking down the perpetrators more difficult.

When early-stage surveillance and human intelligence do not provide a substantial early warning, the authorities bring the abovementioned means into the picture. This is what seems to have happened early Sunday morning, when security forces were able to arrest the members of the cell that are suspected of murdering yeshiva student Yehuda Dimentman. About 56 hours had passed between the Dimentman's murder on Thursday evening near the Homesh outpost, south of Jenin, and the arrest. There was similarly rapid “closure” after the murder of the student Yehuda Guetta at Tapuah Junction in May and when, one after the other, the six escapees from Gilboa Prison were caught in September.

The terrorists used two standard weapons: Found in their possession were M16 rifles and an improvised Carl Gustav submachine gun, known as a Carlo. Four or five Palestinians, residents of the village of Silat al-Harithiya, were arrested on suspicion of active involvement in the attack. Two others were taken in on suspicion of indirectly participating. According to the Palestinian media, some of the men are former security prisoners, members of Islamic Jihad. Some are members of the Jaradat family, whose relatives were leaders of the second intifada in the area and took part in major attacks initiated by Islamic Jihad.

The weapon that was found with the suspectsCredit: Police Spokesperson

Immediately after the attack, the IDF decided to mobilize three active-duty army battalions to the West Bank, along with special forces. Only a few of them took part in the pursuit of the terrorists. The men who killed Dimentman were lying in wait in the dark alongside the road, and the augmented forces are meant to improve security on the roads – as well as to help restore the sense of security among the settlers. Shooting attacks have risen somewhat recently, and Palestinians have been throwing a relatively larger amount of stones and incendiary devices at Israeli vehicles.

As it did in the instance of the escaped prisoners, the rapid solving of the case and arrests without firing a single shot restores a bit of Israel's deterrence. It also slightly lowers the risk of the attack becoming a beacon of inspiration for copycat attacks for future terrorists. This time, the Palestinian struggle produced no new martyrs. But the West Bank as well as East Jerusalem are roiling, and the assailants come from diverse backgrounds. Many are fairly young, work alone and tell almost no one of their plans, setting out to commit their attacks with knives or vehicles and usually hope to die in the encounter with soldiers (quite a few are motivated by personal or family problems).

Another risk lies in a more organized cell, which usually receives orders and funds from outside the region, from Hamas or Islamic Jihad headquarters in the Gaza Strip or abroad. These cells have a greater potential for destruction because they are typically equipped with standard weapons or explosives, and go through training and preparation before setting out on their mission.

Hamas in particular is pouring fuel on this fire, while being careful to adhere to the cease-fire with Israel on the Gaza border. The increase in attacks lately also reflects the weakening of the Palestinian Authority. Security coordination between the IDF, the Shin Bet security service and the Palestinian Authority security forces has been restored and now operates properly, but they have little control on the ground. Especially in the Jenin area, the ones who run the show are armed groups – some of former Fatah members – who do not take orders from the PA. This is expected to become more frequent as PA President Mahmoud Abbas grows older and the battle over his successor heats up.

And in the background looms violence by extremist settlers against Palestinians. After Dimentman’s murder, an elderly Palestinian was severely beaten in the village of Qaryut, east of Nablus, by settlers who broke into his home. According to the security establishment, this year has seen an increase in violent assaults by Jews on Palestinians in the West Bank. When Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev mentioned this last week following a conversation with an American diplomat, he was targeted by an aggressive media campaign from the right. Its purpose was clear: to remove any discussion of violence by Israelis from legitimate discourse and deter the media from covering it.

Thus, all discussion of the presence of a yeshiva in the evacuated settlement of Homesh was pushed aside. The government evacuated Homesh as part of the disengagement plan in 2005, and by law, residing there is not permitted. And yet, a yeshiva with dozens of students has been operating there for years to which the government and the IDF have turned a blind eye. Now, the leaders of the Yesha Council of settlements are trying to leverage the murder at the site to arrange for renewed permanent settlement there, as well as to quickly establish an outpost in the Hebron area. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who harshly criticized Bar-Lev’s remarks, explains that the settlers are the first line of defense for the people of Israel in the West Bank. In reality, their presence has the opposite effect – the IDF continues to supply them with a broad layer of security, in order to protect the illegal outposts as well.

The West Bank is not calm, and in fact relative calm has not been restored since the fighting in Gaza in May. There are many moving parts at work here that could spark a broader renewed conflict – the weakness of the PA along with the continued maintenance of the occupation by Israel, which always involves clashes and friction. This mixture is missing just one element that would lead to a much worse eruption – another event on the Temple Mount, where incidents have increased recently, may be all it takes.

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