Israel, Palestinian Authority Edge Closer to Restoring Coordination

Israel trying to expedite transfer of medical aid as COVID-19 cases spike ■ How the army plans to tackle dwindling motivation to enlist in combat units

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A demonstrator carrying a Palestinian flag runs through a cloud of tear gas fired by Israeli forces during clashes, in the Jordan Valley of the West Bank, November 24, 2020.
A demonstrator carrying a Palestinian flag runs through a cloud of tear gas fired by Israeli forces during clashes, in the Jordan Valley of the West Bank, November 24, 2020. Credit: Majdi Mohammed,AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Progress is underway in the Palestinian arena toward a return to security and civilian coordination between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. At Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s directive, two meetings were held within a week between the coordinator of government activities in the territories, Maj. Gen. Kamil Abu Rokon, and the chief of Central Command, Maj. Gen. Tamir Yadai, and the heads of the Palestinian security branches. Next week, meetings of the brigade commanders on both sides are slated to be held throughout the West Bank. The Israeli side demanded, and apparently got, a return to full coordination without reservations that the Palestinians might put forward.

On Sunday, the security cabinet is expected to approve the transfer of the tax funds that Israel collects for the Palestinians, and which the latter have refused to accept since relations were severed at the beginning of the year, amid a crisis that developed after they rejected the Trump administration’s “deal of the century.”

The Palestinians were to receive about three billion shekels (more than $903 million at the current exchange rate), but several hundred million shekels will be deducted because of the financial aid that the Palestinians provide to the security prisoners incarcerated in Israel. At the same time, the PA has agreed, as a goodwill gesture to the incoming Biden administration, to revise the nature of the support provided to the prisoners and to cease measuring it in terms of the severity of their offenses. This measure is meant to tone down the dispute with Israel over the money granted to the prisoners.

The Palestinians are complaining about governance problems and stability in the West Bank; they’re concerned that the frustration of the young generation will be vented in the form of violence against the PA and Israel. In the coming days they are supposed to return to Israel almost 20 Arab offenders from Israel who were arrested in the West Bank on suspicion of having committed criminal acts during the period of the disconnect between the sides. 

Palestinian demonstrators clash with Israeli soldiers during a protest against Jewish settlements on November 24, 2020, in the Jordan Valley in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.Credit: JAAFAR ASHTIYEH - AFP

Looming in the background is the aggravation of the coronavirus pandemic in both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. There are more than 8,500 verified carriers in the West Bank (almost as many as in Israel) and about 7,000 in the Gaza Strip. The daily rate of new carriers in both regions is already above the 1,000 mark. The R coefficient (average number of people infected per carrier) is close to 1.4 in both regions, as compared to 1.04 in Israel. Israel is sending coronavirus test kits and other materials to the West Bank and is trying to expedite the transfer of medical aid to Gaza as well.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week expressed concern over the spread of the virus from the West Bank to Israel’s Arab population and ordered tighter supervision at the checkpoints, this after a ban was imposed on the entry of Arabs from Israel into the territories of the PA.

An argument has been waged in the past few days over the Palestinians working in Israel. Some 90,000 Palestinians go to work each day inside the Green Line, and the agriculture and construction industries are heavily dependent on them. The National Security Council has recommended examining a full closure, or alternatively a return to the arrangement that was introduced at the start of the pandemic. That entailed issuing an entry permit to Israel for three weeks, contingent on a COVID-19 test, with the workers forbidden to move back and forth between Israel and the West Bank during the period of their employment. The IDF and the office of the coordinator of government activities in the territories object to this, for fear that, as in March, the terms of the arrangement will not really be implemented.

A woman walks past a mural encouraging the wearing of face masks amid the coronavirus pandemic, in Nusseirat refugee camp, central Gaza Strip, November 24, 2020. Credit: Adel Hana,AP

Where have all the soldiers gone?

The numbers published in Haaretz this week, to the effect that 11.9 percent of the draft-age men subject to conscription in Israel received an exemption from service on grounds of mental health last year, reflect a considerable aggravation of a trend that’s been visible in the IDF for the past decade. A public furor erupted when the number reached half the current rate. Today, the constant increase – a rise of 50 percent within two years – is being met with apathy. But together with the increase in exemptions for Haredi yeshiva students to 15.9 percent, a critical mass is being reached. The bottom line is that in 2020, about a third of the male conscripts (Jews and Druze) and almost half the women are not being drafted.

Israeli army soldiers gather near al-Fawwar camp for Palestinian refugees southwest of Hebron in the occupied West Bank on November 8, 2020.Credit: HAZEM BADER - AFP

The openness with which the IDF is confirming the severity of the situation stems from a different consideration. Chief of Staff Kochavi is now waging a rearguard battle against the implementation of an agreement that his predecessor, Gadi Eisenkot, reached with the Finance Ministry in 2015 on shortening men’s service in two stages, first by four months and then again, in 2020, by another two months. Gantz forced Kochavi to abide by the agreement and to inform the August draftees that they will serve for only 2.5 years. But the chief of staff is worried that the cut will reduce the number of soldiers in the combat units and adversely affect their capability. The public report about the increase in the number of exemptions to Haredim and to those suffering from mental problems is useful for his purposes.

In the meantime, the treasury is not backing down. The deputy budget chief, Amir Reshef, stated on Wednesday in a conference of the Israel Democracy Institute, that “abridging the service will put an end to the hidden unemployment in the IDF” and that the treasury does not rule out granting a specific budgetary increment to the army in order to cope with the disparities that will be created in its manpower (for example, by signing up more combat soldiers to do months of service in the career army after completing their conscript service). 

Kochavi’s problem is that the winds of the time are blowing against him. The country is preoccupied with a severe budget crisis, which was heightened by the coronavirus pandemic, and the IDF is no longer the government’s top priority. The public mood is also not in his favor. Exemption on mental health grounds, and even declared evasion, no longer carry a stigma or shame, the discrimination in favor of the Haredim (a sweeping exemption from service) cries out to the heavens, and the military, like other large bodies, is already perceiving an erosion of the public’s confidence in it, in connection with the scars of the coronavirus crisis.

About three years ago, the IDF stopped measuring and publishing the level of motivation for combat service among draftees, explaining that the check was carried out prematurely, among high school students in the eleventh grade, and that it doesn’t reflect anything. The data haven’t improved since then. There is a countrywide decline in combat-service motivation, which is more prominent among young people in affluent cities. Few of them join the infantry or the Armored Corps, and if they do opt for combat they choose prestigious tracks (air force pilots, naval officers, special forces). The IDF is not yet having problems staffing the infantry units, but serious concern is developing already now about the quality of command in them, in the light of these trends.

An Israeli soldier at a checkpoint near Nablus in the occupied West Bank on November 4, 2020. Illustration. Credit: JAAFAR ASHTIYEH - AFP

The IDF’s manpower directorate is talking about the top-level draftees developing an approach of “selective motivation” and tending to back off quickly if their assignment requests are not fulfilled completely. At the same time, there is increasing competition for draftees with high technological capabilities. An analysis prepared by the General Staff shows that implementation of the multiyear plan “Tnufa” (Momentum) will entail a 30 percent increase in the number of soldiers assigned to technological tasks. The competition for those with the highest qualifications, in the face of the combat units’ needs, will only increase, not least because infantry and armored forces require additional technologically skilled soldiers for tasks such as operating drones or for managing communications, control and command systems.

The constraints of the coronavirus pandemic have already compelled the military to be more efficient in the pre-draft stage, with a large number of the interviews and classifications now being done remotely. To cope with the decline in readiness to serve, additional measures will be adopted, such as intensifying the preparatory programs for the IDF and tightening the cooperation with local governments, many of which have turned out to be more efficient and more focused bodies than government ministries during the coronavirus crisis.

The good news for the IDF concerns the ongoing increase in the readiness of women to serve in combat units and to do meaningful assignments. Within four years there has been a 250 percent increase in the number of combat women, and they currently constitute about 18 percent of all the female soldiers in the IDF. In 2020 alone, the number of women in combat units increased by 500 compared to the previous year. Their assignment to units such as the rescue battalions of Home Front Command, air defense and border protection (in all of which women account for more than half the fighters) means that a similar number of men became free for assignment to infantry and armored units.

Recently, an unexpected source for reinforcing army personnel has emerged: the country’s Arab population. The close cooperation with Home Front Command during the pandemic has brought about increased readiness to volunteer for military service. Two months ago, as an experiment, the IDF sent a proposal to be drafted to around 4,000 young people from the Arab population, some of them Bedouin and others Muslim Arabs. Some 1,200 of them expressed an interest in the idea, and 250 of them are already in the draft process. There’s also greater readiness among the Druze in the Golan Heights to serve. In both cases, a large percentage of these soldiers will be assigned to reinforce the Home Front Command units in their communities. These changes won’t solve the army’s need for combat troops, but this is nevertheless an unusual and unexpected development.

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