Drifting Into an Interethnic War Both in the West Bank and Israel Proper

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The site of the shooting in Jerusalem, October 22, 2015. A man was shot dead after he was suspected of trying to grab a soldier's gun. Credit: Uri Davis / Firefighter Department

In the third week of the conflict – the intifada that’s not yet called an intifada – the nature of the clashes has changed, but the direction is clear: escalation and a further deterioration in ties between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. There’s also no plan for a way out, despite the modicum of interest the international community is beginning to show.

Though UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon invited himself for a visit to the region and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has been talking with the two sides in recent days, their influence seems small. This is an uprising still being dictated from below. Israel, the PA, Hamas and even the smaller Palestinian factions are having a hard time keeping up with events, never mind controlling them.

There is still the phenomenon of young Palestinians taking to the streets independently with few preparations. What happened in the first two weeks among young people in East Jerusalem, holders of blue ID cards that allow free movement throughout Israel, spread in the third week to the West Bank, especially Hebron.

Nearly every day, individual terrorists launched stabbing or car-ramming attacks. But due to increased security measures in the West Bank, it seems most assailants were stopped by the military and police before they reached Israeli civilians.

Still, the violence carries the seed of an even greater danger – a deep rift between Jews and Arabs, a virtual interethnic war both in the West Bank and Israel proper. So far, Israeli Arabs have been involved in terror attacks in just two incidents at the beginning of the clashes.

But there have been two tragic incidents in recent days – the lynching of an Eritrean bystander after a terror attack in Be’er Sheva and the killing of a Jew by soldiers on a bus in Jerusalem. These indicated the possible direction: endless suspicion and distancing between Jews and Arabs, in Israel proper as well, with everyone afraid of getting hurt if they mistakenly stray into the wrong territory.

What most of the terrorists have in common is a willingness to die, despite the small likelihood of causing much damage in the first place. The military and police presence and the rapid response have led in most cases to the wounding or killing of the attacker very quickly. And fortunately, individuals armed only with knives haven’t wounded or killed too many people.

But this isn’t deterring the young people; the wave isn’t receding. On the contrary, every killed knife-wielder becomes a shahid (martyr) and in a few cases is even depicted as a victim, who inspires imitators. The young Palestinians of the 2015 generation resemble their parents’ generation – the youths who marched bare-chested at the head of demonstrations in the West Bank and Gaza at the start of the first intifada in December 1987. They taunted Israeli soldiers and almost compelled marksmen to fire at them.

The top brass is preparing for a long confrontation. There is the expectation that in December, if the incidents continue without a significant escalation, the first battalions of reservists will be called up to reinforce the army, which has had to drop much of its training. The relatively good news: Defense officials say the coordination with their PA counterparts is continuing, so in much of the West Bank terror attacks are being quashed.

In Gaza, even after the police operation hitting Hamas snipers near the fence, the group is trying to stop other groups’ rocket fire and to limit marches to the fence. But Hamas is calling on West Bank Palestinians to switch over from stabbings to car-rammings; the aim: to cause more casualties.

For the first time, in recent days Hamas men known to the Shin Bet security service have been identified among the stabbers. The group might still be urging its cells to carry out shooting attacks in the West Bank and inside the Green Line. The small number of such attacks is explained by organizational and capability problems; it’s not a strategic policy. The increasing number of Palestinian casualties, most of them in attempted attacks, is all but ensuring more violence.

Ya’alon the responsible adult

The date was set far in advance and with rather odd timing in light of events on the ground. This week the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories held “a salute to past coordinators” at the Palmahim air base. It’s hard to celebrate an occupation, especially because the enlightened occupation that Moshe Dayan promised isn’t the situation nearly five decades later.

Still, the current coordinator, Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, whom the Palestinians describe sarcastically as the next PA president after Mahmoud Abbas, decided to honor his predecessors. Fortunately, most of them (like Mordechai) have reflected the more clearheaded side in Israel's approach to the Palestinian population.

The main speaker at the event was Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon. It will be interesting to see whether a year from now this speech will be seen as his political swan song. In the current atmosphere Ya’alon is among the very last moderate voices in the leadership.

As most of his colleagues compete over “likes” and straightening Zionist spines against the enemy rising to destroy us, he sees a broader picture. Ya’alon remains a chronic doubter about the Palestinians’ intentions and a great skeptic about diplomatic negotiations. “No milk is going to come out of this billy goat,” he has said of Abbas.

But even though his and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policy of managing the conflict is crashing, Ya’alon is retaining his perspective and not being dragged into gut reactions and magical thinking. His approach isn’t being greeted with joy among fellow Likudniks, a continuation of the relative disappointment with last year’s Gaza war against Hamas.

It’s possible that in the foreseeable future Likud will cast Ya’alon out, as it once did to David Levy, Dan Meridor and others (and de facto, after his election, to President Reuven Rivlin). Still, Ya’alon’s speech at the event sounded like a voice of sanity against the raging incitement, as opposition chiefs Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union) and Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) transform themselves into experts on opening fire. Ya’alon called for Israel to distinguish between the fight against terror and its treatment of Palestinian civilians.

Ya’alon’s list was impressive: “To keep helping the inhabitants of Jenin, Nablus and Ramallah earn a decent living and live well . To maintain the rule of law in every instance both large and small. To condemn acts of lynching in a loud and clear voice.” On lynchings: “No one is allowed to behave that way, even when the anger is great.”

Don’t mention East Jerusalem

In the meantime, the atmosphere in the international community, of which the French proposal to station a foreign observer force on the Temple Mount is the first portent, isn’t trending toward understanding of Israel’s situation. The Netanyahu government has rejected the French proposal outright, saying a change in the status quo to Israel’s detriment will reward terror. (The classic trap: During quiet there is no pressure for change; during a conflagration we mustn’t give in to terror.)

After three weeks of violence it’s getting harder to halt the whirlwind. COGAT chief Mordechai said at a press conference with the Arab media Wednesday that there was still time to stop the deterioration. A major terror attack, he hinted, would thwart this possibility.

And Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot said in a rare interview with Channel 2: “There is no focused and definite military solution to a challenge of this kind. There is a combined, multidimensional answer. I can’t hide behind the notion that this is a grassroots and broad phenomenon influenced by external events. I believe that a solution to the problem will be found, but it will take time.”

One could discern a cautious echo of remarks by one of Eisenkot’s predecessors, Dan Shomron, during the first intifada, in 1988: “There is no military solution.” This stirred harsh criticism on the right. Is Eisenkot hinting at a need for a complementary diplomatic move? The chief of staff wasn’t asked and he didn’t volunteer a position.

Brig. Gen. (res.) Udi Dekel wrote this week on the Institute for National Security Studies’ website that the violence in Jerusalem had upended the government’s basic assumptions so a new diplomatic tack was necessary – from a joint committee to examine the situation on the Temple Mount to arrangements to separate Israel from East Jerusalem’s Arab neighborhoods in the longer term.

During the past two weeks Israel has sent out feelers to Jordan in the hope that King Abdullah would help calm the tension on the Temple Mount. In November, during the previous round of violence that was also explained by the rush of Israeli public figures to the Mount, Israel asked Abdullah for help. Netanyahu forbade the continuation of visits to the Mount by MKs and cabinet members, and a summit meeting took place in Amman. After that came an increase in the number of Waqf guards; the Waqf administers the Mount under Jordan’s auspices.

This time Israel’s leaders see a calmer Temple Mount as the first condition for stopping the violence. They would be pleased with a Jordanian declaration confirming that the status quo had not been harmed, despite the Palestinians’ claims. Also, Israel is hoping for tougher Jordanian instructions to the Waqf guards, in an attempt to prevent more clashes with the police. But so far Amman has refused to commit.

And thus Israel is clinging to the existing situation in Jerusalem: It’s saying no to changes on the Temple Mount and of course no to any renewed discussion on control of the Arab neighborhoods. The government still treats Isawiyah and Jabal Mukkaber as if they were as important as the Western Wall and the Jewish Quarter of the Old City.

For the same reason, when about a week ago a small concrete wall was erected at the exit from Jabal Mukkaber, the prefab segments had the caption “temporary” printed on them. Sometimes life here really does resemble a skit on the TV satire “A Wonderful Country.”

And sometimes it seems Israeli creativity has been spent. Early Tuesday, an army detachment arrested Sheikh Hassan Yousef, a top Hamas leader in the West Bank. The IDF spokesman sent out a video documenting the arrest at the sheikh’s home in the town of Bitunia, west of Ramallah.

The television channels are hungry for footage from the field, even when they receive it already edited. Few bothered to note that Yousef is a perpetual detainee. Israel arrested and released him countless times during the second intifada and afterward – the last time was after the abduction of the three teens in June 2014.

Presumably the sheikh, also known as the father of Mosab Yousef, author of the book “Son of Hamas” and one of the best Palestinian agents ever to work for the Shin Bet, packed a bag the moment the violence began. If this is the answer to the situation, it seems Israel needs a better solution, unless the arrest is designed to provide an alternative channel for communication with Hamas.

‘A doctrinal swamp’

The head of strategic planning at the General Staff, Col. Alon Paz, spent last year researching at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and produced an interesting document there. His diagnoses of the situation were written after the Gaza war, but they’re also relevant about the current round of violence.

Israel, he writes, is on the front line of the challenge facing Western armies in an era of asymmetrical warfare. On one side is a network of enemies going back only a generation or two; on the other side are conventional armies with their dinosaur tradition.

As Paz writes, the Israeli security paradigm still focuses on conventional conflicts with state armies, but now it has to take into account new threats around the region: religious radicalization, urbanization and insecurity regarding water and food supplies. Israel’s enemies are presenting an effective challenge to its national security doctrine, which David Ben-Gurion defined in the 1950s based on the holy trinity: deterrence, early warning and military superiority. (In the past decade defense was semiofficially added as a fourth element).

Paz is saying aloud what has been whispered at the General Staff for more than a year: The effectiveness of large military campaigns has declined over the past decade, as was made clear by the Second Lebanon War and the three Gaza campaigns. Israel’s defense establishment isn’t as good achieving its national security goals; achievements are limited by the unclear definition of aims, vague instructions from the government and the absence of profound discussions between the government and the Israel Defense Forces.

Israel’s military superiority is eroding despite the large investment in improving its tactical prowess. The enemy is almost an equal to the IDF in a number of tactical areas, while stricter limitations are being imposed on the army, both in the external arena (criticism of killing civilians) and the internal arena (the public’s fear of losses). Accordingly, Israel’s freedom of action and its choices on the battlefield are shrinking.

According to Paz, Israel is sinking into “a doctrinal swamp.” Traditional military deterrence no longer deters enough or ensures victory over non-state players; the fighting ends ambiguously. Israel leans toward a reactive policy, not long-term thinking. The adjustments are too slow, as is the crafting of answers to the new situation.

The chameleon that is war has again changed its colors and the defense establishment must change accordingly, Paz concludes.

Eisenkot started out as a chief of staff of change. Now he too, like some of his predecessors, is getting dragged into the Palestinian quicksand that he knew so well during the second intifada and that he has worried about since taking over in February.

Shaul Mofaz and Ya’alon as chiefs of staff hoped to lead major reforms but sank into pursuing suicide terrorists. Eisenkot began his term with organizational changes, found himself on defense against the Locker committee regarding the defense budget and spends his days worrying about lone knife-wielders.

In his document, Paz recommends serious dialogue in which the government and military forge a strategy together. This might seem like a problem as far as democracy is concerned, but it clearly corresponds with the IDF strategy document the chief of staff published in August.

Paz’s document is an attempt at a deep discussion on Israel’s strategic situation, while Israel defends itself against terrorists’ kitchen knives and argues about the mufti’s role during the Holocaust. It’s hard to predict how much attention the document will receive.

As for Paz’s expectations of top ministers, in his new capacity at the General Staff he’s sometimes invited to cabinet meetings. Maybe he’ll sober up and shed his optimism after a few discussions in Jerusalem.