A new wave of Israeli-Palestinian violence has been sweeping the West Bank in recent months, but it is too soon to determine whether this is yet another periodic round of clashes that will peter out soon, or the start of a third Palestinian intifada.
The attacks on Israeli soldiers and settlers have been escalating, with the most recent the Sept. 15 shooting by Palestinians at a Jewish seminary in the southern Hebron Hills settlement of Carmel, in which an 18-year-old yeshiva student was wounded. The military launched a manhunt for the assailants, while Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack.
Special Israeli military units have been mounting nighttime raids for months to capture suspected Palestinian terrorists in the West Bank, especially around the northern towns of Jenin and Nablus, both considered hotbeds of anti-Israel terrorism.
The ongoing Israeli operation, codenamed “Breakwater,” launched in the wake of a series of terrorist attacks in Israeli urban centers between March and May, is meant to dry up what Israel describes as a “swamp” of terrorism and prevent its spread to other parts of the West Bank.
The raids on Palestinian villages and towns have often developed into firefights. Israel attributes the ongoing Palestinian violence, in part, to the failure by Palestinian Authority (PA) security forces to clamp down on the militants. Reports say 2022 has been (before it even ended) the deadliest year for Palestinians since 2015, with 81 Palestinians killed either by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) or other Israeli fire.
Prime Minister Yair Lapid and top Israeli officials, among them Shin Bet Director Ronen Bar, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and IDF Chief Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, have issued repeated warnings to the PA and to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas against the continuing lawlessness.
Israeli decision-makers face a complex dilemma. Should they beef up the daily military raids into a full-scale operation of the kind Israel mounted 20 years ago in the northern Samaria region, known as Defensive Shield? Or, dial down Israeli military activity and respond to the PA’s request to stand back and allow Palestinian security forces to restore their control of the area.
Palestinian security officials have been telling their Israeli counterparts that the current state of affairs cannot continue, complaining that they cannot be expected to cooperate with the Israelis when armed commando units enter their towns and villages every day, leaving the Palestinian forces to pick up the bodies. The message was simple: If you want us to restore order, get out.
But Israel cannot afford to disengage, arguing that its presence on the ground is vital to thwarting hundreds of planned Palestinian attacks.
Last week, Israeli police arrested a Palestinian armed with an improvised submachine gun and two pipe bombs in Jaffa, a mixed Arab-Jewish neighborhood of Tel Aviv, minutes before he was to carry out an attack. In the pre-dawn hours of Sept. 14, a deputy battalion commander, Maj. Bar Falah, was killed in a firefight with Palestinian terrorists along Israel’s “seamline” with the West Bank. One of the shooters was reportedly an officer in the PA’s counterterrorism forces. He and several others were said to be on their way to carry out a terrorist attack within Israel.
Israeli officials say that every timeout they take from their raids prompts additional terrorism plots and attacks. Lapid and Gantz cannot afford a conciliatory attitude toward the PA in the run-up to the Nov. 1 elections.
On the other hand, Lapid and Gantz realize that Israel’s intensive activity in Palestinian areas could accelerate the collapse of the already badly weakened PA, a scenario that is becoming increasingly likely.
“The PA’s collapse,” a senior Israeli military official told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “is a colossal disaster as far as we are concerned. Instead of a central administration, official institutions and the rule of law, we will find ourselves once more facing armed gangs just as we did at the start of the second intifada [2000-2005]. This is the bleakest scenario imaginable.”
For now, Israel is trying to hold the stick at both ends, with continued military operations in the West Bank and a combination of blandishments and threats urging the PA to send its forces into the northern Samaria trouble spots to restore order.
Israel is mulling various responses, including supplying the PA with more effective weapons to take on the gangs and stop their advanced training for anti-Israel terrorism. Lapid and his government face a tough choice: How to avoid the PA’s collapse and at the same time prevent a terrorist attack on Israelis that would sink their prospects in the coming elections.
Are the Palestinians on the verge of a third uprising? Former Shin Bet Director Nadav Argaman sounded an alarm to that effect in his final public appearance before leaving office last October, warning against a sanguine Israeli attitude, saying the Palestinian problem would not go away and that the seeming calm on the ground was deceptive and masked a seething cauldron.
His strategic assessment is now proving true, albeit not to its full extent, so far. A similar warning was issued earlier this year by former IDF Chief Lt. Gen. (Res.) Gadi Eizenkot, who is now running for the Knesset on Gantz’s National Unity slate.
Israeli intelligence officials point to various catalysts for the resurging Palestinian violence. “There is a young generation of Palestinians, 18 and 20 years old, who did not experience the horrors of the second intifada … and are unwilling to continue living without hope,” a senior Israeli intelligence officer told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “This is the TikTok generation. They are influenced by video clips of terrorist attacks, by the fact that every terrorist immediately turns into a local TikTok hero, and are not afraid of the IDF or the Shin Bet.”
This, combined with the complete absence of hope of an end to Israel’s control of the West Bank and future Palestinian statehood, along with the PA’s continued decline and perception as an ineffective, corrupt entity, explains the current unrest.
At the same time, there are mitigating circumstances. Most Palestinians realize they are relatively better off these days. They can count on a regular power supply, much more so than their brethren in the Gaza Strip or Lebanon, the economy in the West Bank towns is thriving, they enjoy relative freedom of movement within the West Bank and tens of thousands are permitted to work in Israel or in Israeli settlements.
“We’re not seeing widespread protests, yet, and most Palestinians do not want another round of fighting against Israel, but that does not mean the situation cannot deteriorate,” the intelligence source said. “In the Middle East, things have a way of spiraling out of control.”