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Israel forced to rethink lax approach on security fence

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi would have probably preferred dedicating all his attention and efforts to Iran, and not be bothered with the breaches in the security fence.
This photo shows the security fence near Ibthan (in the Zemer local council) in central Israel separating it from the West Bank, April 13, 2022.

Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), never imagined that he would be touring the area known as the Seam Zone ahead of the 2022 Passover holiday. The area runs parallel to the so-called separation fence between Israel and the West Bank hastily built nearly 20 years ago to block suicide attacks by Palestinians dispatched from the West Bank to massacre Israelis.

According to figures compiled by the Shin Bet security agency, over 700 Israelis were killed in some 150 suicide attacks between 1993 and 2006. In the initial weeks of the wave of Palestinian violence known as the second intifada (2000-2005), a senior unnamed Shin Bet official said that fighting terrorism under current conditions is like trying to “empty the sea with a teaspoon.” Nonetheless, Israel launched a massive counterterrorism campaign (Operation Defensive Shield) in 2002 to crush the West Bank terrorist infrastructure, started construction of the security barrier and achieved a rare victory over terrorism, putting an end to the suicide bombings.

At the time, as commander of the Paratroopers Brigade, Kochavi was tasked with a mission considered largely impossible — dispelling terrorists from the Balata refugee camp in Nablus in the West Bank. The densely crowded Palestinian refugee camps, with their winding narrow alleys and fortifications were impenetrable by tanks or other armored vehicles. Kochavi and the commanders of the infantry forces came up with a brilliant idea: They moved from house to house by sawing their way through the walls. The mission was accomplished and the number of suicide attacks declined.

The intifada was pronounced over in late 2005. Since then, both Israelis and Palestinians have enjoyed a measure of prosperity, disrupted by periodic waves of terrorism, but none as lethal and intense as the suicide bombings of the second intifada or the 1990s.

In recent weeks, Kochavi along with Central Command Chief Maj. Gen. Yehuda Fuchs, commander of the Judea and Samaria Division Brig. Gen. Avi Balut and other senior officers have fanned out along the 700- kilometer (435-mile) fence, reviewing the deployment of 26 IDF battalions (a force equal to 4-5 divisions).

The IDF normally deploys 13 battalions in the West Bank, but the force has been doubled in response to the killing of 15 people in four gun and knife terror attacks since late March, especially ahead of the convergent Ramadan, Passover and Easter observances in April. However, as per the warnings of security officials, the holiday period violence erupted in the perennial Jerusalem hotspot of the Temple Mount/Haram a-Sharif, followed by signs of percolating unrest from the Gaza Strip with two rocket firings at Israel in recent days.

The initially highly effective security barrier has been breached over the years in several spots, with authorities taking a calculated risk and turning a blind eye to the tens of thousands of Palestinian laborers crossing illegally into Israel every day and propping up the Palestinian economy with their wages. However, given the public outcry over breaches that allowed two of the perpetrators of the latest attacks to enter the country from the West Bank, politicians and senior IDF brass have been under pressure to restore a sense of security on Israel’s streets. In light of the urgency and absence of other solutions, authorities did what always works, at least in the short term, deploying a massive military presence on the ground.

The area along the separation fence that runs to the east of the Arab Israeli town of Umm al-Fahm is one of the most complex and sensitive along the route of the barrier. Residents of the town — the largest Arab urban center in Israel — are full-fledged Israeli citizens, living just hundreds of meters away from the Palestinian villages on the other side of the fence.

Further along the fence to the north lies the Palestinian town of Jenin, once known as the “suicide bombers’ capital” and home to two of the perpetrators of the latest terrorist attacks. “It’s very easy for them to blend into the Umm al-Fahm area if they cross the fence there,” an intelligence officer explained on condition of anonymity. “They have support, lookouts and infrastructure that supports them.”

As mentioned, the vast majority of Umm al-Fahm’s 56,000 residents are law-abiding Israelis opposed to any form of terrorism. Nonetheless, the March 27 shooting attack in the Jewish town of Hadera, in which two Israelis were killed, was carried out by residents of Umm al-Fahm inspired by the Islamic State.

Naturally, Kochavi and his troops are not allowed to operate in the town, nor would they have any reason to do so. The IDF is not tasked with patrolling Israel’s urban centers, nor does it have a mandate to stop and question Israeli citizens.

As explained by a young paratrooper battalion commander to Kochavi on a recent tour of the area, the soldiers are tasked with conducting observations, both visible and undercover, and patrolling along the “red side” of the fence, meaning the Palestinian side where it is permitted to operate. Its mission is to stop illegal crossings into Israel through the weak points in the fence. If people succeed in getting across, the tough job of locating and stopping them somewhere inside Israel is entrusted to the police.

While not quite akin to drying the sea with a teaspoon, it is like finding the proverbial needle in a giant haystack.

Under instructions from the political echelons, Kochavi is devoting much of his time to reconstituting Israel’s military capabilities for a potential strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Work on that project has been accelerated and budgets allocated. Israel still has a way to go before achieving sufficient capabilities to significantly damage Iran’s progress toward a bomb. In the meantime, the IDF is waging a low-intensity conflict with Iran, dubbed “the war between the wars,” to uproot the Iranian-Shiite military presence in Syria and undermine the Iranian-backed operation to adapt Hezbollah’s rocket arsenal into lethal precision missiles.

At the height of this vital strategic activity, Kochavi nonetheless had to make time for what some would argue was the minutiae of the security fence.

The security fence has been allowed to deteriorate with the fading out of the massive waves of terrorism over the past 15 years. The army, police, Shin Bet and politicians all know about the daily unauthorized crossings of Palestinian laborers. But the four most recent attacks, conducted by individuals without apparent links to organized terrorism infrastructure, are calling into question this calculated risk of allowing unfettered passage through holes in the fence.

The IDF is back in massive force, running around in a somewhat futile effort to identify and stop potential lone Palestinian assailants, because throwing the IDF at a problem is what Israel does whenever it has no other solution. Meanwhile, tensions at Jerusalem’s holy sites are running high and the Gaza Strip may be on the verge of tangling with Israel once again. That is how holidays are celebrated in this part of the world.

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