Israeli Army Gears Up for Escalation in West Bank That Could Last Weeks

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Israeli military jeep speeds across West Bank after stabbing attack left three dead in Halamish. July 21, 2017
Israeli military jeep speeds across West Bank after stabbing attack left three dead in Halamish. July 21, 2017 Credit: Nimrod Glickman
Amos Harel
Gili Cohen

Israeli military officials said on Saturday they feared copycat attacks in the wake of the murder by a Palestinian man of three Israeli civilians in a West Bank settlement Friday evening.

The concerns were voiced during a briefing by Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman with senior army and Shin Bet security service officials over the attack in Halamish and ongoing tensions around Jerusalem’s Temple Mount.

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Thousands of additional troops have been deployed in the West Bank since Friday morning, with new reinforcements added after the attack on Friday.

Israeli forces near the scene of a terror attack in the West Bank settlement of Halamish, July 21, 2017.Credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit

The army conducted a number of arrest raids in Palestinian communities in the West Bank and stepped up its monitoring of Palestinian social media networks, in light of the numerous threats and warnings of further attacks.

Army Spokesman Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis said that Military Intelligence has identified in recent days “a negative trend of a widespread awakening, which is picking up strength on a daily basis among the Palestinian public.”

Manelis said Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot has instructed the army to prepare for what could be “weeks, if not more,” of an uptick in terror attempts as well as the potential for escalation along Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip.

Manelis stressed that the army will continue to make a distinction between innocent civilians and terrorists, and to that end will not impose a closure on the entire West Bank.

This handout photo provided by the Israeli military on Saturday, July 22, 2017, shows Israel's defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman talking to army chief Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot at an Israeli military Credit: /AP

The army spokesman noted that as a result of the disagreement over Israel’s introduction of metal detectors at the entrance to the Temple Mount, for the first time since 1969 there was no Muslim prayer at the site on Friday.

Manelis spoke of the need to “remove the disagreement over prayer from the equation.” He stressed the increased importance of “religious elements” in the controversy, adding that “there is a wide anti-Israel consensus across the Arab world” due to the confrontations on the Temple Mount. As proof he cited Egyptian theologian Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who is associated with the Muslim Brotherhood and who said in his Friday sermon that the struggle over the Temple Mount is an Arab issue, not a Palestinian one.

A senior defense official told Haaretz that “our strategic goal is to prevent a third intifada. If we find an alternative way to prevent the smuggling of weapons into the compound, one which is less obtrusive than the magnetic metal detectors, we’d be willing to consider it. We don’t sanctify any one method.”

He added that “social media in the territories and the Arab world are seething around what is happening on Temple Mount. Arab leaders we have talked to understand that we did not violate the status quo there but adopted a security measure. The problem is that the public in the territories and in Arab states thinks differently. Lies are already spreading there, according to which the three terrorists from Umm al-Fahm who killed the two Border Policemen were in fact collaborators of Israel.”

The Palestinian man who stabbed to death three members of an Israeli family in Halamish was later identified as Omar al-Abed, whose age has variously been given as 18, 19 or 20. Abed was shot and wounded by a soldier during his arrest. He told investigators that he had decided to take action in response to the recent events surrounding the Temple Mount and purchased a few days ago a knife to be used in the attack. Abed told investigators that he identifies with Hamas, but the Shin Bet does not consider him a Hamas activist.

The Facebook post of Omar al-Abed, posted hours before he killed three Israelis in the West Bank settlement of Halamish.

The incident revealed some flaws in security procedures at Halamish. According to a preliminary investigation, it took Abed just a few minutes to reach the home of his victims after he breached the perimeter fence of Halamish. Manelis told correspondent that 15 minutes elapsed between Abed touching the fence and being shot by an off-duty soldier who heard cries from the home.

The army said it would investigate why the alarm that was set off when Abed touched the perimeter fence was transmitted to civilian security forces but not the army, so that the army learned of the incident later and troops only arrived on the scene after reports of an attack started spreading.

Abed walked 2.5 kilometers from his village to the settlement, carrying a bag containing a Koran, his wallet and a water bottle. Before setting out he posted his last words on Facebook, an hour and forty minutes before the attack.

Manelis called the murder scene “horrific,” adding that the army’s monitoring of social media would also be reviewed.

‘It won’t end well’

The cabinet session on Thursday night, where it was decided to leave the metal detectors at the entrance to the Temple Mount in place, was fraught with tension. The meeting lasted five hours. Only two ministers, Yuval Steinitz (Likud) and Yoav Galant (Kulanu), accepted the position of the army, the Shin Bet and MI, as well as that of the office of the coordinator of government activities in the territories, which all recommended removing the metal detectors. Among those who voted in favor of leaving them in place Arye Dery (Shas ) was absent and Moshe Kahlon (Kulanu) left in the middle. Both had left their votes with the cabinet secretary. Lieberman was there for only part of the session. His office said he was late to arrive because he was being briefed on the situation by senior army officers.

The meeting was marked by a dispute between Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich, on one hand, and Eisenkot and Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman on the other hand. Argaman had replaced Alsheich as deputy head of the Shin Bet and was a candidate to head the agency before being hired as national police chief. Alsheich stressed that since the two Border Policemen had been killed by weapons smuggled into the compound, the state has a duty to take any measures that will prevent a recurrence of such an attack.

Eisenkot reminded Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other cabinet members how the September 2000 visit to the Temple Mount by Ariel Sharon, then head of the opposition, led to the outbreak of the second intifada within one day. At the time, Eisenkot then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s military secretary, a position in which he later served under Sharon).

“It won’t end well,” Eisenkot warned cabinet members. Senior army and Shin Bet officials warned that the Temple Mount issue could be expected to escalate, in the absence of a resolution.

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan took issue with their assessment, saying. “You were wrong before and it seems you are wrong now.”

Most of the cabinet members who supported the police’s position stressed mainly their concern that Israel would be perceived as yielding to Palestinian pressure if the detectors were removed. In contrast, Galant said that ultimately, due to international pressure, Israel would have to remove them anyway. The Arab world and the international community, he warned, would not accept a situation in which Muslim worshippers were denied access to Al-Aqsa Mosque. This is how it would be viewed if they continued to refuse to pass through the metal detectors. Steinitz warned of a deterioration of relations with Egypt and Jordan due to the crisis and suggested looking into alternative methods such as security cameras and the construction of tunnels by which Muslims could access the site.

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