Analysis |

From Violence to Collapse: Palestinian Authority Faces Critical Weeks

All eyes are on Mahmoud Abbas' UN speech next week ■ A lavish event for outgoing army chief can't hide the reality in the West Bank ■ Is Israel getting closer to a Jenin op?

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Mourners carry the body of Salah Sawafta, who was killed during a raid by Israeli forces, in the city of Tubas in the northern West Bank on August 19, 2022.
Mourners carry the body of Salah Sawafta, who was killed during a raid by Israeli forces, in the city of Tubas in the northern West Bank on August 19, 2022.Credit: JAAFAR ASHTIYEH - AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Israel is without a doubt the stronger side when comparing its forces with those of the Palestinians. But the events in the coming weeks in the territories, which appear increasingly critical in the light of the November 1 Knesset election, will be largely influenced by what happens among the Palestinians themselves.

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In the background is the speech by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the United Nations next week, the vigorous incitement by Hamas and Islamic Jihad to encourage a broad eruption of violence in the West Bank and Jerusalem, and the enfeebled status of the Palestinian Authority, which is wracked by corruption and stagnation and is displaying diminishing readiness to govern.

Abbas will speak in the UN General Assembly a day after Prime Minister Yair Lapid. The Palestinian leader has in the past utilized this platform to spar with Israel and in some cases, as in 2015 and 2021, to declare a diplomatic campaign against Israel in the international arena.

According to the initial signals from Ramallah, we’re in for another militant speech. Rhetoric of this kind from the Palestinian leader, aged and unpopular though he may be, is liable to help fan the flames among activists within Fatah as well as West Bank security forces personnel. The Biden administration, in coordination with the Lapid government, has put heavy pressure on Abbas in the past few days to avoid declarations that will be construed as irreversible measures.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas attends a news conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, in Berlin, Germany, August 16, 2022.Credit: LISI NIESNER/ REUTERS

The vast majority of the perpetrators of the terrorist attacks in the West Bank and Israel in recent months lacked organizational affiliation, and most had no known prior connections with Islamist organizations. Nevertheless, in no few cases, the leaderships of those organizations tried to appropriate the shahids, or martyrs, without valid cause. At the same time, they see the Temple Mount as a possible focal point for reigniting the flames, as in the month of Ramadan last year, when Operation Guardian of the Walls was launched.

The atmosphere around the Temple Mount could heat up ahead of the Jewish holy days in the Hebrew month of Tishrei (this year late September to the first part of October). For the past few days, the organizations have been warning the Palestinian public in the territories and Jerusalem about “settlers flocking” to the mount during the Jewish festivals, and calling for violent resistance.

Compounding the situation is the weakness of the Palestinian Authority. Opinions on whether there is still anything to expect from Abbas’ administration are divided among the professionals who deal with this issue. There are some voices, albeit still a minority, that believe the months ahead will see the final collapse of old paradigms by whose lights Israel has operated since the signing of the Oslo Accords 29 years ago this week. They argue that, given the rot and the internal weakness, the present model of the PA will no longer succeed in ruling in the West Bank, a development that is indeed discernible already in the Jenin area.

Palestinian members of Islamic Jihad take part in the funeral of Taher Zakarneh, who was killed during clashes with Israeli forces, during his funeral in Qabatiya, near Jenin, Monday, Sept. 5, 2022.Credit: Majdi Mohammed /AP

However, the majority of Israel's security personnel continue to believe that an Israeli-American effort to strengthen the PA can delay the end and possibly even improve the situation. But even a change of that ilk is conditional on tight cooperation between Israel and the PA, a state of affairs which might not be convenient for the government in Jerusalem during an election period.

In 2016, the research division of Military Intelligence published a strategic warning document, which has been discussed in the media extensively since. Intelligence personnel, in their somewhat convoluted language, warned against a “growing probability of a change of the systemic order in the Palestinian arena, with the emphasis on Judea and Samaria.” They stressed that it was not just a case of the danger of a new wave of terror, or a third intifada – the IDF and the Shin Bet security service have already learned more or less how to cope with these. The danger, the analysts wrote at the time, lies in the emergence of a process by which the PA becomes weakened to the point of disintegration, resulting in Israel having no one to talk to.

The head of the research division at the time, Brig. Gen. Dror Shalom, retired from the Israel Defense Forces about two years ago, but has recently returned as head of the political-military division of the Defense Ministry. In the years since that warning was issued, Shalom and his staff faced frequent criticism for making a mountain out of a molehill and because their forecasts didn’t materialize.

But with a more realistic view of what has been happening on the ground since the beginning of this year, it’s possible that this is the late realization of that strategic warning.

All the technology in the world

It was a coincidence, of course, but it didn’t seem to come as a great surprise. For weeks, hundreds of IDF staff officers have been scurrying about from morning to night in preparation for military innovation week, or the extravagant international farewell conference for Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi. It was Kochavi’s ambitious summing-up declaration. His tour of duty will end January 1, and at the beginning of this month his successor, Maj. Gen. Herzl Halevi, was declared. But like many of Kochavi’s ideas, this week too, there was a certain disparity between the impressive vision and the operative nitty-gritty. Not all the General Staff officers espouse these ideas equally and not all of them think there’s any point to them.

The conference was a fitting cap for Kochavi’s tenure. The large number of officers who arrived from abroad, among them nine chiefs of staff – and a genuinely festive milestone in the person of the Moroccan chief of staff – reflected Israel’s expanding military ties and the regard of foreign armies for IDF innovation. There were also eloquent lectures, in-depth conversations about currents in military thought, and a too-light finger on the financial expenditure trigger. When Yaniv Kubovich reported in Haaretz last July that the cost could come to tens of millions of shekels from the Defense Ministry budget, the army changed the plans but didn’t reduce by one iota the waste of resources. The money was simply siphoned from IDF internal budgets. The watchdogs barked and the caravan proceeded on its way, elegantly ignoring them. By the way, the final cost estimate could exceed 50 million shekels (more than $14.5 million).

Outgoing IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

One of the problems, as always, is that it’s impossible to separate completely the technological forecasts and aspirations for the future, and the uninspiring reality of the present. And as usual, it was the Palestinians who declared this, in their own way. The more the IDF tries to soar on the wings of imagination and distance itself from the situation in the territories, the more that situation pursues the army. As the late singer-songwriter Meir Ariel might have put it, at the end of every sentence articulated in polished English at the international conference in Glilot, just outside Tel Aviv, sat a Palestinian in Jenin with an improvised Carlo submachine gun.

Thus, on Wednesday morning, a few hours before the chief of staff was to deliver his speech in the conference, a report arrived from the Jalameh checkpoint north of Jenin about a clash in which the deputy commander of the Nahal Brigade’s reconnaissance battalion, Maj. Bar Falah, was killed in a shootout.

The most senior fatal casualty of the IDF in the territories in almost four years, he fell in a micro-tactical event in which trained soldiers confronted Palestinians armed with improvised weapons at a distance of just a few meters. And in this case, all the technology in the world didn’t change a thing.

It was impossible, and it would have been unjustified, to suspend the conference. Kochavi, as required, opened his address with a few short words in memory of the deputy battalion commander, who was killed when he charged bravely before his soldiers. Still, it was difficult to ignore the grating dissonance as foreign officers in well-ironed dress uniforms stood in line for a four-star breakfast and someone forgot to turn off the loudspeakers, which were blaring lively jazz. Since then, the Americans, the Italians, the British, even the Moroccan chief of staff have flown home, surely deeply impressed by the planned directions for the IDF’s force building.

The Palestinians will stay here, however, to grapple with Halevi and before that perhaps to try to spoil the tail end of Kochavi’s tour of duty.

In between meetings and demands

IDF Central Command's investigation of the checkpoint incident near Jenin earlier this week is still underway. It emerges that two hours passed between the time a lookout spotted the two Palestinians and the firefight. The head of Central Command, Maj. Gen. Yehuda Fuchs, viewed all the video clips on Wednesday: at no stage, before the exchange of fire, was it possible to discern that the two were armed. Their behavior was also off-kilter. If they had decided in advance to attack the soldiers, they had plenty of opportunities to do so earlier. Yet they waited patiently until the last minute. But even so, the army admits that the incident should have concluded otherwise, without a soldier being killed.

The death of Maj. Bar Falach has heightened the ongoing debate in the defense establishment and at a political level, as to whether Israel should launch a broad military operation in the Jenin region. The government lacks the appetite it in the government, in the light of accumulated experience. What will begin as images of IDF brigades making hundreds of arrests by raiding Jenin and its surroundings, is liable to develop into a prolonged standoff without a clear victory. There are hundreds of armed young men operating in and around the Jenin refugee camp who are only loosely affiliated with organizations. They don’t constitute a true adversary for the army, but a lengthy campaign within the city will generate friction, casualties and revenge attacks. A prolonged entanglement, without positive results, could impact the final weeks of the election campaign.

Bar Falach's funeral, in his hometown of Netanya, earlier this week

In the meantime, Israel is facing international pressure as well. Senior figures in the U.S. administration this week urged Israel to work more closely with the PA, in order to nullify the situation in the northern West Bank. Arab countries are also trying to mediate between the sides. On the other hand, Hamas and Islamic Jihad are pouring fuel on the flames. The PA and Fatah, which has long since lost the support of vaunted Palestinian street – and, in fact, the young generation – are flirting with the idea of preaching violence. The two armed operatives who were killed in the clash with the deputy battalion commander from the Nahal Brigade and his troops this week were identified with Fatah. One was an officer in the PA’s military intelligence apparatus, the other a Fatah activist.

The army says that this doesn’t yet constitute a trend, but they acknowledge the challenges that the Palestinian security personnel face. “Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] can order an operation from his bureau in Ramallah. A junior officer in Jenin has to go back home every night, afraid that he’ll be accused of collaborating with Israel,” says a senior IDF officer. In any event, the PA is not going out of its way to help. In every meeting the Palestinians issue a series of demands: cessation of Israeli entries into Area A, the return of the bodies of terrorists who were killed. Only afterward, perhaps, will they agree to take action themselves. Something similar, by the way, was promised last fall and was not fulfilled. The IDF resumed its operations in the Jenin refugee camp last March, after half a year of futile idleness by the PA.

All this is occurring against a background of mounting assessments about a renewed flareup on the Temple Mount later this month, during Rosh Hashanah. In most Jewish holiday periods during the past two years there has been an increase in the number of Jewish pilgrims in the Temple Mount. This has led to the increased support for the Temple Mount activist organizations within the religious public, which is gradually brushing aside the traditional opposition of the rabbinical establishment to Jewish visits to the site. Accordingly, the Jerusalem District police are preparing for a large-scale security deployment during the holidays, in light of the anticipated tension with Muslim worshippers.

At the end of August, the army was appalled to hear about an ostensibly tactical move by the police, which first removed and then allowed a group of Jews who had violated the agreed guidelines, into the area of the mosques via the Gate of the Tribes. Until now, that gate had been reserved exclusively for Muslims. Every erosion of the status quo agitates the Muslims and reinforces their suspicion that the Israeli state is part of a deliberate effort to restrict their rights on the mount.

The Jerusalem-based Ir Amim NGO sent a letter last week to the prime minister recommending that he intervene ahead of the holidays and make it clear to the police that their task is to prevent an erosion of the status quo on the Temple Mount. On behalf of the NGO, Aviv Tatarsky wrote: “Past experience shows that temple mount activists and politicians who support them will try to foment provocations during the high holidays. We can [also] expect a Palestinian protest in the light of the combination of a large number of Jewish pilgrims and these provocations, a protest which for its part, together with the police response, is liable to escalate into confrontations.”

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