The Shin Bet security service recently submitted a classified document to the prime minister, the defense minister and other senior security officials expressing opposition to the recent Israeli-Palestinian talks about reducing Israeli military activity in Area A of the West Bank, senior Jerusalem officials told Haaretz.
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In the opinion document, the Shin Bet objected to the process, arguing that coming to understandings with the Palestinians on this could lead to diplomatic restrictions that would limit the Israel Defense Forces’ freedom of movement in the Palestinian cities in the West Bank and make it more difficult to foil terror attacks. Both the IDF and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon believe the opposite, that the move would not impact on Israel’s ability to combat terror and that the Palestinian security forces could do much of what the IDF is doing today.
According to Palestinian media reports, there was another meeting Sunday between the Israeli negotiating team, whose members include Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai and Central Command commander Maj. Gen. Roni Numa, and the Palestinian team, which includes Civilian Affairs Minister Hussein a-Sheikh and Palestinian intelligence chief Majid Faraj.
The Palestinians made it clear they wanted to reach understandings regarding IDF activity in Area A before the donor countries' conference convenes in Brussels on Tuesday, though it isn’t clear that this will occur. A senior Jerusalem official said that the framework being discussed now involves reducing Israeli military activity in the Palestinian cities for a trial period, during which increased responsibility will be transferred to the Palestinian security services. The entry of IDF forces into Area A would require the approval of the Central Command commander; currently such activity requires only the approval of a brigade commander.
The Shin Bet did not deny the existence of the document or the views and content expressed in it. “The Shin Bet’s position on sensitive diplomatic matters is presented directly to the political echelons and not through the media,” the agency said, referring questions to the prime minister’s bureau.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s bureau did not deny the existence of the Shin Bet document, either. “The IDF maintains and will always maintain freedom of movement anywhere determined by operational needs,” the bureau said. “This policy will not change and will continue in the future.”
A senior official who preferred to remain anonymous noted that the Shin Bet opinion was not submitted in an orderly fashion to members of the security cabinet, some of whom also object to the move but are being kept out of the loop by Netanyahu and Ya’alon. A senior Shin Bet official who was part of a tour of the West Bank conducted for security cabinet ministers around a week-and-a-half ago did not express his agency’s opinion to the ministers when the issue came up for discussion.
The senior official said that several security cabinet ministers are becoming increasingly aggravated about the move itself as well as the way decisions about it are being made. Ministers Naftali Bennett, Ayelet Shaked, Zeev Elkin and Gilad Erdan believe that in their discussions with IDF officers, Netanyahu and Ya’alon are engaging in diplomatic matters while presenting the talks as security discussions that deal with mere tactical adjustments to the deployment of IDF forces.
Area A, comprising the large Palestinian cities and their adjacent villages, makes up around a fifth of the West Bank. Under the Oslo Accords, these areas are meant to be under total Palestinian military and civilian control, but since Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, during the second intifada, Israel has stopped honoring parts of the accords relating to Area A and the IDF operates there freely.
Around a month ago, Haaretz revealed that Israel and the PA were conducting secret talks about gradually restoring security responsibility in the West Bank cities to the Palestinian security forces. Israel has proposed that the IDF stop its frequent operational activities in Area A and enter only in cases of “ticking bombs” – situations that pose an immediate terror threat.
During the discussions Israel suggested that Ramallah and Jericho be the first two cities from which the IDF will withdraw, and if the move is successful, it will be expanded to other cities in the West Bank. The Palestinians rejected this proposal, demanding that the IDF stop entering all the Palestinian cities in Area A. The Palestinians claim that agreeing to the Israeli proposal would be tantamount to legitimizing IDF operations in most of the West Bank cities and officially accepting Israel’s unilateral violation of the Oslo Accords.
Although the Palestinians nixed Israel’s initial offer, the talks have continued and gaps have been reduced. Israel has accepted some of the Palestinian demands and agreed to reducing operations in all West Bank cities. The trial period of the IDF withdrawal, in which the Palestinians’ ability to handle security responsibilities is tested, will be relatively short.