Israel considered mounting aerial attacks this week to target suspected terrorists in the heart of the West Bank and back up its troops on the ground raiding their strongholds.
It was the second time such an option was weighed during a raid of the Palestinian refugee camp in Jenin in recent weeks. This time, too, a colonel commanding the battalion operating on the ground discarded the idea after deciding the risk of deploying armed aircraft outweighed the benefits for the troops fighting in one of the most densely populated and hostile Palestinian bastions of the West Bank.
But could operational considerations or a situation of last resort tilt the scale at some point and restore the so-called targeted killing aerial operations that Israel last used in this area some 20 years ago?
The Sept. 28 military operation in Jenin was launched at 8 a.m. and developed into violent clashes of unusual proportions. The decision to deploy troops in broad daylight against this hostile and heavily armed enemy, rather than under cover of darkness, was prompted by real-time intelligence information regarding the whereabouts of two Palestinians wanted for recent shooting attacks against Israeli targets. One of the men — Rahman Hazam — is said to be the brother of Raad Khazem from Jenin, who killed three Israelis in a shocking April 7 shooting spree in the heart of Tel Aviv.
Deterrence considerations also played a part in the decision to order a daytime raid. The cover of darkness and sophisticated technological means are believed to provide Israeli troops with a decisive advantage over the armed Palestinian gangs roaming these areas. The rare — though not unprecedented — daylight operation was intended to signal that unlike Palestinian security forces deployed in the area, Israeli troops will go to any length to foil terrorist attacks.
Four Palestinians were killed in this week’s operation that lasted several hours, one of whom was felled by an Israeli sniper’s bullet fired from a distance of a few hundred meters as he tried to shoot at the Israelis, according to the military’s report. The man turned out to be a member of the Palestinian security forces and the video clip documenting the precision kill has gone viral on social media, with narration in both Hebrew and Arabic.
While it further fueled the rage against Israel and its military, Israel believes it also serves as a deterrent against further deterioration into a possible third Palestinian intifada.
Israel now faces two dilemmas.
The first is strategic in nature: whether to order a widespread counterterrorism operation in the hotbed Jenin area just weeks before the Nov. 1 elections.
The second is tactical: whether to resume the use of air power to carry out surgical, targeted killings rather than risk Israeli casualties in a large-scale ground operation.
The latter was the dilemma faced by Israeli troops this week in what became the most widespread and deadly raid in recent times on the teeming refugee camp. “An unmanned armed aerial vehicle was in the air at the time,” an Israeli military source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “We had all the tools to hit the wanted men from the air, but it was decided not to make use of this option.”
The thinking was clear. An airstrike could hit 10-15 people, some of them uninvolved area residents. Also, it would have fueled rage against Israel and serve as a catalyst for angry young Palestinians to retaliate with widespread violence.
Israel has always used all the means at its disposal to back up armed troops engaged in ground operations. Such has been the case in operations mounted against Gaza Strip assailants and targets beyond enemy lines, with Israel deploying drones and manned aircraft. But in the West Bank, where Israel enjoys a distinct military advantage, the default, preferred option is using special forces to mount precision raids.
“So far, the [West Bank] ground operations have proven effective and there is no need to change this pattern,” the military source said. “That does not mean we will not be forced to level up our activity, but we are not there yet and hope we will never be.”
The military and the Shin Bet security agency are currently focused on preventing the spread of the violence to areas beyond Jenin and Nablus in the northern Samaria region.
“The biggest challenge now is Nablus,” an Israeli security official told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “The situation in Jenin is already irreversible. It will take time before calm can be restored there. But Nablus is a bigger city than Jenin, and if anti-Israel violence develops there, it could spread to Ramallah and the other West Bank towns. The violence has already spilled over to the roads around Jenin that are also used by Israeli settlers. Once it has penetrated beyond the closed box that is Jenin, it becomes an event of viral regional potential and therefore the Israeli military cannot afford to abandon its presence there in order to thwart terror attacks in real time.”
Jews will mark the holiest day of their calendar, Yom Kippur, on Oct. 4-5, followed by the weeklong festival of Sukkot and its customary pilgrimage to Jerusalem, which usually includes a visit to the Temple Mount, a site holy to both Jews and Muslims.
The situation on the ground is somewhat reminiscent of the days preceding the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000, with one important difference: This time, neither Hamas nor Islamist Jihad have a stable organizational infrastructure in the West Bank.
The “lawn mower” method — large detention operations of suspects affiliated with terror planning — used by the military and the Shin Bet to nip terrorist activity in the bud has foiled the rise of organized terrorist activity. The terrorist groups are not the problem; the real danger lies with the hundreds of thousands of gung ho Palestinians, too young to remember the horrors of the second intifada, who could set off a third uprising.
Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) are joined at the hip, each needing the other to prevent chaos. Nearby, in the Gaza Strip, Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar and his people are doing their best to send shockwaves that will push both Israel and the PA into the abyss. The fate of the entire region, not just of the precarious transitional government of Prime Minister Yair Lapid, hangs in the balance, dependent on the quality of the information collected by the Shin Bet and the quality of the operations conducted by the Israel Defense Forces. And, of course, on blind luck.