Israeli Army Begins Broad Reserve Call Up for West Bank Deployment in 2016

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Israeli troops take position during clashes with Palestinian protesters at the entrance of the Palestinian town of al-Bireh, near Ramallah. November 11, 2015.
Israeli troops take position during clashes with Palestinian protesters at the entrance of the Palestinian town of al-Bireh, near Ramallah. November 11, 2015.Credit: AFP

The army is preparing for the possibility of deploying as many as 70 reserve battalions on unplanned operational activity in the West Bank next year, at a cost of some 300 million shekels ($77 million).

The first call-up orders for operational duty in the West Bank in January were received this week by four reserve battalions. But the 2016 plans drawn up by the Israel Defense Forces call for many other such battalions.

The General Staff doesn’t know how long the current clashes with the Palestinians will last. But its working assumption is that many months will pass before the violence ebbs. If so, it will need many reservists, in part to replace regular troops so they can train as scheduled.

Six weeks have passed since Eitam and Naama Henkin were murdered on October 1, the incident the IDF deems the start of the current wave of violence. What seems to be clear is that it won’t end in a knockout. Israel is involved in a war of attrition that recalls the two previous intifadas, albeit of lower intensity.

In the second intifada, Israel also failed to win a decisive victory, though by the end of five years of conflict, it had achieved a good approximation of one. Since then, Palestinian suicide bombings have stopped almost entirely, and most other violence as well. But Israel was pushed into a significant diplomatic concession: Unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip plus four West Bank settlements.

A document published by the Shin Bet security service this week, its first attempt at profiling the perpetrators of recent attacks, said their motive is “a feeling of national, economic and personal oppression, as well as personal or psychological problems.” This dovetails with what Military Intelligence chief Herzl Halevi told the cabinet — that one reason for the current violence is the anger and frustration felt by Palestinians, especially the younger generation, who feel they have nothing left to lose.

These explanations don’t match the government’s official line, which is that the terror stems solely from a desire to destroy Israel rather than frustration over the impasse in the peace process.

Israel’s current problem involves not only finding a way to defeat the terror, but two other elements of its traditional defense doctrine: advance warning and deterrence. Because most of the terrorists are young people acting alone, with no record of security offenses or ties to terrorist organizations, the traditional method of thwarting attacks (using human or signals intelligence to obtain advance warning) is less useful.

One step that could provide a little more advance warning is stationing additional cameras along roads and intersections in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. These might enable an intent to attack to be discerned in advance. Another crucial step is monitoring the Internet, both because much of the incitement happens on the web, and because attackers often post hints of their intentions there (like Facebook announcements that they plan to commit an attack or kill themselves).

As for deterrence, Israel is apparently having trouble making up its mind. After almost a decade in which the defense establishment opposed demolishing terrorists’ homes, it has changed its mind over the last year and now recommends demolition as a deterrent measure.

Another step ordered by the cabinet — refusing to return the bodies of slain terrorists — has proved extremely controversial. Most defense professionals, including Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and senior IDF officers, vehemently oppose the idea, considering it useless and even counterproductive. Indeed, they attribute some of the ongoing violence in Hebron to Palestinian anger over the failure to return bodies. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is having trouble rescinding the decision due to political pressure from the right.

Aside from the issue of the bodies, senior defense officials have generally responded to the violence judiciously. The danger on the Israeli side stems from ordinary soldiers being worn down by constant stabbing and car-ramming attacks. This could result in them not enforcing the policy of restraint dictated by senior officers, especially given the inflammatory rhetoric from politicians.

Israel is also worried by two developments on the Palestinian side. First, the pace and intensity of the attacks are convenient for the Palestinian Authority, because they exact a daily toll on Israel without endangering the PA’s control over Palestinian cities. Consequently, the Palestinian leadership has no real interest in working to stop the violence.

The second development is that Hamas is clearly seeking to perpetrate a more dramatic attack in the West Bank, either a mass-casualty shooting or a suicide bombing. Such an incident could spark a serious escalation.

Despite the daily drip-drip of bad news, what’s happening today isn’t worse than what the IDF prepared for. It even seems as if the public on both sides has started getting used to it. But it’s hard to ignore the similarity between the last six weeks and the same period 15 years ago, at the start of the second intifada: The exhaustion of commanders in the field, the long days running into one another, the series of incidents that have already begun to blur (does anyone remember whether Monday’s attack was a stabbing or a car-ramming?)

Both Israeli intelligence and senior PA officials insist that the current wave is not an intifada. The previous intifadas were characterized by plans of action with relatively clear goals, the rapid emergence of an organized leadership and mass participation. None of these three elements exist in the current violence. Israeli defense officials therefore believe it won’t last as long as the intifadas did.

There are also political reasons for this view: Acknowledging the existence of a new long-term situation might require both sides to make policy changes they don’t want.

The experts aren’t wrong about the facts. The attacks are indeed coming from below, with no central command. Violent demonstrations in the West Bank are indeed drawing far fewer participants than those at the start of the first and second intifadas. The number of Palestinian fatalities is just over half what it was at the same point in the second intifada (the number of Israeli fatalities, in contrast, is about the same). The violence in Jerusalem, where the current round began, has ebbed, Israeli Arabs haven’t joined in and, at this stage, it hasn’t spread to Gaza. Most incidents now are in the West Bank, primarily the Hebron area.

And yet, we’re clearly in a new situation, from which it will be hard to emerge; one more reminiscent of an intifada than a mere “escalation” or “wave of terror.” Even if most Palestinians eschew violence, new attackers are emerging from almost every segment of society, from 12-year-old children to a 73-year-old grandmother (whose intentions are still disputed).

Nevertheless, from Israel’s perspective, the situation does have some advantages over previous intifadas. The defense establishment is relatively well prepared instead of being taken by surprise. The PA still maintains some degree of security cooperation with Israel.

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