Analysis |

Hezbollah Threats, West Bank Tensions: Clouds Gather as Israel Prepares for Fall Holidays

'The main difficulty is foiling all the attempted terror attacks on time,' warns a senior officer as the army prepares to boost forces along West Bank roads

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Police at the site where the body of the Palestinian man who bludgeoned an 84-year-old woman to death was found after his suicide, in Tel Aviv, this week.
Police at the site where the body of the Palestinian man who bludgeoned an 84-year-old woman to death was found after his suicide, in Tel Aviv, this week.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

As the Jewish holidays loom, storm clouds continue to gather in the region’s skies. The Palestinian arena, especially the West Bank, is the most worrisome. But the Lebanese issue, at the same time, is not yet solved.

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Israeli, Lebanese and Western diplomats involved in the negotiations to demarcate the maritime border continue to project optimism. Some of them even spoke this week of a 90-95 percent chance that Lebanon and Israel will sign an agreement in the coming weeks. However, Hezbollah continues to issue threats to strike at Israel’s Karish gas platform. It seems that as long as an agreement hasn’t been signed, the danger has not passed.

There’s also probably no reason to be overly impressed by Israel’s firm promise to start drilling for gas irrespective of progress in the negotiations. The franchisee, British firm Energean, is unlikely to volunteer to take risks with the crisis unresolved.

Interestingly, a deal could fundamentally change relations between the two countries, to Hezbollah’s chagrin. From the moment the Lebanese will have something to lose – their own drilling rig, which is expected to produce critical profits for its shattered economy – a kind of mutually assured balance of terror will be created between the sides. Neither Israel nor Lebanon will want to risk harming their neighbor’s platform, which would bring about similar damage to its side.

An Energean Floating production storage and offloading (FPSO) ship in the Karish field, an offshore gas field in the Mediterranean sea which is claimed by Israel and partly by Lebanon, this week.Credit: - - AFP

The circumstances in the West Bank are more severe. Shooting attacks on the roads have again become an almost daily phenomenon. This week, a West Bank Palestinian bludgeoned to death a Holon resident, 84-year-old Shlomit Ovadia, with an iron rod. The murderer committed suicide a few hours later in Tel Aviv.

Like some of the so-called lone wolves – the perpetrators of the wave of attacks in 2015 – the murderer, Moussa Sarsour, from the village of Sarta, suffered from mental health issues. But like in those cases, there was probably a fusion of motives – personal and political. Otherwise, why did he not hang himself in his village, without taking the life of an elderly woman who had done him no harm?

Be that as it may, it looks as though a critical mass of incidents could accumulate, as in the wave of attacks last March. The frequency of the incidents will compel the army to go on deploying massive forces in the West Bank, largely in the border areas where work has begun to repair the separation fence.

On holiday eves in particular, the army will have to reinforce its presence along West Bank roads to prevent terrorist attacks on traveling Israeli families. “I am less worried about a general escalation like in the second intifada, and more so that a few attacks will slip by us, amid all the warnings,” a senior officer told Haaretz. “The primary difficulty is thwarting all attempts in time.”

The army has in the West Bank 11 battalions more than before the present wave of attacks began in March, almost double the number of soldiers. The situation is also seriously harming combat training. The regular battalions, along with several reserve battalions, are engaged in grinding activity in different sectors, training very little this year. The damage will be long-term, involving a serious blow to professional knowhow and fitness. Even without further escalation, the regular army’s workload will increase in the coming period because the army refrained, deliberately and justly so, from calling up reservists in late August (the last days of children's summer camps) and will do so again in the fall holidays.

At the same time, impressive offensive activity is continuing in the so-called campaign between the wars, surging 70 percent in the past year, compared to the preceding year. Here, in routine periods, the army’s advantages come into play: precise intelligence, detailed planning and execution, unparalleled aerial capability. Thousands of soldiers and officers are engaged in this activity, mostly far from the public eye. But these achievements are unrelated to what is happening in the territories – and it’s from the West Bank that trouble could soon develop.

A Palestinian protester gestures as Israeli army soldiers stand guard during a demonstration against Israeli settlements, in Masafer Yatta, near Hebron, this week.Credit: MUSSA ISSA QAWASMA/ REUTERS

There’s a degree of melancholic irony in the following conclusion, too: Israel’s ongoing inability to terminate the undemocratic situation in the territories is liable to adversely affect Israeli democracy within the Green Line. Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu will not hesitate to exploit terrorist attacks and hitches with the Palestinians to nail down electoral victory, after which he intends to launch a judicial jihad to halt the criminal proceedings against him.

Last week, this column mentioned the strategic warning that the head of the research division in Military Intelligence, Brig. Gen. Dror Shalom, issued in 2016, about a flare-up in the territories that could endanger the Palestinian Authority’s rule.

In an article in the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth on Wednesday, two of Shalom’s former MI colleagues, Maj. Gen. Amos Gilad (who was Shalom’s commander) and Dr. Michael Milshtein, wrote about an additional danger that the present situation portends. In their view, even if the security escalation subsides, we must not ignore “the protracted, subterranean merging between Judea-and-Samaria and Israel in the civil and economic realms, which is liable to form a foundation for administrative and political fusion.”

The two are referring to the growing conflation of the Israeli economy and the Palestinian economy in the West Bank, in areas such as water, electricity, communications and transportation infrastructures. Although these developments help improve Palestinian quality of life, they also create a reality that is becoming inseparable and is nearing the point of no return on the road to the perilous vision of a single state.

Just maybe, the political decision makers are not totally indifferent to the developments. After years-long Israeli abstinence, Prime Minister Yair Lapid, speaking in the United Nations General Assembly on Thursday, called for promoting the two-state solution once again.

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