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West Bank Violence Could Erupt Before Israeli Election, Security Officials Believe

As the Palestinian Authority descends into severe economic crisis, signs of unrest piling up, as Hamas escalates rhetoric in hopes of securing Israeli concessions

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Palestinian protesters sit before Israeli troops during a demonstration against the expropriation of Palestinian land by Israel, Kafr Malik, West Bank, August 16, 2019.
Palestinian protesters sit before Israeli troops during a demonstration against the expropriation of Palestinian land by Israel, Kafr Malik, West Bank, August 16, 2019. Credit: AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Israel’s debate about security on the eve of the election has focused on what’s happening near the Gaza border. Repeated rocket launches from Gaza have led to criticism from both the right and the left about what they call the Netanyahu government’s policy of appeasing Hamas.

When the rockets were recently joined by a series of cross-border infiltration attempts, the criticism intensified. And the prime minister’s promise during a visit to Ukraine that his response to these events won’t be influenced by electoral considerations isn’t really convincing.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 35Credit: Haaretz

But Netanyahu’s greatest security challenge in the near future may actually lie in the other Palestinian theater, the West Bank. And in this case, his policies have made a significant contribution to the mess.

>> Read more: With Gaza-Israel border incidents, Hamas trapped between push for calm and public thirst for resistance | Analysis ■ Escalating incidents on Gaza-Israel border indicate Hamas is losing its grip | Analysis ■ Palestinians find it hard to believe Abbas’ ‘end to agreements’ with Israel | Analysis

The Palestinian Authority is gradually descending into a severe economic crisis, due to mutual stubbornness on the part of Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas over the issue of the PA’s payments to people imprisoned in Israel for terrorism-related offenses.

The result is that some 160,000 Palestinian civil servants, including 65,000 members of the Palestinian security services, have gotten only half their salaries for six months in a row, due to Israel’s decision to deduct the prisoner payments from the tax revenues it transfers to the authority and the PA’s consequent refusal to accept any of the money, even indirectly.

Despite the PA’s escalating threats, security coordination with Israel hasn’t suffered any serious damage. The PA’s fear of a loss of control over the territory that Hamas could exploit has so far deterred it from abandoning this coordination. But signs of unrest in the West Bank have been accumulating and intensifying.

An Israeli soldier takes aim at Palestinian protesters while a photojournalist takes cover, Kfar Qaddum, West Bank, August 9, 2019. Credit: AFP

In recent weeks, there has been a substantial rise in the number of attacks and attempted attacks there, including some in which Hamas has been involved. In the two most serious incidents, both of which took place in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc, soldier Dvir Sorek was stabbed to death and a brother and sister were wounded in a car-ramming attack at a hitchhiking post.

At least some of the Palestinian rhetoric in favor of terror attacks stems from tensions at the Temple Mount, and specifically the police’s decision to let Jews visit the holy site on the Tisha B’Av fast day, which this year coincided with the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha. Israel’s decision to bar a visit by two U.S. congresswomen has also contributed to the intensity of the focus on tensions with Israel, as has rampant speculation about another election-eve gift to Netanyahu by U.S. President Donald Trump, which could involve implicit or explicit American recognition of an Israeli annexation of the West Bank’s Area C.

Trump’s pressure on Israel to cancel the congresswomen’s visit, to which Netanyahu immediately acceded, painted Jerusalem as a virtual American puppet government. The reward is expected to arrive soon – possibly in the form of recognition of annexation, or possibly through advancing (though not finalizing) the idea of a defensive alliance between the countries.

Israeli security forces gather at the scene of a car-ramming attack in the Jewish settlement of Elazar, West Bank, August 16, 2019. Credit: AFP

If they materialize, these developments would be presented as expressions of a rare accord between Washington and Jerusalem. But the Israeli defense establishment is deeply opposed to both ideas, and has been for years.

In repeated situation assessments over the past few weeks, the defense establishment has said there’s a reasonable chance of an outbreak of worse violence in the West Bank, perhaps even before the election. The success of the recent attacks encourages copycat attacks, just as happened in 2014 and 2015. And the religious dispute over Jerusalem and the Temple Mount is bubbling away in the background.

Whatever happens in the West Bank will influence and be influenced by developments in Gaza. After the recent series of infiltration attempts along the Gaza border, which were blamed on “rebels” or Hamas and Islamic Jihad offshoots who have joined the ranks of Salafi groups. Hamas has also stepped up its rhetoric.

A masked Palestinian protester flashes the middle finger following a weekly protest against the expropriation of Palestinian land by Israel, Kfar Qaddum, West Bank, August 9, 2019. Credit: AFP

The committee that organizes the weekly protests along the border fence, which is completely controlled by Hamas, called for a ramped-up demonstration this Friday. And a rise in the level of tension was already been evident at last Friday’s protest.

Hamas’ call for “popular” violence may attest to its situation. Its government in Gaza faces growing domestic criticism for abandoning the armed struggle against Israel, taking steps to restrain some protesters who get too near the fence and are accused of being satisfied with too little, given the slow implementation of steps indirectly agreed on with Israel to improve Gaza’s situation. This criticism may also explain Hamas' lax control over what’s happening along the border.

The most recent incident, last Friday night, began with the launch of three rockets at Israel. Immediately after that, in line with its standard procedure after any such launch, and perhaps also in fear of Israel’s response, Hamas vacated its positions along the border. And then, a group of five armed men passed the abandoned posts, approached the border and were shot by Israeli soldiers.

In Israel, a lively political debate is taking place over whether Hamas is enabling these infiltration attempts by omission or actively encouraging them. Intelligence officials are sticking to their claim that this isn’t a coordinated effort fomented by Hamas leaders through tacit agreement with the “rebel” groups.

What is clear is that Hamas is aware of Israel’s sensitivity in the run-up to the election, and is trying to exploit this sentiment and ramping up military pressure in the hopes of achieving additional concessions. Yet Hamas leaders are also presumably aware of the possible ramifications of another round of fighting if Netanyahu has his back to the wall.

On Wednesday, Qatari envoy Mohammed Al Emadi is supposed to arrive in Gaza, along with Qatar’s monthly installment of millions of dollars in economic aid. With Emadi and Egyptian intelligence officers both in Gaza, there’s apparently a limit as to how far Hamas can go in provoking Israel.

Recent escalation on the Israel-Gaza border.Credit: AFP

Meanwhile, a report leaked during Netanyahu’s visit to Ukraine about the existence of a secret Israeli plan to encourage Palestinian emigration from Gaza has generated some excitement on the right. But if these reports have prompted anyone to make plans to resettle the evacuated Gaza settlements of Netzarim and Gush Katif, they would do well to restrain such hopes.

In recent months, Netanyahu has received intelligence reports stating that almost 35,000 Palestinians have left Gaza over the last two years, due to despair over the economic situation and the siege atmosphere. As Haaretz has previously reported, doctors, pharmacists and other young people with college degrees are among those who have left.

But this figure, though high, doesn’t change the demographic balance in any significant way. The birthrate in Gaza remains high, while the demand for Palestinian professionals in other countries is limited. And reluctance to accept Israeli money to leave, which would be seen as tantamount to treason against the Palestinian national idea, would surely be enormous.

Evidently, this was just another election-eve statement aimed at persuading a few more ideological rightists to vote for Netanyahu. As far as is known, the chances of actually carrying out such a policy are low. But in any event, Netanyahu’s main goal – creating headlines to lead an evening news broadcast – has already been achieved.

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