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Israeli Army Went in for West Bank Op Even as It Knew Palestinians Were Gearing for Clashes

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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The ruins of a home demolished in Jenin on Thursday.
The ruins of a home demolished in Jenin on Thursday. Credit: Majdi Mohammed/AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Wednesday night and Thursday morning were packed with military action on a number of fronts. In Jerusalem, a Palestinian driver – in what seems to have been a terrorist attack – ran over a group of Golani infantry soldiers, injured 12 of them, leaving one in serious condition, and fled. On Thursday, an Israeli police officer was lightly injured by gunfire in the Old City; the shooter was killed. In the West Bank two Palestinians were killed by army gunfire in Jenin – four killed in less than a day. In the Gaza Strip, the Israel Air Force struck two Hamas tunnels after another night in which mortar shells were fired at the Israeli communities near Gaza. And in Damascus, the media reported on an Israeli air attack, which seems to have targeted an Iranian arms shipment.

The attack attributed to Israel in Syria looks to be another step in the ongoing battle against weapons smuggling and the attempt of Iranian forces to establish themselves on Israel’s northern front. But on the Palestinian front, there seems to be a common thread that connects all the incidents: The American peace initiative, which has led to a much harder line on the part of the rival Palestinian organizations, and seems to have indirectly reduced the chances of reaching a long-term respite in the Gaza Strip.

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In the hit-and-run attack in Jerusalem, the terrorist managed to escape from the scene, something that is quite rare. The injured soldiers are still in basic training. They were drafted in November 2019, and were participating in an educational heritage tour in the First Station compound, not far from the Old City but in west Jerusalem. They were on their way to their Israel Defense Forces swearing in ceremony at the Western Wall. In a similar incident in 1986 near the Western Wall, the father of one of the soldiers was killed when a grenade was thrown at those coming to attend the swearing in ceremony of the Givati Brigade soldiers. The IDF will now have to investigate why none of the trainees’ commanders, who are more experienced combat soldiers, did not manage to open fire at the hit-and-run driver.

The funeral of the Palestinian policeman killed in Jenin. Credit: Majdi Mohammed/AP

In Jenin too, there will be what to investigate – and at much higher levels. Throughout the entire last week, the West Bank has been gradually heating up as a result of the presentation of the Trump peace plan, and the Israeli declarations of intentions to annex parts of the West Bank. On Wednesday, Palestinians threw large numbers of Molotov cocktails at IDF forces operating in the area of Birzeit, near Ramallah, and a 17-year-old Palestinian was killed in Hebron after he threw a Molotov cocktail at the soldiers, they said. Regardless, the army thought it was urgent to conduct an operation Wednesday night to demolish the home of a terrorist, one of the members of the cell that murdered Rabbi Raziel Shevach two years ago– a home which was already demolished once. The operation was not halted even though while the forces were on their way to Jenin pictures from a drone showed hundreds of Palestinians organizing for a confrontation with the soldiers near the house.

In the end, the house was demolished – but a number of shooting incidents took place. In one of the incidents, IDF snipers returned fire at a Palestinian cell that had opened fire on the soldiers, said the IDF Spokesman’s Office. The Palestinians reported two dead, a cadet in the Palestinian police and a police officer. This is a very rare outcome, which will certainly make the atmosphere even worse between Israel and the Palestinian security forces.

It is hard to ignore the political context of the insistence on carrying out the house demolition – that specific night – when the heat on the West Bank had been rising steadily over the last week. Defense Minister Naftali Bennett announced last month a stricter policy concerning house demolitions, which would include the homes of those who aided terrorist groups. Right-wing groups and settlers have been regularly applying pressure on political leaders and the IDF to speed up the pace of home demolitions.

The scene of the car-ramming attack in Jerusalem on Wednesday. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The sequence of events could attest to the start of a wave of copycat attacks in the wake of the successful attack on the Golan soldiers. The tension is only expected to escalate ahead of Friday’s Muslim prayer services in the West Bank and Jerusalem’s Temple Mount.

Hamas’ opportunity

The Trump peace plan and the events in the West Bank also influence what is happening in the Gaza Strip. The efforts to reach an arrangement with Hamas have been faltering for a few weeks. After the latest round of fighting in November, which began with the targeted killing by Israel of senior Palestinian Islamic Jihad commander Baha Abu al-Ata, IDF Military Intelligence assessed that a real opportunity had been created to reach a long-term period of calm. At the time, Hamas chose not to participate in the clashes that broke out between Israel and the Islamic Jihad after the killing, and later Hamas even announced a halt to the protests along the border fence on Fridays – at least until the end of March. Intelligence officials saw this as a strategic decision by Hamas to improve the living conditions in the Gaza Strip, even at the price of temporarily putting the struggle against Israel, the “Muqawama,” on hold.

Israeli soldiers in Jenin on Thursday. Credit: IDF Spokesman's Office

But in the meantime, three things have happened: Israeli measures to alleviate economic hardship in Gaza have not progressed as fast as Hamas expected. Egypt is angry with the organization’s leadership because of Ismail Haniyeh’s insistence on visiting Iran. And finally, Donald Trump has rebooted everything by releasing his peace initiative – accompanied by (so far baseless) declarations of Israel’s intentions to annex the Jordan Valley and settlements in the West Bank. This combination of developments is what seems to be behind the major change in Hamas’ actions.

A few weeks ago, the Hamas military wing began launching balloons carrying explosive devices at Israel. Gradually, the Islamic Jihad began to realize too that the rules of the game had changed – and it increased its firing of rockets and mortars at Israel. Some of this was attributed to Abu al-Ata’s colleagues, who feel they had not yet extracted adequate revenge for his death. In other cases, those firing the rockets were members of smaller Palestinian factions, those who Israel calls the “recalcitrants.” As opposed to earlier periods of tensions over the past year, the IDF has not volunteered to explain away Hamas’ actions. It seems to be a policy dictated from on high, from the organization’s leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar.

Hamas is frustrated because in its understanding, the group has sacrificed its main card – the protests, whose frequent use forced Israel to agree to the easing of conditions – but did not receive adequate compensation in return. This is behind Sinwar’s decision to loosen the reins and renew the violence, though still on a limited basis. For now, the internal crisis in the Gaza Strip has worsened, in part because of the disagreements with Egypt. Cairo has been trying to teach Haniyeh a lesson – he has not returned to Gaza yet, and he is considering remaining in the Gulf states for a few months. Egypt is also making it more difficult to bring in liquid gas, the main heating fuel in Gaza during the winter.

The site of the shooting in the Old City of Jerusalem where a Palestinian was killed and an Israeli police officer lightly injured. Credit: Emil Salman

Added to all this are the effects of “the deal of the century.” The militant line taken by the chairman of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, has also inspired his rivals at home. If the PA is once again leading the struggle, Hamas cannot remain apathetic – for two reasons: First, Sinwar does not want to be viewed by the Palestinian public as someone who has reconciled with Israel in return for improved conditions, while Abbas is firmly sticking to his rejectionism. Second, it seems as though an opportunity has been created for Hamas. Abbas held an unusual telephone conversation with Haniyeh and is willing to talk about coordinating a joint struggle, which could lead in the future to talks over holding Palestinian elections. This would provide an opportunity for Hamas to return to the West Bank through the back door – while at the same time, to finally bury the peace negotiations track with Israel – the same channel that Yasser Arafat and the PLO have led since the Oslo Accords in 1993, and which Hamas has fiercely opposed the entire time.

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