The idea that the Gaza Strip will eventually erupt is entirely predictable.
It should be obvious to everyone that 2 million people living in such dire humanitarian circumstances and controlled by a terrorist organization is the kind of explosive material that will inevitably blow up sooner or later.
On the other hand, the explosion that is unpredictable is the one in the West Bank. There are two main reasons for the sense of relative stability that permeates that region. The first is the constant, stubborn effort by the Shin Bet, with military backing from the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), to thwart terrorism. The second is security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority (PA) and its security forces.
They are under orders from President Mahmoud Abbas, first and foremost, to prevent terrorist attacks, even though he is subjected to profound and widespread public criticism because of this. The contribution of the Palestinian security cooperation to preventing terrorism is enormous.
But the current state of stability is threatened by a series of recent developments. Should these coincide, they could cause everything to blow up and result in a major conflagration. These developments are:
- Incessant efforts by Hamas to instigate terrorist attacks in the West Bank. In 2018 alone, the Shin Bet prevented 480 attempts to launch attacks in the West Bank, 219 Hamas terrorist cells were arrested and, most tellingly, 560 attempts by individual assailants were stopped.
- An increasing sense that there is no diplomatic way out of the situation. The Arab world is busy with its own troubles, and the hills of the West Bank are being covered by settler homes. Meanwhile, the establishment of a Palestinian state — the national aspiration of the Palestinian people — seems more remote than ever, if not completely impossible. Twice in the past, this sense of isolation and hopelessness resulted in an intifada: in December 1987 and in September 2000. I was head of the Civil Administration in the West Bank in 1987 and deputy defense minister in 2000, so when I look at the current situation, I can’t help but say to myself, “How similar they are!”
- The absence of any positive diplomatic developments on the horizon and the lack of achievements resulting from the Abbas policy — of rejecting terror and insisting on continued security cooperation with Israel — weaken the authority of the West Bank political leadership. At the same time, Hamas and other extremist factors have grown stronger.
- The economic situation in the West Bank, which is significantly better than that of Gaza, has nevertheless been getting worse. This can be attributed to two significant cuts to the budget of the Palestinian Authority. The first is the confiscation of half a billion shekels from tax money ($138 million) that the Israeli government collected on behalf of the PA. The second is the result of US budget cuts to various Palestinian institutions, including the security forces that operate alongside us. The financial duress facing the PA could lead to its paralysis and even its collapse, which would certainly expedite any volatile development.
- The US administration has changed its historic role. For the past five decades, every American administration, regardless of whether it was Republican or Democrat, attempted to serve as a calming, moderating influence, intent on bringing the two sides in the conflict closer together. The Trump administration abandoned the traditional, moderating attitude of his predecessors and became a provocateur instead, fanning the flames of the conflict, even if indirectly, rather than extinguishing them. The damage the Trump administration caused to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, the weakening of the PA through financial cuts and its hindering of security collaboration between Israel and the Palestinians were not intended to better the security situation in Israel. They were designed to appease Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his inner circle politically. If US President Donald Trump’s “deal of the century” would blatantly reflect this stance, the deal on its own could trigger the next explosion.
- The Palestinian West Bank population is keeping close watch on Israel’s actions in the Gaza Strip. Qatari money given to Hamas in a kind of protection racket supports the predominant assumption among Palestinians that Israel only understands force, and that the only way to get anything from Israel is by firing a rocket at it, not by extending a hand.
- The last development is potentially the most dangerous. It involves the sharp rise in violence among the radical settlers known as the Hilltop Youth. According to Palestinian figures, while there were 284 cases of attacks on Palestinians in 2017, the number ballooned to 614 in 2018. In the first quarter of 2019, which is not yet over, there have been at least 125 incidents. One such incident alone is enough to ignite a major conflagration.
When I say a major conflagration in the West Bank, I mean that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will once again become violent and encompass a geographic area that includes all the cities, villages and refugee camps throughout the entire West Bank. In military terms, this is an “intercommunal conflict,” or rather a civil war between those who are citizens and those who are not. There is no set mechanism to end such a conflict. It lasts a long time, has numerous casualties and leaves hundreds of thousands of people uprooted. One terrifying example of this is Syria.
Intercommunal conflict in the West Bank will impact all areas of life in Israel. The economy, exports and tourism will all suffer. Israel’s diplomatic isolation will intensify. The IDF will return to policing duties, impacting its readiness for war, as happened on the eve of the Second Lebanon War in 2006.
Decision-makers are well aware of the scenario I presented and its serious consequences. Just last year, the heads of the Shin Bet and the IDF presented it to the Cabinet, as well as to the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. But no one jumped up to prevent it or at the very least, to prepare for it.
The reason is that some of the more extreme leaders of the right want precisely this scenario to happen. As far as they are concerned, it is the only way to obtain 100% control over the Greater Land of Israel — the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River — without bearing the burden of controlling a population over half of which is Palestinian. They hope that the steps taken to impose collective punishment, which will become necessary due to the scope of the violence, will result in the mass emigration of Palestinians eastward, across the Jordan River. They will legitimize maintaining the occupation of the West Bank by force and keeping it under military rule. Supporters of this scenario believe that it is the best and only way to ensure that Arabs do not become the majority population in the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. The more centrist group of right-wing leaders is aware of the risks inherent in an ethnic war in the West Bank but is not willing to come into conflict with a significant part of their voter base in order to give up control of about one-fifth of Israel’s total territory, just to establish a Palestinian state.
Unfortunately, even most of Israel’s center-left leadership has accepted the false premise that “there is no partner for peace.” And yet, the Palestinian leader who always wanted negotiations with Israel is none other than Abbas. He has the receipts to prove it too, just as he does for his active opposition to violence and terrorism and his insistence on continuing security collaboration with Israel. All members of the Cabinet, and all those who served in a senior official position and are now political leaders, know this to be true. They were exposed to it in the briefings they heard and in the intelligence reports they read. They know that the statement, “Abbas is not a partner for peace,” is a lie.
It is true that Abbas is not a partner for continuing the status quo, nor is he a partner for expanding the settlements. He is, however, a partner for serious, in-depth negotiations and has already proved as much. Toward the end of Ehud Olmert’s time as prime minister, the two men engaged in many extensive discussions, which resulted in a series of understandings, not bridging all the differences. All that was left were a few minor differences, which any fair and authoritative mediator can resolve.
When they engaged in these negotiations, Abbas was president of Palestine (he still is) and Olmert was the elected prime minister of Israel. If a new Israeli government does not want to see the current situation deteriorate into intercommunal conflict in the West Bank between the settlers and the Palestinians, it will have to revisit the Olmert-Abbas understandings and simply use them as the basis for negotiations.