IDF's Stance on Palestinian Authority Could Trigger Discord With Netanyahu, Ya'alon

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Palestinian mourners pray over the bodies of Anas Hamad and Mohammed Ayad, who were killed after reportedly perpetrating car-ramming attacks, during their funeral in Silwad, January 3, 2015.
Palestinian mourners at a West Bank funeral in January 2015.Credit: AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Very quietly, with little media coverage, the Israel Defense Forces this week returned dozens of bodies of attackers killed in the West Bank over the last three months to the Palestinian Authority.

By the end of the week, no more Palestinians’ bodies were being held by the army. So came to an end, almost unnoticed, one of the key punitive and deterrence measures approved by the Israeli cabinet with great fanfare to help combat the current terror wave.

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, a chief proponent of holding onto the corpses, can continue to study the possible impact of this measure. The police, who answer to him, are still holding onto the bodies of some terrorists killed in East Jerusalem or in Israel. The army, however, is convinced that the measure has served no purpose. The prevention of funerals has not dampened the motivation of other attackers.

Conversely, the refusal to hand over the bodies of Palestinians from Hebron served to raise tensions in the West Bank city for several weeks. This subsided somewhat as soon as Israel started returning these bodies. The whole affair, said a senior army officer, was absolute folly. This is a view shared by many senior defense officials. There are those who voice similar criticism over another measure taken by the government: the renewed demolition of terrorists’ homes. Israel resumed these demolitions in 2014 after a nine-year hiatus and in recent months the rate of demolitions has been greatly accelerated. The use of this measure remains controversial, although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon fully support the policy.

More than three months into the flare-up that no one dares call a third intifada, its violent nature is beyond dispute. There are alternate incidents of car rammings and stabbings, with short breaks followed by a sudden surge – a pattern that intelligence agencies find difficult to explain. But mass demonstrations, which occurred occasionally during the first month, have almost totally disappeared in the West Bank. However, there has been a rise in the number of shooting attacks.

The most striking aspect of the current terror wave, which occasionally strikes within Israel itself – as it did last Friday in the heart of Tel Aviv – relates to its perpetrators. The vast majority are still acting independently, with no organized hierarchy behind them, even when it comes to the shooting attacks. Hamas has increased its activity, reactivating some of its veteran cells, but so far its achievements have been meager due to coordinated counterefforts by Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Mourners place candles at the scene of a deadly shooting attack in downtown Tel Aviv on January 2, 2016.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Source of tension

So far, no prominent internal disputes have been visible on the Israeli side, with Netanyahu and Ya’alon backing IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot. He wishes to limit the army response to the rise in violence and refrain from a wide-scale reprisal campaign, arguing that there is no comparison between these stabbing attacks and the second intifada’s suicide bombings. Eisenkot and senior officers view demands for an operation similar to 2002’s Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank with some irony. They ask what good it would do to confiscate all the kitchen knives in Hebron and Ramallah, especially as the army already arrests dozens of people suspected of being involved in terrorist or violent activity. Conducting a large operation in a limited area such as Hebron remains an option, but it’s not being pursued while the number of Israeli casualties is insufficient to create effective political pressure on the government.

Criticism voiced by the opposition – from Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union) to Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu) – regarding Netanyahu’s response to the terror wave has been vague, without proposing any practical military alternatives. Cabinet member and Education Minister Naftali Bennett (Habayit Hayehudi), who proposed a widespread and harsh military response in the first few weeks, has now lessened his tone and is busying himself with the implications of the Jewish extremists’ murders in Duma and the censorship of reading material on the high school curriculum.

Palestinian protester uses a slingshot to hurl stones towards Israeli troops during clashes in the West Bank city of Bethlehem December 4, 2015. Credit: Reuters

However, there is potential for some tension between politicians and the military establishment. As reported in Haaretz, defense officials are identifying a significant improvement in the functioning of Palestinian security forces over the last month. Incitement in official Palestinian media has subsided, while coordination with Israel has markedly improved. Members of Tanzim (Fatah’s militant wing) are not taking part in demonstrations, while security forces are returning to friction points, in uniform, in order to prevent confrontations between protesters and the IDF. Also, they have arrested Hamas activists in Nablus and Hebron.

The paradox is that all this activity, viewed positively by Israel, has not led to a reduction in the number of terror attacks. The measures taken by the Palestinian Authority have had no impact on the car rammers and knife wielders, although these steps are important in blocking the transition from the use of simple weapons to an armed intifada, as preferred by Hamas.

In light of the PA’s new approach, and alongside concerns that, in a worst-case scenario, the authority could collapse later this year, there is growing support within the IDF – including among army brass, Military Intelligence and the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories – for making gestures to the PA and easing restrictions, despite the continued terror wave.

The army is consciously stepping into quicksand here. Netanyahu doesn’t really believe in resuming the diplomatic process, and is highly sensitive to making any concessions that may be perceived as showing weakness or capitulating to terror. Ya’alon, who is also skeptical about any progress in diplomatic channels, is nonetheless willing to risk making a few gestures. These are less dramatic than those envisaged by the army and no decision has been reached yet.

The IDF has already experienced the fury of politicians when it dared hint that a diplomatic component will be required to extinguish the flames. Brig. Gen. Guy Goldstein, the deputy head of COGAT, said as much in a lecture at Netanya College last November, and has not appeared in public since. When Central Command chief Maj. Gen. Roni Numa supported in principle the replacement of Palestinian security forces’ light weapons with armored jeeps so they could enter refugee camps in the West Bank, Ya’alon and Eisenkot rushed to explain that journalists had taken his words out of context.

Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas gesturing as he speaks during a Christmas lunch with members of the Christian Orthodox community on January 6, 2016 in Bethlehem. Credit: AFP

This week’s media attention over the possible collapse of the Palestinian Authority brought the issue from the theoretical to the possible, with the Israeli cabinet discussing how to prepare for such an eventuality. However, most Israeli intelligence agencies don’t believe it will happen soon. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is showing some signs of deteriorating attentiveness, involvement and energy (not surprising for someone who turns 81 in March), but as far as it depends on him, he will not let the PA collapse. The Palestinian Authority, he said in Bethlehem last Wednesday, will only be replaced by a Palestinian state. It seems he is troubled not only by a possible end to the national vision of his Fatah movement. His family members, along with those of other senior officials in the current regime, enjoy a host of economic privileges: An end to the PA will also signify an economic disaster for its leadership, not to mention the possibility that a new leadership might expose the corruption of the preceding one.

The main danger of the PA collapsing – a scenario that Netanyahu has also started defining as dangerous – lies in the day after Abbas departs. The president may try and advance a small coalition of his associates to positions of potential successors. These include the head of his intelligence services, Majid Faraj, and his peace envoy, Saeb Erekat. A transition of power to these men will encounter stiff opposition from other senior officials, like Mohammed Dahlan and Jibril Rajoub, which may undermine the stability of the PA. Ramallah is already perceived as an economic and political bubble, disconnected from the harsh daily reality experienced by residents of other areas in the West Bank, let alone the Gaza Strip.

However, the main problem facing the Palestinian Authority – certainly under any Abbas-appointed future heirs – is the legitimacy of its rule. There have been no elections in the West Bank for a decade and the PA maintains its rule through force and repeated extensions of its authority, which would be unlikely to hold up in court. The complex legal status erodes public support for the PA, coming on top of constant accusations of corruption and criticism that it is not taking a tougher stance against the occupation. This is one reason Abbas frequently announces conciliatory agreements with Hamas after previous ones fizzle out, as well as constantly talking about the need to hold new elections.

In practice, it’s hard to believe that internationally supervised democratic elections will take place in the near future, due to the geographic rift between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and the intense animosity between the PA and Hamas. However, Abbas, who took over from Yasser Arafat in November 2004, can already feel the erosion of his standing in Palestinian institutions and among the public due to the absence of elections. This hurdle will become higher and harder to clear when his eventual successors take center stage.