Analysis

Why Israel Put the West Bank on Closure, but Let Palestinians Work During the Jewish Holiday

In this clever game of chess, Palestinians are only pawns as right-wing politicians both grab terror attack points and secure essential labor in settlements

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman sits next to IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot during a visit to a military exercise, September 12, 2017.
Ariel Hermoni / Defense Ministry

The extraordinary decision to impose an 11-day closure on the territories, from Wednesday evening until Saturday night of next week, was taken after Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman consulted a number of times with the heads of Israel’s armed services branches. The Israel Defense Forces, as Haaretz has past reported, opposes broad collective punishment in the territories in response to terror attacks and views the employment in Israel of Palestinians from the West Bank as a means to mitigate violent unrest. But the circumstances in this case were exceptional.

In the first round of consultations, before Rosh Hashanah over two weeks ago, the Israel Police and Shin Bet security service favored a heavy hand. The police recommended a closure during the two and a half days of Rosh Hashanah and on Yom Kippur, one week later, followed by an 11-day closure from the start of the week-long Sukkot holiday on October 4 through the Shabbat after the end of the holiday, on October 14 – as was eventually decided. The army proposed a closure only during the actual holidays, that is on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and the first and last days of Sukkot, with the option to extend the Sukkot closure to the entire week if circumstances warranted. Lieberman initially accepted this suggestion.

The attack on September 26, in which a Palestinian who worked in Har Adar shot and killed three Israeli security guards at the entrance to the settlement, reshuffled the deck because it defied assumptions. The assailant at Har Adar, in an exception to the pattern of terror attacks in the past few years, had a permit to work in the settlements. After particularly deadly terror attacks that expose vulnerabilities in its defense strategies, the military establishment has a tendency not to introduce changes immediately, but rather to analyze the system in order to detect weak points that can be reinforced.

Immediately after the Har Adar incident, Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot revised his position to favor the maximalist closure proposed by the police and the Shin Bet. To support its argument, the army cited the heightened friction during the holiday period, during which large numbers of Jews visit Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, and fears that terrorists could try to replicate the “success” of the Har Adar attack. On Wednesday, after the Sukkot closure was imposed, Reuven Shmerling, an Israeli citizen, was murdered in the Israeli Arab community of Kafr Qasem. The police believe he was stabbed to death by a Palestinian who was in Israel illegally.

The imposition of a closure during the Jewish holidays can have contradictory effects. In the short term, it reduces the possibility of friction between Israelis and Palestinians within Israel proper, but in the long term the economic hardship it causes can act as a radicalizing factor, driving Palestinians to commit terror attacks. Lieberman was already disposed to favor collective punishment, in part to satisfy his voters. The moves in the past two weeks, in particular, toward Palestinian internal reconciliation, between Fatah and Hamas, put an additional thumb on the scale in favor of harsher punishment. They led Lieberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to attack the leaders of the Palestinian Authority.

One law for us, another for them

Immediately after the Har Adar attack, figures in the cabinet and the government coalition called for revoking, or at least reviewing, the policy of issuing work permits allowing Palestinians to work in Israel. Coalition whip David Bitan called for the immediate suspension of entry permits and the reexamination of the permit policy. Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said at the scene of the Har Adar attack that the policy must be reevaluated, saying: “In an era of ideologically based terror and incitement on social media, it isn’t always possible to know where the next attack will come from.” Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz added that the incident “would have implications for the ability to employ Palestinians and ease the conditions at the crossing points.”

The announcement of the unusually long closure did not mention the policy regarding Palestinians who work in settlements and Israeli industrial zones in the West Bank, presumably not by accident. Most of the settlements are totally dependent on Palestinians construction and sanitation workers, and their leaders are close enough to the government to see to their interests. Palestinians will continue to work in settlements during the intermediate days of the Sukkot festival next week, but not within Israel proper.

There’s more. On Thursday night, a request by Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel to allow some 10,000 Palestinian workers into Israel next week was fulfilled following a government consultation conducted by telephone. Most work on farms, with a smaller number employed by towns in sanitation. Ariel is a member of the ultra-right wing of the right-wing Habayit Hayehudi party. One can only marvel at the ability of the settlers and their representatives in the government to have their cake and eat it too. On one hand, to earn easy political points by taking an uncompromising anti-Palestinian stance right after a fatal terror attack, while also making sure that the punitive measures they call for won’t hurt their electorate. In this clever game of chess, the Palestinians are only pawns.

Bad Blood

Har Adar and the debate over the closure have led to another round in the ongoing quarrel happening mostly behind the scenes between the IDF top brass and the police.

In an interview at the scene of the attack, Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich said “there is no profile for terrorists. It can be anyone who decided and takes out his fury in an attack.” The commander of the Jerusalem district, police Maj. Gen. Yoram Halevi was asked that evening in a television interview whether the terrorist had a permit to work in Israel and he responded: “Har Adar is Israel.” In fact, although most of the residents of Har Adar don’t consider it a settlement, it is on the other side of the pre-1967 border and the terrorist had a permit to work in the settlements, not within Israel.

This distinction is not necessarily dramatic. The terrorist, who was married with children and had no record of security infractions, would probably have been given a permit to work in Israel as well. But the army had the impression that Halevi was intentionally blurring the distinction and that Alsheich, who once served as deputy head of the Shin Bet security service, disagreed with Eisenkot’s logic regarding the need for laborers to enter Israel. The tension was aggravated a few days later when an anonymous source told one of the television stations that Lieberman had supposedly accepted the police recommendation of a continuous closure, contrary to the recommendation of the army. In fact, as noted, the army updated its recommendation right after the attack and Lieberman’s decision on the closure was made only a few days later. Lieberman’s office and the IDF spokesman quickly denied the report and a few minutes later the content of the report itself had become much softer then the headline.

The bad blood between the army and the police began back when the issue of the metal detectors outside the Temple Mount flared in July. The worse the crisis grew on the Mount – with the installation of the metal detectors in response to a shooting in which two Israeli policemen were killed – the greater the dispute grew (the police supported the detectors, the army and the Shin Bet opposed them and contradictory leaks to the media proliferated.

Unusually, the dispute led to an alliance between the Shin Bet heads and the army brass. Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman is more open than his predecessors to close intelligence cooperation with the army and his positions on various issues are quite close to Eisenkot’s. The fact that Alsheich is a veteran of the Shin Bet (and was considered a leading candidate to head the organization before his surprise appointment as police commissioner after Gal Hirsch fell out of the running) has also apparently contributed to an unusual balance of power at the top of the security establishment.

At the annual commemoration ceremony for the fallen of the Border Police, which by coincidence took place the day after Border Police officer Solomon Gavriyah was killed in the Har Adar attack, another dispute emerged. That was the platform Erdan chose to criticize Eisenkot’s plan to improve conditions for IDF combat soldiers, claiming that it discriminated against Border Police personnel. Eisenkot decided last month that top-tier combat troops, mainly infantry and the Armored Corps, would receive special benefits other soldiers would not, even those who also serve in combat units, but do not come into direct contact with the enemy. “Unfortunately, Border Police personnel in regular service are not included in the new definitions,” Erdan said. He mentioned a long list of Border Police personnel killed in terror attacks over the past two years, and said he would “work with all my might to include Border Police combat troops in the new program.” A Border Police officer deserves the same pay as his counterpart in the Golani infantry brigade, Erdan said.

But the army opposes the demand for equal pay and dismisses the suspicion of senior police officers that Border Police personnel were excluded from the increased benefits because of a rise in motivation to serve in the Border Police as opposed to infantry brigades. The Border Police officers in regular service, the army says, also serve in Haifa and Tel Aviv and there’s no comparing their service, in terms of conditions on their bases and furloughs, with the difficult conditions of soldiers in the infantry or the Armored Corps. The plan is meant to differentiate between soldiers who come into contact with the enemy in war and the rest of the soldiers, and adding Border Police personnel to the benefits program would require adding other units that service in the territories or on the border, such as the mixed-gender Caracal infantry unit or search and rescue personnel of the Home Front Command.