Analysis |

West Bank Reality Is Changing Even as Palestinian President Still Sits on His Chair

A weak Palestinian Authority is struggling to enforce its sovereignty ■ Why the debate on transgressions in the Israeli army's elite units is unlikely to bring about change

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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People gather after Israeli forces demolished the home of Palestinian militant Yehya Miri, accused of carrying out a deadly shooting attack in the settlement of Ariel, in the village of Qarawat Bani Hassan in the West Bank in July.
People gather after Israeli forces demolished the home of Palestinian militant Yehya Miri, accused of carrying out a deadly shooting attack in the settlement of Ariel, in the village of Qarawat Bani Hassan in the West Bank in July.Credit: JAAFAR ASHTIYEH /AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Far from the headlines, the West Bank is still seething. The fact that this spring’s wave of terrorism inside the Green Line has receded has led the media to shift its focus elsewhere – to the dispute over natural gas rights with Lebanon and Hezbollah’s threats, the State Comptroller’s critical report on the events surrounding the Gaza war in May 2021, and the first inklings of the election campaign.

However, calm does not prevail in the Palestinian arena. Part of the steam is being let off through violent struggle against Israel, which has recently taken the form of firefights with the Israel Defense Forces in the territories. Still, the roots of the tension lie in internal developments. They include the continuing enfeeblement of the Palestinian Authority, the aging of PA President Mahmoud Abbas, intergenerational conflicts within the Fatah movement and the PA’s competition with Hamas.

Israel’s intelligence organizations have been taking note of the gradual weakening of the PA for more than two years. The pressure on the leadership and its inability to get results were manifest during the final days of the Trump administration and the battle over the annexation that never happened (which was more due to power struggles inside the White House than to Palestinian opposition).

The trap in which Abbas and his staff are caught was displayed vividly during Operation Guardian of the Walls. Although the clashes with the IDF in the West Bank were restrained, compared to the fighting on the border with the Gaza Strip, the PA lost points is the eyes of the Palestinian public to Hamas. This was strikingly reflected in the posters lauding Hamas’ leaders plastered outside the mosques on the Temple Mount.

Last summer, as armed gangs became increasingly active in the Jenin refugee camp, Israel demanded that the PA take action. But the Palestinian security forces found it difficult to meet the challenge, and the refugee camp remained independent territory. So, last February, the IDF resumed operations in the camp with the aim of taking wanted individuals into custody. The resulting friction apparently contributed to some degree to the eruption of the terrorism a month later, even if the majority of the perpetrators of the March-May wave of attacks didn’t come from camp itself but from villages around Jenin and Nablus.

The terrorist attacks in Tel Aviv, Bnei Brak, Elad and Ariel – following grim attacks in Be’er Sheva and Hadera carried out by Israeli Arabs supporting Islamic State – obligated the IDF to take two steps. Defensively, extensive regular-army forces were deployed to close the huge breaches in the separation barrier between Israel and the West Bank; and offensively, large-scale arrest operations were undertaken, especially in the Jenin area.

In the latter, Israel encountered an old-new situation. Almost every entry into the refugee camps in the northern West Bank, as well as into some of the cities and villages, has met with quite intensive gunfire. In many cases, the wanted individuals have opted to barricade themselves and fight back. The Police Special Anti-Terror Unit, known by its Hebrew acronym Yamam, which killed two armed wanted men from Fatah’s Tanzim militia on Sunday in an operation in the Nablus casbah, even revived the “pressure cooker procedure” (a lengthy siege of the house, including the use of antitank missiles) that had been used during the second intifada. The confrontations have been marked by growing cooperation between Fatah and Islamic Jihad, and in some cases even local gangs connected with Hamas. The PA’s media outlets are calling for armed resistance to Israel.

It’s not that Mahmoud Abbas has changed. He is not encouraging terrorism, notwithstanding the financial support the PA provides to the families of terrorists incarcerated in Israel. But it is more evidence of the PA’s attenuation and the difficulties it has imposing its rule on the ground. The extensive Israeli discussion about the “day after Abbas” is perhaps missing the boat; the change in the West Bank has already occurred while the ra’is is still in power.

Some of the events are tied to this and intertwine with other developments, such as the large amounts of arms in circulation. In the past year, at the request of former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, the Shin Bet security agency joined efforts to stem the spread of firearms in the Israeli-Arab community. A joint effort also got underway – and is now enjoying its first results – by security bodies against weapons smuggling from Jordan. But both in the West Bank and inside the Green Line, firearms remain readily available for almost everyone who wants them.

In the wake of this spring’s wave of terrorism, the Shin Bet recommended that the government amend the law in order to assist it in the struggle against ISIS supporters inside the Green Line. Specifically, the agency wanted Article 24 of the Struggle Against Terrorism Law to be altered to read, “anyone possessing or using materials of a terrorist organization, in practice,” is committing an offense. In other words, the repercussions for possessing ISIS propaganda will be akin to those for possessing pedophilic material. According to the Shin Bet, two of the three terrorists who carried out the Be’er Sheva and Hadera attacks in which six Israelis were murdered had watched inflammatory ISIS broadcasts, which spurred them to move from ideological identification with the Salafist movement to violence.

The Shin Bet also wants to add the airsoft guns (which fire plastic bullets and are designed for use in sports) to the list of firearms requiring a license. The gun is in widespread use among the Arab public, used for both criminal and terrorist acts. Airsoft guns were found in the possession of some of the suspects who were arrested in suspicion of having ties with ISIS. A bill mandating licensing and imposing prison terms on violators was recently drawn up as an amendment to the Firearms Law. But the legislative process involving both that bill and the one on propaganda have been suspended since the coalition collapsed and the Knesset was dissolved.

The defense establishment recently completed its compilation of data for the first half of 2022. In that period, 61 terrorist attacks classified as “significant” were perpetrated, along with another 36 “combat events” (such as firing at Israeli forces during arrests in the West Bank). No fewer than 1,720 persons were arrested, both Palestinians and Arab citizens of Israel. Sixty-six Palestinians were killed in the West Bank from January through June this year, compared with 81 in the whole of last year, a period that included Guardian of the Walls. The part played by the young generation stood out in the violent disturbances: According to the data, 87 percent of those taken into custody during the riots in East Jerusalem were below the age of 25, and 24 percent were minors.

There is no good news to be derived from any of this data, with one possible exception. This year saw a considerable improvement in the way Israel coped with the flare-up, in comparison to the gradual escalation that ultimately led to the conflict in Gaza in 2021. The measures taken were coordinated and judicious, and usually also more restrained. Even when the Bennett-Lapid government took a hardline on terrorism, it didn’t usually shoot from the hip. That development likely contributed to the fact that the situation in the territories hasn’t spun out of control.

Disorganizational culture

A week ago, Yaniv Kubovich published an illuminating investigative report in Haaretz (Hebrew) about the circumstances in which two company commanders in the Egoz commando unit, Maj. Ofek Aharon and Maj. Itamar Elharar, were accidentally shot and killed by a fellow officer. The detailed report differs considerably from the two official investigations the IDF conducted into the accident, which occurred last January in a training area in the Judean Desert. Kubovich raised questions about many of the army’s findings about the incident, which appear not to have been fully clarified or investigated. What arose from the army’s conclusions was an attempt to protect the commander of the unit, Lt. Col. E., while his deputy, an officer with the rank of major, was removed from his post and forced to resign from the career army.

Already in the days following the incident, as more details emerged about the chain of hair-raising hitches that led to the deadly results, a relatively extensive public discussion developed about the culture of the special ops units. Combat troops in those units, parents of soldiers and senior officers in the reserves spoke out fiercely about severe disciplinary problems, unruly behavior by junior officers and inadequate supervision at senior levels. Within the army there were calls for a thorough examination, which would include a systematic study of the discipline and the atmosphere in the units, followed by a shakeup.

Regrettably, it’s doubtful whether the shocking incident in the Judean Desert will bring about a fundamental change. Half a year later, little remains of that discussion. This week, it emerged that even a single simple order issued by the chief of staff, Aviv Kochavi, following the training accident, was not implemented properly.

After the results of the army’s investigations were submitted, Kochavi had ordered all combat units to put into writing “the fundamentals of operational standing orders” that dictate each unit’s comportment. However, in a review carried out this week by the IDF comptroller of 25 different regular-army units, it turned out that in 16 of them the orders had not been put into writing. Kochavi ordered a clarification to be held next week with senior officers. A letter disseminated by the assistant to the chief of staff states that each of the generals will be required to present the “specific status of the fulfillment of the instructions” in the units under his command and to state what measures have been taken against units that failed to comply.

The chief of staff’s move, though necessary under the circumstances, also attests to the army’s inordinate preoccupation with shaping the narrative externally, as against orders being carried out within the organization. This is one of the major problems in the IDF’s organizational culture: Orders and instructions, are often not fully implemented, which the army’s review mechanisms succeed in discovering only some of the time, if at all. The former IDF ombudsman, Maj. Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Brick, has recounted how an internal examination carried out in the ground forces found that only a relatively small number of the orders and instructions in the IDF were implemented to the letter.

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