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Faced With New Wave of West Bank Attacks, Israeli Army Will Have to Adapt

When the army faced a similar wave of brazen attacks in the fall of 2015, the commanders were quick to change tactics

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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An Israeli soldier guards near the scene of Sunday's attack near the Jewish settlement of Ariel, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank March 18, 2019.
An Israeli soldier guards near the scene of Sunday's attack near the Jewish settlement of Ariel, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank March 18, 2019. Credit: REUTERS/Ammar Awad
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The crisis in the Gaza Strip is proceeding like a dramatic serial, from week to week, with no good end in sight. Egyptian military intelligence officials are, to use an Americanism, kicking the can down the road. There is no real solution to the friction between Israel and Hamas at this point. In its absence, Cairo is focused on one goal: preventing a blow-up between the two sides before the Knesset election on April 9.

The big test comes next week, when tens of thousands of demonstrators will come to the fence to mark one year since the start of the March of Return, as well as the 43rd Land Day (commemorating Arab protesters killed by police in 1976). On Thursday, the Egyptians announced that they would not be sending their representatives to Gaza, as they’ve been doing over the last few Fridays. This seems like another attempt on their part to pressure Hamas so that it will control the height of the flames.

The tradition of Friday demonstrations was interrupted last week due to the events of the preceding night. After the launch of two rockets at the Tel Aviv area during a meeting of Hamas leaders and an Egyptian delegation, the visiting intelligence officials provided an explanation that was convenient for all sides: The rockets were fired by mistake during maintenance work. Talking to experts, it turns out that this is possible. So is this what really happened? From the moment that Israel, Hamas and Egypt decided to tell the world that it did, it doesn’t matter so much.

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That night, Israel attacked 100 targets associated with Hamas, but the time it took the air force to prepare allowed Hamas to evacuate headquarters beforehand. The relatively extensive attack ended with a few people injured. Israel again acted with restraint, despite the tough public rhetoric. Brig. Gen. (res.) Udi Dekel, a member of the Institute for National Security Studies, wrote this week that “the launch of these rockets and Israel’s limited response give further testimony to the fact that Hamas continues its defiant and provocative policies, dictating the level of escalation and the rules of the game in facing Israel.”

Israel’s policy of deterrence in Gaza, argues Dekel, has reached its limits. Alternating between military strikes and some easing of restrictions in the siege is insufficient, both in contending with the huge humanitarian crisis and with Hamas’ dominance in the Gaza Strip, given the slim chances that the Palestinian Authority will resume control there.

This week, Hamas viciously suppressed demonstrations over the economic situation in Gaza. Hundreds of protesters were arrested, most of them Fatah members, as well as dozens of journalists, some of whom were severely beaten. It appears Hamas tried to prevent the dissemination of photos documenting the extent of the protests and the violence used in putting them down.

Yet the outbreak of these protests shows that some Gazans have breached the fear barrier, on the backdrop of the economic distress. This is one of the main reasons Hamas cannot afford to compromise and allow prolonged quiet in exchange for a limited easing of the siege. Thus, demonstrations along the fence will continue – at night in the middle of the week and on Fridays, and mainly next Friday, with the participation of tens of thousands.

In the meantime, the West Bank is in turmoil. On Sunday, a soldier and a civilian were killed in a stabbing and shooting attack near Ariel. After a two-day manhunt the assailant was killed in a shoot-out with a combined police and Shin Bet force in a village near Ramallah. In another incident on the same night, two Palestinians were killed by IDF fire near Nablus. Early Thursday morning, another Palestinian was killed, the fourth one this week and 10th this month, by a soldier near Bethlehem. Apparently, this was a case of a mistaken shooting.

The attack in Ariel – which developed into a killing spree by the gunman in a car he hijacked – revealed, and not for the first time, a hesitant and “soft” response by the soldiers who were attacked. Like a string of incidents involving soldiers from a Haredi Nahal battalion two months ago, the attack demonstrated great boldness by the assailants (which was also evident in the murder of two Israelis in the Barkan industrial park last October), along with insufficient alertness on the part of soldiers on the scene.

The IDF had similar problems at the beginning of the wave of knifing attacks in the fall of 2015, but then commanders quickly took control and changed the manner of deployment and the instructions on how to respond to such attacks. The assailant who attacked in Ariel, Omar Abu Laila, who was only 18, and apparently operated on his own. One of his motives was the wish to avenge the death of a relative who was killed by the IDF during clashes with demonstrators in the adjacent town of Salfit, a week earlier. Social media in the territories heaped praise on Abu Laila, who was presented as something of a Palestinian Rambo. It seems that again, if we’re facing a wave of imitations, it will be necessary to improve the IDF’s tactical methods of responding.

Compromise shaping up on Temple Mount

This week there were developments at two other sources of conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. On the Temple Mount, a compromise was shaping up over the opening of the structure at the Bab-al-Rahma gate. This was achieved following another visit by an Israeli delegation to Amman. The discussions, which included a senior police officer, concluded that Israel would not use force to close the structure before the election. Afterwards, it would be announced that the building was being closed for a few months for renovations. When these are done, Waqf offices would be opened there, rather than a place of prayer. Israel and Jordan are in agreement on the terms of the desired solution. The Achilles heel of the new deal is the possibility that the Palestinians may decide to tear it up.

In prisons for Palestinian security offenders, the Israel Prison Service continues with its plan to block inmates’ cellular phones. Earlier in the week there was a riot by prisoners in the Hamas wing of Ramon Prison, where fires were set. The Prison Service returned the inmates to the burned-out wing that night, distributing 240 of them among other wings while putting the leader in solitary confinement.

Installing devices to block calls is a “pilot” in a bigger plan being tested in two prison wings for now. The IDF opposed the plan at this time and the Prison Service also hesitated. Prisoner leaders who read about such reservations in the Israeli media assumed that the Prison Service would cave in. This has not happened so far.

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan intends to approve the full plan in May. It will cost 22 million shekels ($6.1 million) and block all phone calls in all security wings. This is worrying Hamas and Fatah prisoners greatly. The message given by interim Prison Service Commissioner Asher Vaknin is that they’ll handle anything the prisoners throw at them, and that the plan will be implemented. Meanwhile, wardens are holding the line. Next week, it will be seen how this meshes with events connected to the anniversary of the March of Return.

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