Can Anything Douse the Flames of West Bank Unrest?

Two clashes between IDF and Palestinians over the weekend are a drop in the ocean of an imminent upsurge.

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The recent deterioration of calm in the West Bank, which involved two unpleasant incidents that occurred in less than 24 hours, are continuing to raise the heat of the West Bank barometer.

A week after the failed Palestinian attempt to ignite riots in Jerusalem and the West Bank over the building in the East Jerusalem neighborhood Ramat Shlomo, Israel is now fanning the flames with the deaths of four unarmed Palestinians at the hands of Israel Defense Forces soldiers.

Unlike in previous periods, including the terrible days of the Second Intifada of the early 2000s, it now appears that Israel and the Palestinian Authority have a shared interest in controlling the flames. This can be seen in several attempts at restraint, executed with improved security coordination, and even in a joint investigation conducted Sunday regarding one of the shooting incidents.

However, the Palestinians also have a conflicting consideration: Protests, as long as they remain by "the people" and are portrayed as non-violent, are well received by the international community and considered a legitimate act in the struggle to end Israeli occupation.

Therefore, Mahmoud Abbas' Palestinian Authority will continue to play the double standard, but will remain cautious to avoid a wider upsurge in violence.

To recap: On Saturday, residents of a village south of Nablus clashed with IDF soldiers. The soldiers opened fire, and killed two Palestinian youths, aged 16 and 17. The IDF claimed that they only used rubber bullets and at no time used live ammunition.

The Palestinians, on the other hand, claim that they were shot at with live ammunition, and have released x-ray images taken in the Nablus hospital showing a bullet lodged in the head of one of the victims.

According to the initial IDF statement, the rubber bullets were fired from a distance of 70 meters - a distance from which rubber bullets are unlikely to cause death.

But on Saturday night the IDF sounded less certain about its version, and admitted that live ammunition might have been fired, in contravention of orders.

The following day, soldiers from the same Nachshon battalion stopped two 19-year-old Palestinians for a routine checkup in the nearby village of Awarta. An all-too-familiar incident developed, and, according to the IDF sergeant present, the Palestinian teens attempted to attack him with a bottle and a sharp object, apparently a syringe.

The sergeant fired on both of them from short range, as, according to his testimony, he felt his life was threatened.

IDF officers in the area said following an initial investigation, that the officer acted with "reasonable discretion," however, they are still investigating erroneous action in the forces' performance.

Both incidents reflect the difficulties of the current period from the IDF perspective. On one hand, there is talk of widespread security coordination with the Palestinians, as the expressed by IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi: "Where they [the PA security systems] operate against terror, we will not operate."

While on the other hand, IDF commanders continue to send their soldiers mixed messages, saying that they should be on alert for suspicious Palestinian behavior which could precede an attack. The clearest example of this was when an IDF soldier was stabbed while driving in an armed Jeep south of Nablus some two months ago.

It is easy for soldiers to operate in a clearly defined situation, like obvious and continuous conflict. The gray areas cause the problems. The West Bank did not go up in flames, despite the PA call to riot and the Hamas' "Day of Rage." Yet, regardless of the tight security coordination, the situation offers no comfort.

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's interests differ from those of Israel - while top ranking military officials see Fayyad as an opportunity, the political ranks are concerned with the risks in his plan to establish a Palestinian state, from the bottom up, within two years.

My conclusion after two visits to the West Bank in less than a week: Security coordination can only work to a certain point. When conditions on the ground give rise to incidents such as the two near Nablus, and with a lack of a significant diplomatic horizon, a far larger and more fateful upsurge could well erupt within the next few months.

Posted by Amos Harel on March 22, 2010

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