Israel’s intelligence branches are seeing a gradual decline in the intensity of the Palestinian terror wave, which despite continual stabbings has failed to ignite the wider public in the West Bank.
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Some of the worrying trends noted at the beginning of the confrontation, such as spillover to Arab Israelis and escalation along the Gaza border, have meanwhile been halted. Still, intelligence officials have told the political leadership in recent days that even if relative quiet is achieved, it will be very hard to restore relations with the Palestinian Authority to where they were before the autumn outbreak.
The intelligence agencies agree that the internal situation in the Palestinian Authority — the weakening of President Mahmoud Abbas’ status, the emerging battle for his succession, and the sense of the PA’s diplomatic ineffectiveness — will not allow for the resumption of a long-term calm in the territories, even if the violence subsides for some time.
Security officials attribute the ebbing of terror attacks in East Jerusalem, where there has been one stabbing in the past two-and-a-half weeks after a string of terror attacks, to a combination of the lowering of tensions on the Temple Mount, understandings with Jordan and the effect of harsh police measures in East Jerusalem neighborhoods. The locus of conflict has migrated since mid-October to Hebron, where the majority of stabbing attacks has originated. Israeli officials are hopeful that the concentration of additional army troops in Hebron will gradually reduce the number of terror attacks in the area.
However, the intelligence services believe that even if the current round of violence subsides, it will return and escalate, probably within a matter of months. The level of frustration and anger among the Palestinian public, expressed in the disappointment with the PA’s functioning and the desire to confront Israel, remains high. And while a set of understandings between Abbas’ PA and Israel allowed for the decade-long maintenance of relative security and stability, that status quo has worn thin and it is very doubtful it can be rehabilitated.
The Palestinian public in the West Bank is already preparing for the day after the end of the 80-year-old Abbas’ rule. Accordingly, other senior PA officials are less prepared to maintain a high level of security coordination with Israel.
The Hamas leadership in Gaza continues to avoid opening a new front against Israel, according to intelligence officials, and is satisfied with allowing occasional violent marches toward the separation fence surrounding the Strip. Hamas military commanders in Turkey and Gaza continue to encourage terror from the West Bank in all its forms, attempting to organize shooting, bombing and suicide attacks. However, their success has been marginal, which is attributed to the damage inflicted on its military apparatus in the West Bank in recent years.
The crucial player is the Tanzim, Fatah’s field operatives in the West Bank. They have been described as the lever whose position will decide whether the violence escalates or calms down in the coming weeks. Tanzim members took an active part in demonstrations that ended in violent confrontations with army troops across the West Bank in October.
Abbas, who feared the consequences of such clashes, intervened late but in the end took action to restrain them. Tanzim members are in possession of many weapons, and some of these men are tied to the PA’s security apparatus or even on active service in them. Entry of the Tanzim to the forefront of the confrontations with the army could lead to a much greater use of firearms, as happened at the start of the second intifada in late 2000.
For now, despite the continued attacks and number of fatalities (11 Israelis and 69 Palestinians), the intelligence community does not describe these events as an intifada. In contrast to what developed much earlier in the first two intifadas, there is still no guiding hand driving events from behind the scenes. The pool of perpetrators has no action plan or agreed upon goals. Moreover, the number of participants in incidents, aside from young stone throwers and knife-wielding assailants, is much lower in comparison with the two intifadas.