The conflict with the Palestinians has its own ways of reminding people of its existence, even when Israeli governments do their best to push it to the bottom of the national agenda.
In the wee hours of Sunday morning, while Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was en route to New York for his first speech to the UN General Assembly, the security services embarked on a large-scale arrest operation across the West Bank. The target was Hamas’ military infrastructure in the Ramallah and Jenin areas.
But some of the Israeli forces encountered armed resistance by the wanted men. The night ended with five Palestinians dead and two Israelis – an officer and soldier in the undercover Duvdevan unit – in serious condition after being shot.
Bennett told reporters aboard his plane that the security forces had targeted “Hamas terrorists who were about to carry out terror attacks in the immediate future.” The plan apparently included a series of attacks, some of them inside Israel.
There have recently been several shooting attacks on army checkpoints in the Jenin region, and Israeli arrest operations, especially near the Jenin refugee camp, have been met with an unusual volume of Palestinian gunfire. The Palestinian Authority’s security services avoid the city, and especially the refugee camp, almost totally for fear of clashes.
The escape of six Palestinian prisoners from Gilboa Prison earlier this month also contributed to the stormy mood in the northern West Bank. All six are from the Jenin area. They were recaptured after a manhunt that lasted about two weeks – two near Jenin and the rest inside Israel, in Nazareth and the Jezreel Valley.
The Hamas network whose members were arrested on Sunday is unusual because it encompasses two regions of the West Bank that are relatively far apart. Since the second intifada ended some 15 years ago, Hamas’ military wing in the West Bank has had trouble operating a general command that would control all the regional networks.
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And ongoing counterterrorism efforts known as “mowing the grass” – carried out by the Shin Bet security service and the Israel Defense Forces, sometimes with help from the PA security services – have uncovered and thwarted most of these networks before they manage to do significant damage.
The latest arrests seem like a miniature version of what happened in the summer of 2014, just before the kidnapping of three Israeli teens in the West Bank and the subsequent war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip. In that incident, a network of dozens of Hamas activists throughout the West Bank was discovered.
The network arrested in 2014 was planning attacks against Israelis and also sought to topple the PA’s government. The people behind it were senior Hamas operatives in Gaza and abroad, including some who were deported after being released from jail in 2011 to secure the return of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit.
This time, too, it’s worth noting the possible involvement of Hamas operatives overseas. The key person is Saleh al-Arouri, who is officially the deputy head of Hamas’ political bureau but in practice is involved in directing and financing terrorist activity. Two other senior figures are Moussa Dudin and Zahar Jabareen, who are also officially members of the political bureau.
All three are originally from the West Bank. Arouri went abroad in 2010 as part of a deal with the Shin Bet. The other two, who had been jailed for terrorist activity, were deported a year later as part of the Shalit deal. All three are veteran Hamas operatives in their forties who are still connected to what’s happening in the West Bank.
Other operatives are from Gaza, and also include some deported as part of the Shalit deal.
Dudin was recruited into Hamas by Arouri. Jabareen was recruited by the late Yihye Ayash, nicknamed “the engineer,” back in 1993. Until 2017, all three men lived in Qatar. Today, they rotate between Lebanon and Turkey.
Because Hamas in the West Bank is short of money, funding for its political activity also comes from Hamas military headquarters overseas. This means that all three men are involved in Hamas’ political activity as well.
Altogether, Israel has arrested more than 20 Palestinians over the last week, an operation that peaked early Sunday morning. The number of armed operatives, their geographic spread and the fact that some were found in “safe houses” outside their villages may all be indicative of preparations for terrorist attacks, possibly inside Israel. It’s still not clear whether all the terrorists involved were arrested and whether their plans have been definitively thwarted.
In two incidents – one involving the Duvdevan soldiers in Burkin, near Jenin, and one involving the Border Police counterterrorism unit Yamam in Biddu, west of Ramallah – the Palestinians opened fire first. The wanted man in Burkin had hidden under the house. After he opened fire, the soldiers stormed his position.
The IDF Central Command is looking into the reasonable possibility that the two soldiers were hit by friendly fire during this assault. But based on the initial inquiry, this wasn’t a case of mistaken identity, in which one force fires at another because the first mistakenly thinks the second are terrorists.
The Palestinian fatalities include a relatively well-known local operative, Ahmad Zahran of Biddu. Israeli intelligence agencies have been familiar with his name for several years. His picture, mounted on a horse, was disseminated Sunday morning on Palestinian social media networks, which crowned him as a hero of the struggle against Israel.
Another fatality has been identified as a member of Islamic Jihad. It’s still not clear whether he was involved in the Hamas terrorist network or merely joined the shootout once it started. During some of the arrests, armed men did show up to help the wanted men by joining the gunfight.
As far as is known, all the men killed are known operatives in the military wings of terrorist organizations and were killed during a gunfight. But the unusually high number of Palestinian fatalities may spark unrest in the territories, as well as attempts to carry out revenge attacks.
No less important is the possibility of a reaction from Gaza. In the past, Islamic Jihad has fired rockets at Israel from Gaza in response to killings of its members in the West Bank.
Hamas faces a more difficult dilemma. Because it rules Gaza, its leaders know that rocket fire from Hamas would likely prompt a harsher Israeli response and could thereby endanger Egypt’s efforts to broker a long-term truce between Hamas and Israel.
The timing is also very inconvenient for Israel’s government. Sunday’s incident occurred during the Sukkot holiday and on the eve of Bennett’s UN address.