Israeli Soldiers Lucky to Escape Qalandiyah Clashes Alive

The incident Monday in which two Israeli soldiers got lost in a violent Palestinian refugee camp could have ended in their kidnapping – or murder.

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The very unwise use of a navigation app led two Israel Defense Forces soldiers on Monday night into the heart of Qalandiyah, one of the most hostile refugee in the territories. The army will now have to ensure that its logistical planning, which accompanies any military operation, henceforth takes into consideration the new circumstances on the ground as the current intifada enters its sixth month. The upshot should be more exact preparation and closer monitoring of military movement in the West Bank, with an eye to potential complications.

The violent incident ended with IDF forces shooting one Palestinian dead and wounding some 10 others while trying to locate and extract the two lost soldiers, whose jeep had been hit by a firebomb. Not much more would have been needed for this incident to escalate to the point of a mob kidnapping or even murdering the men.

In October 2000, shortly after the second intifada erupted, two reservists became embroiled in similar circumstances, albeit in the pre-Waze era, after entering Al-Bira, adjacent to Qalandiyah. What transpired there became known as the Ramallah "lynching," and generated the iconic photo of a Palestinian policeman waving blood-soaked hands at the mob from the window of a police station.

Many Israeli politicians and military brass breathed a sigh of relief Monday night when the second soldier – who was out of contact with his comrades for an hour – was located close to midnight, unharmed.

This time it was apparently a matter of more luck than sense.

A few months before the present round of violence began, an IDF commander in the West Bank said that in recent years “over 400 Gilad Shalit ordeals” (a reference to the 2006 kidnapping by Hamas of an IDF soldier) had been prevented when Palestinian policemen returned unharmed Israeli civilians and sometimes soldiers, who had accidentally entered Palestinian Authority territory. That still happens occasionally, but not in places like Qalandiyah, a camp that sees itself almost as an entity independent from the PA, and where soldiers on arrest operations have encountered live fire on more than one occasion.

Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon and senior IDF officials have pointed to the drop in the number of attacks on Israelis in recent weeks as indicating Israel’s relative control of the situation. But the incident in Qalandiyah illustrates that all it takes is a certain set of circumstances, like a navigation error, to create an opportunity that ends in spilled blood.

The ground is still charged with negative energy, and it erupts occasionally in a fatal incident, mostly involving youths who set out to perpetrate knife attacks. Meanwhile, there are also other developments that could potentially wreak more damage, such as small, independent cells of attackers being created and the use of live fire.

Although some of the existing terror infrastructure has not been exploited until this time, it is known that Palestinian youths are trying to commit attacks in groups to obtain more deadly results and make it easier to cause damage or injury even if they run into police or armed soldiers. Groups of two or three terrorists were involved in many of the fatal attacks in recent months – such as the supermarket stabbing in Sha’ar Binyamin, the Damascus Gate shooting attack and the Beit Horon murder. Sometimes, significant planning and preparation preceded the attacks. In a few instances, the terrorists were also able to arm themselves with guns.

Because members of the Palestinian security forces have rarely been involved in the recent spate of terror attacks, and since the price of a gun in the West Bank black market remains prohibitive, the demand has grown for old or improvised weapons. The Shin Bet security service announced on Monday the arrest of two brothers, Hamas members from Hebron, who wounded four Israelis in recent months in a series of shooting incidents in the city. They used an improvised sniper rifle and a submachine gun. Furthermore, in a pre-dawn joint operation on Tuesday, the IDF and the Shin Bet uncovered in Nablus a lathe for manufacturing weapons as well as some weapons.

The longer the confrontation in the territories continues, the more likely it is that standard weapons will be used by assailants, either because PA policemen will hand them over to independent terror cells – or because they themselves will decide to participate in the attacks.