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In the Wait for More Terror, Israel Still Has a Palestinian Security Partner

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The Border Police frisking a Palestinian in Jerusalem, September 2016.
The Border Police frisking a Palestinian in Jerusalem, September 2016.Credit: Reuters / Ammar Awad

October 1 is the anniversary of the outbreak of the terror wave that has swept the West Bank and East Jerusalem and briefly even spilled over the Green Line. On that date a year ago, Eitam Henkin and his wife Na'ama were shot to death in front of their children by a Hamas cell from the Nablus area.

In the weeks and months after the murder, nearly every day saw attempted stabbings, car-rammings and sometimes shootings of Israeli civilians and soldiers until the wave was curbed over the summer – only to resume two weeks ago.

Hamas called for a day of rage in the territories and Jerusalem, but that was doubtful from the start in part because of the security presence for Shimon Peres’ funeral at Mount Herzl. It was also doubtful the Palestinian Authority had any interest in calling attention to Palestinian violence on the day a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and partner to the Oslo Accords was laid to rest, even if those accords ran aground.

But the question of how and how long the violence will continue depends largely on young Palestinians. It’s linked to the tension between the intolerable occupation and the violent struggle against it, whose ineffectiveness was shown over the past year when Israel didn’t withdraw from a millimeter as a result of Palestinian pressure.

The young people in the West Bank don’t need Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speeches to know that the situation of the Arabs in Syria is far worse. Still, it’s unlikely that this knowledge is reassuring Palestinians on the friction line with the Israel Defense Forces or the settlements.

Israel, as former Central Command chief Gadi Shamni said recently, has become “the occupation champion of the world.” This is also seen in Israel’s efforts to prevent lone-wolf attacks over the past year. “There is no resemblance between our deployment a year ago and our situation now,” adds a commander of a regional brigade in the West Bank.

He describes efforts including armoring hitchhiking stations and tracking Palestinian posts on social networks, as well as ramping up arrest operations and raids on metal shops that produce the improvised submachine guns used in many recent shootings.

These measures, as well as an effort to avoid harming civilians in the territories, have curbed the violence. The other part of the effort, which Israel isn’t talking about much, involves the reviving of security coordination with the PA. From the moment the PA security forces began warning young people about the risks of taking part in violence, and went back to arresting Hamas people, the path to the subduing the terror was shorter.

Still, the immediate future is uncertain after the attack wave that began two weeks ago and amid the expected tension on the Temple Mount during this month’s Jewish holidays. Another key element is the weakening of the PA and the succession battles after President Mahmoud Abbas resigns.

As Channel 2 reporter Ohad Hemo wrote in Haaretz on Tuesday, Abbas’ hold on the West Bank is shaky. His government is perceived as Israel’s security contractor that is losing its relevance to Palestinians’ lives in the West Bank. A combination of increasing anarchy in the refugee camps and the new wave of lone-wolf attacks could accelerate a possible PA collapse and make subduing the violence more difficult.

From the perspective of Israeli defense officials, the question once again is not whether violence will erupt in the territories, but when.

Hawks no more

A Haaretz story Tuesday on cabinet members’ low presence at Central Command maneuvers mid-month jolted two ministers who didn’t show up. Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan, who has used Twitter to settle accounts with the media, especially Haaretz, claimed that the article was based on “a mendacious leak from the security establishment.”

He added: “It would have been good to ask the ministers if they had been invited to the exercise, because they weren’t.” Education Minister Naftali Bennett tweeted: “True.”

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich, 2016.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Apparently Erdan was too busy to read the story carefully. True, it said only Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Construction and Housing Minister Yoav Galant were there, to the IDF’s chagrin. But it didn’t say the ministers had received an invitation from the army, as Erdan claimed. Instead, another cabinet member told Haaretz that the ministers didn’t know about the exercise and weren’t invited.

Still, this lack of knowledge is a bit surprising. At his request, Galant was invited to observe the exercise, as were members of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. Also, as part of this year’s Central Command maneuvers, there was a large civil-defense exercise that the media reported on extensively even before it began, and a police representative also attended.

In the previous government, Erdan fought tooth and nail (until he gave up) for responsibility for the Home Front Command. But this time he didn’t hear about and didn’t inquire about the exercise that tested Israel’s ability to cope with thousands of missiles and rockets fired into civilian areas. As for Bennett, just two years ago he boasted after the Gaza war that thanks to his connections with brigade commanders he was the first to notice the threat of Hamas’ attack tunnels.

This time around, thousands of officers and soldiers were called up for the exercise that began on Thursday two weeks ago. Didn’t any of them pray in the same synagogue as Bennett?

Membership in the cabinet, which Erdan and his colleagues insisted on so firmly, isn’t an empty honor. Its decisions have tremendous influence on human lives. “Those ministers who took an interest knew,” a Netanyahu aide said, referring to Galant.

If indeed the army didn’t sent out invitations, or even worse, if the prime minister and defense minister weren’t keen to have other ministers poking around at maneuvers (as Zionist Union MK Shelly Yacimovich hypothesizes), the IDF definitely needs a new procedure for the future.

Construction and Housing Minister Yoav Galant gives a press conference in March 2016. Credit: Ofer Vaknin

In any case, IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot didn’t try to steal the exercise from under the ministers’ noses. On the contrary, the top brass has an interest in as close a dialogue as possible with the government, well before a war breaks out.

Israel’s strategic arena is more dangerous than ever not only because of events in the wider Arab world or Hezbollah’s vast military improvements, but also because of Russia’s entrance into Syria, which will affect the Israeli response in any future conflict in Lebanon.

The ministers’ lack of knowledge about the exercise that engaged the entire military for more than a week might reflect both limited interest and flawed procedures at the cabinet members’ offices. In language familiar to Erdan and Bennett from their days as young career officers, it appears the officer isn’t living what’s happening in his unit.