All Quiet on the West-Bank Front – for Now

Both the IDF and the PA were interested this week in preventing friction in the territories; but what happens if Palestinians begin to march on a settlement, whose armed on-call squad responds before the army arrives?

At 2 P.M. Wednesday, the mobile phone of a senior Israel Defense Forces officer in Central Command rang. On the line was one of the heads of the Palestinian Authority's security units in the West Bank. The Israeli tensed up, fearing his counterpart had bad news from the Qalandiyah checkpoint - the site of the only clash then going on between Palestinian demonstrators and the army. But the caller only wanted to reassure the officer, as he had already done in a few earlier calls that day: Everything was going according to plan. The PA was in control.

Framed in a television report, the Qalandiyah demonstration looked like a fairly big deal. On the Israeli stations, which began broadcasting in a breaking-news format beginning on Wednesday - because of the expected drama at the United Nations - the camera was positioned behind the soldiers' backs, and focused on the children and teenagers who were throwing stones and burning tires. Only if the cameras zoomed out was the true situation revealed: relatively few violent demonstrations and an atmosphere of near indifference among the Palestinian public.

Palestinians in Ramallah September 20, 2011 (Reuters)

The cat-and-mouse games at Qalandiyah went on for a few hours, with police and IDF soldiers responding to the demonstrators with rubber-coated bullets and teargas. The somewhat tired ritual drew foreign TV crews, who normally would not bother coming to the checkpoint. When the commander of the Israeli army forces in the West Bank, Brig. Gen. Nitzan Alon, arrived at the site, he looked surprised at the small number of demonstrators.

After about two hours, in which the security forces slowly moved northward toward the demonstrators, in the direction of Ramallah, the uniformed soldiers withdrew south to the other side of the large concrete cubes and allowed the Palestinians to draw closer to the checkpoint. The youngsters even managed to block the Ramallah-Jerusalem road briefly.

In the meantime, a group of Palestinian laborers who were walking northward, near the border crossing, apparently after completing a day's work in Jerusalem, came under a volley of stones. The demonstrators thought the group consisted of mista'aravim, undercover Israeli troops disguised as Palestinians. The workers, who were carrying food bags, waved vigorously to the youngsters and shouted in Arabic. One of them threw a stone at the demonstrators in response.

The laborers' emotional gestures eventually persuaded the demonstrators to let them pass. Suddenly, with no warning, a few demonstrators stormed the stone throwers from behind. The laborers joined them. This "pincers movement" by what were undercover forces - some disguised as workers and others as demonstrators - brought about the arrest, before the cameras, of two Palestinian stone throwers.

This well-worn maneuver, as ancient as the first intifada, went down as the most tempestuous event of the first day of the demonstrations of support in the West Bank, prompted by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' request to the UN to confer recognition on a Palestinian state. The total number of demonstrators was estimated to be a few thousand, but the PA kept its word and generally prevented the young people from reaching Israeli checkpoints and settlements.

At the main assembly, held in Ramallah, the secretary general of the PA, Tayeb Abed a-Rahim, called on the participants to refrain from violence. He implored listeners not to supply Israel with any evidence that would allow it to claim that Abbas is not a viable partner for dialogue.

The PA's message was received loud and clear by the populace. Israel and the PA don't look like partners for peace talks at the moment, but the security coordination is being maintained and producing quiet - at least as of midday Thursday.

In the rally held in Manara Square in Ramallah on Wednesday, an elderly man was dressed up as Yasser Arafat, in military fatigues and a keffiyeh similar to the one worn by the late Palestinian leader. Would Arafat have coped with a similar challenge better than Abu Mazen? Probably not. Arafat monitored the public mood and behaved accordingly, even if this meant a violent confrontation. For this reason it is difficult to understand the reason for the sharp criticism leveled at Abbas by senior Israeli figures. After all, he is a Palestinian leader who has repeatedly declared that he is against violence and has so far made good on his promises.

Throughout Wednesday morning, Radio Palestine broadcast songs that had been composed in honor of the PA's application to become the 194th member-state of the United Nations. The presenter of the program described with much pathos the festive preparation for the assemblies in each West Bank city.

The sparse turnout was ascribed by the PA in part to the influence of Al Jazeera, which this time maintained unusual restraint and chose to focus on events in Yemen, Syria and Libya. Abbas' historic visit to the UN barely made it into the fourth slot on the newscasts, which are watched by the whole Arab world.

Hidden strategy

What is the PA's strategic aim in applying to the UN? According to one explanation, Abbas is after a symbolic achievement, since he has despaired of the possibility of reaching a final-status agreement as long as Benjamin Netanyahu is Israel's prime minister. But according to a different analysis, whose source is within Israel's defense establishment, his aim is to drag Israel, under international pressure, into renewed negotiations in which the Palestinians will enjoy an advantage. This is a similar approach to the one that Arafat apparently followed, in providing a tailwind for the frustration of the grassroots elements in Fatah with the eruption of the second intifada.

There are, of course, two significant differences between today and 2000. One is the unequivocal objection of the current leadership, under Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, to the use of terrorism or to any repeat of the enormous price the Palestinians paid for choosing the path of suicide bombers 11 years ago - memories that West Bank residents are not at all eager to re-experience. The other difference, a big unknown, is embodied by the younger generation in the territories. Not only because of the wonders of Facebook, but because the 16-20 age group, whose members did not take part in the previous struggle, seem to want to make a contribution of their own to Palestinian independence.

The strategic goal that Israel's defense establishment has formulated, based on dialogue with the prime minister and with the defense minister, is to encourage wide latitude for making decisions without pressure from the political echelon. The Palestinians are aware that an outbreak of violence will undermine their efforts to project the image of a society of law and order. It's not by chance that Abbas recently issued decrees forbidding arms to be borne in public by anyone other than members of the Palestinian security forces. On the other hand, in the Palestinian perception, stone throwing is a "popular" action - one that does not render a demonstration violent. Israel, in contrast, views almost every act of defiance as violent.

If there is a flare-up in the territories, it will be accompanied by mutual recriminations over who started it. Naturally, the IDF, which was taken by surprise in Lebanon and subsequently, albeit on a different scale, by the events of the Gaza flotilla and the Nakba Day demonstrations on the Syrian border, cannot afford to be caught unprepared again.

At the same time, it is hard to ignore the sense of panic that has marked Israel's behavior over the past few weeks. The embassy in Cairo was evacuated too late, the one in Amman too soon - and it is far from clear why Netanyahu's close supervision was needed in the situation room, other than the desire to reenact the images of Obama monitoring the U.S. operation against bin Laden.

Even though Central Command was assigned a large number of battalions, the GOC Central Command, Maj. Gen. Avi Mizrahi, preferred to have them continue their training activity, in the West Bank. This abbreviates the time needed to send them into action in the event of an emergency, while in the meantime preventing the presence of an inordinate number of troops in the field.

In the background, indirect threats again emanated from the direction of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who called for reprisal measures against the PA. The IDF is against this - certainly as long as there is no significant violence on the ground. The fear is that the PA will collapse and the security units will stop enforcing law and order (and preventing terrorism ) if the United States, under pressure of the Israeli right, terminates its economic aid to the PA as punishment for the application to the UN. At a meeting of Israel's ministerial forum, IDF officers were explicit in objecting to any such move by the Americans; indeed, they recommended that the Authority receive an advance payment in order to ensure that its police force continues to get paid.

Not bound by the rules

In the past few weeks, the Palestinians have determined that the settlers are the major target of their activities. International recognition of the PA, even as a state without UN membership, will change the legal status of the settlements. But the Palestinians' attitude toward the settlements is also informed by genuine concern over the rise in acts of Jewish terrorism (the "price tag" vengeance campaign ). In recent weeks the Jewish division of the Shin Bet security service has worked around the clock monitoring extreme right-wing Jews - surveillance which was apparently also accompanied by a breakthrough in the manhunt for the "price tag" group, whose base is in the settlement of Yitzhar and the Shiloh Valley. The IDF is warning that security coordination with the PA will be at risk if there are more attacks by settlers against Palestinians.

Similarly, the army is worried about the performance of the on-call squads in the settlements, in case of local escalation. The army has prevented any filming of its own preparation for a possible confrontation. However, the settlers had no such problem, and Israeli television stations eagerly filmed the training of one such squad in Kiryat Arba, which included the simulated dispersal of a Palestinian demonstration. Even these broadcasts were enough to show the heart of the problem: The squads' members are dubious of the very idea that there could be a nonviolent Palestinian demonstration.

One worrying possible scenario: The army is late in getting to an isolated settlement toward which Palestinians are marching, and the on-call squad, fearing that the Palestinians will enter the settlement, which is not necessarily fenced in, departs from the IDF's restrained rules of engagement.

Indeed, in some sectors the security officers have explicitly told the brigade commanders that they do not consider themselves bound by the army's rules. No Palestinian will enter our settlement, they declare. Some commanders think the IDF should have taken the unusual - and politically loaded - step of confiscating the weapons of at least some of the settlement-based squads.