Israel Weighs Limiting West Bank Operations to Help Strengthen Palestinian Authority

Not just an uptick in attacks, the friction between Israel and the Palestinian Authority is also reflected in their communications

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Palestinian security forces patrolling the streets of Nablus on Tuesday.
Palestinian security forces patrolling the streets of Nablus in 2016.Credit: Abed Omar Qusini / Reuters

The rising tension between Israel and the Palestinian Authority has to do not only with the increase in terror attacks and exchanges of fire with the Israeli army, but also in the messages exchanged between the two sides. Over the past few days, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi and Shin Bet security service head Ronen Bar have publicly criticized the PA security forces. Defense officials are concerned that in some cases, the limited action of the PA security forces in the northern West Bank and the weakening of security coordination with Israel are happening on orders from above.

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At the annual UN General Assembly in late September last year, PA President Mahmoud Abbas gave a belligerent speech in which he warned of a cutting of ties with Israel. Abbas will speak at the assembly again this year, on September 23, and political and security officials are somewhat nervous about what he might say. Abbas has used the General Assembly dais on more than one occasion to attack Israel and sometimes his words are translated into deeds in the West Bank. For example, in September 2015, immediately after Abbas’ harsh address, a wave of terror attacks started in the West Bank and within the Green Line including shootings, stabbings and vehicular attacks, which only abated about six months later.

The escalation in the West Bank has raised concern in the United States, Egypt, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, and all these countries are now working to calm things down. Last week Barbara Leaf, U.S. assistant secretary of state for near Eastern affairs, visited Israel and the PA. The heads of the Israeli security establishment who met with her, including the Shin Bet’s Bar, presented data on the steep rise in terror attacks since March.

In Ramallah, Leaf met with senior PA official Hussein al-Sheikh and with Majid Farah, head of the PA’s General Intelligence. Abbas, who is frustrated by what he sees as a lack of willingness on the part of the Biden administration to intervene to advance the diplomatic process, did not meet with Leaf, preferring to send representatives. Abbas’ decision was perceived as an insult in Washington, especially in light of U.S. attempts to calm things down and send more money to the PA from the United States and the Gulf states. According to the PA leadership, Abbas was unable to meet with Leaf due to scheduling conflicts.

Israel has noted the increased involvement of members of the PA’s security forces in exchanges of fire with IDF soldiers, when the latter make arrest sweeps in Jenin, Nablus, and nearby refugee camps and villages. In Nablus, a new group has sprung up called the Lion’s Den, numbering hundreds of young men from various Palestinian organizations, who fire at IDF troops. Israel is particularly worried about events in Nablus, one of the main cities of the West Bank, with many Jewish settlements in close proximity. A further decline in the situation in Nablus, and the ongoing weakening of the PA’s control there, could affect the security situation throughout the West Bank and require the army to act more extensively.

Palestinian Islamic Jihad militants in Jenin two weeks ago. According to security sources, the Palestinian Authority is losing control over the northern West Bank in particular.Credit: Raneen Sawafta / Reuters

Defense officials concede that for Israel there is no real substitute for the PA security forces in the West Bank. According to these officials, there are two main possibilities: Help the PA forces take back responsibility for security in the cities of the northern West Bank, or stay on the sidelines and watch the PA collapse, which could mean that Israel would have to enter the resulting vacuum. The officials say that the change for the worse can be seen mainly in the northern West Bank and that in other areas, from Ramallah southward, the PA is still functioning reasonably well in the realms of health, education, employment and the daily work of its government ministries. The PA is also enforcing criminal laws and arresting offenders in those areas.

The weakening of the PA security forces, according to this view, stems not only from the behavior of armed groups that rebel against the PA, but from a creeping decline in the PA’s functioning, which is also influenced by Israel’s attitude. Since the end of the second intifada, around 2005–2006, Israel has not acted robustly to renew the diplomatic process, nor has it seen to the reestablishment of the PA’s authority, which took a major hit after Yasser Arafat’s rule encouraged terror and the IDF retook the West Bank cities. The persistence of the status quo hurts the position of the PA in the eyes of the West Bank’s residents, who perceive it as weak and even helpless.

Mutual recriminations

The mutual recriminations between the PA and Israel are a major focus at the security meetings that continue to be held between Israeli and PA officials. The Palestinians have said at these meetings that the Israeli expectation from the Palestinian security forces to take action against the armed groups in the northern West Bank is unrealistic, when the IDF enters the cities and refugee camps every night to arrest wanted men and shooting incidents ensue between the sides. According to the Palestinians, when mourning tents go up almost daily following the killings of young Palestinian men in these incidents, the PA cannot act effectively on the ground. Palestinian officials have asked Israel to draw down the IDF’s operations in the northern West Bank in the near future and to allow their people to act instead. The PA officials have said that this model has been successfully implemented in the past during tense times, to rein in the spread of violence.

The Israeli security establishment is debating whether to continue arrest sweeps in the northern West Bank at the same high level as in recent months. Some officials believe there will be no choice but to conduct a widespread arrest sweep particularly in the Jenin area, apparently even before the November 1 election in Israel. Others believe Israel is also adding fuel to the fire in its insistence on making arrests every night and continuing to state that these actions are part of Operation Breakwater, which started following a series of shooting attacks within the Green Line in late March.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, last week.Credit: Thaer Ghanaim / AFP

Senior security officials are also discussing recommendations to again allow the Palestinian security forces room to maneuver in the northern West Bank, and to spur them to action by pointing out that the PA also considers Hamas and Islamic Jihad enemies that will quickly take advantage of any vacuum created to coopt the armed groups and strengthen their hold on the northern West Bank. Some Israeli security officials recommend reinforcement of security coordination with the PA forces and to gradually to give them times and places to renew their own action. According to these officials, it is better in the near future to limit IDF entry into densely inhabited Palestinian areas to urgent warnings of terror attacks, “ticking bombs,” and to avoid unnecessary violent friction. They believe this is the most significant way to strengthen the Palestinian forces.

Israel, the PA and the United States have recently discussed additional steps to upgrade the Palestinian security forces. A military training exercise under U.S. instructors was recently held with PA forces in Jordan. Israel does not rule out granting permits to bring more weapons and ammunition for the PA forces, to bolster their strength in the face of armed groups. An idea was also raised to establish a special Palestinian force, better trained and armed, that would be sent in to deal with armed Hamas and Islamic Jihad activists.

Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz meeting with his U.S. counterpart, Lloyd Austin, in Washington earlier this month.Credit: CARLOS BARRI/REUTERS

Security officials say that despite the heightened role of armed activists in incidents, at the moment the wave of violence is not sweeping up most of the public in the West Bank. There are no widespread demonstrations and although the Palestinian public is losing faith in the PA, most West Bank residents do not take part in terror or violent protests. Many in the West Bank see the renewed spread of armed activists as a severe internal threat in Palestinian society and fear a rise in crime.

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