Will the West Bank Become the New Afghanistan?
Experts differ on whether the increasingly unpopular PA could hold off Hamas if the IDF withdrew
The US spent many years training and equipping the Afghan National Army, and yet it folded like a house of cards before the forces of the Taliban, and its soldiers quickly changed their military fatigues for civilian dress.
They didn’t have the “will to fight” for their country, President Joe Biden said in his August 16 address as thousands of desperate Afghans fled to Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport.
What are the chances that the Afghan scenario will repeat itself in the West Bank, where the Palestinian Authority government is increasingly unpopular, economic conditions are dire and public discontent is burgeoning?
In June, a few weeks after the most recent war in Gaza ended, a public opinion poll conducted in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, led by Dr. Khalil Shikaki, found a sharp rise in the popularity of Hamas.
Fifty-three percent of the respondents said that “Hamas is most deserving of representing and leading the Palestinian people.” Only 14% prefer the rival Fatah party, led by PA President and Fatah Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.
Then came the June 24 killing of Nizar Banat, a political activist from Hebron, at the hands of PA security forces. Unprecedented demonstrations rocked Palestinian cities. Given the ongoing economic crisis, budget deficit and dwindling international aid, the situation on the ground seemed to be rapidly spiraling out of control.
The new Israeli government quickly understood the challenge. It increased the number of entry permits to Israel for Palestinian workers and resumed direct ties with Abbas, in order to prevent economic collapse and promote increased security cooperation.
It is still unclear whether these steps will prove effective and head off the crisis. The big question remains: What will happen to the PA if Israel chooses not to get involved when push comes to shove? Would the Palestinian security services be able to defend their leaders against their rivals – Hamas and other Palestinian factions – if Israel were to withdraw from the West Bank like the US did from Afghanistan?
Col. (res.) Udi Evental, an expert on the Middle East who teaches policy planning at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya’s Institute for Policy and Strategy, believes the result would be similar to what happened in Gaza, where Hamas seized power in a military coup back in 2007.
“If IDF left the West Bank, for example under the scenario of implementing the two-state solution, it’s clear that it could happen, as it happened many times before in different places,” Evental told The Media Line.
“During the ’90s, after Oslo, Israel withdrew from Gaza, Hebron and Jericho, and in just a few years a wide terrorist network was established there despite the promises of the Palestinian leadership that they would not allow it,” he continued. “Eventually, the IDF returned to the Palestinian cities [in the West Bank], the separation barrier was erected, and it still took us a few years to ‘clean out’ the terrorist nests there; otherwise Israel would be targeted by rocket fire from these areas as well.”
Evental used a chart (produced by the Foreign Ministry) to illustrate his point. The chart shows a sharp decline in terrorist activity and the number of murdered Israelis after Operation Defensive Shield – the IDF’s offensive into the six largest West Bank cities during the Second Intifada – from 451 in 2002 to 30 in 2006.
He continued that in both Iraq and Lebanon, the American-trained or financed forces were unwilling to fight the Islamists. “Forces that have a religious zeal and agenda succeed in defeating the much larger and well-equipped armies,” Evental said.
In 2014, ISIS gangs were able to conquer Mosul and vast swaths of northern Iraq and threatened to take Baghdad. Cooperation between the US Air Force and the Shiite militia Al-Hashd al-Shaabi (aka the Popular Mobilization Forces) was required to liberate Mosul and the rest of the occupied areas. CNN reported at the time that instead of fighting ISIS, Iraqi soldiers and police were fleeing their posts, abandoning weapons and uniforms behind them.
Also in Gaza, Hamas, an Islamist movement that enjoyed wide popular support, was able to take control within a week in the summer of 2007, although thousands of PA security personnel were deployed there.
Nidal Fuqaha, who heads the Palestinian Peace Coalition and supports the two-state solution, believes the West Bank is far from that scenario.
“I don’t think there is a real security threat today to the PA. The PA doesn’t need any help on security, but Israel should make efforts to make the lives of Palestinians easier, Fuqaha told The Media Line.
“I welcome the meeting between [Israeli Defense Minister] Benny Gantz and President Abbas [in Ramallah this past Sunday night], it’s supportive of stability and gives us some assurance regarding the future,” he continued. “The problem today is mostly financial − the EU doesn’t seem to pay [aid] on a regular basis, so there’s a deficit.”
Fuqaha believes that dialogue between various parts of Palestinian society is still possible and that the PA needs to present new initiatives in this regard.
Former Member of Knesset Talab El-Sana, who maintains close relations with the PA leadership, believes that Palestinian security forces are well prepared and are capable of securing stability in West Bank without any help from Israel.
“The IDF is not present in Palestinian cities; the responsibility for maintaining security there is in Palestinian hands in any case. The Afghanistan scenario is important because it proves that you cannot force something on people, as it will fail. Afghanistan’s puppet government wasn’t viable, while the PA government was elected by the people and still has support,” he told The Media Line.
“There is criticism, definitely, but most of it is a result of the inability of the PA to promote a peaceful solution that will allow the Palestinians to establish their state,” Sana said.
Many young Palestinians who participated in this summer’s widespread demonstrations against the PA in Hebron, Ramallah, Nablus and other cities would disagree, as the last time presidential elections took place in the PA was 16 years ago, and Abbas postponed indefinitely the vote that was set for July this year.
Currently, the chances that the IDF will withdraw from the West Bank unilaterally or as a result of negotiations are nonexistent. The last time Israeli-Palestinian negotiations took place was back in 2014, and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid have made clear that all communication with the PA will revolve around economic and security issues.
And yet, the chances for internal upheaval in the West Bank that is dangerous for both the PA and Israel are considerable. The situation in many Palestinian refugee camps is unstable, faith in the PA government is all-time low and the economic crisis is pressing.
The West Bank is not Afghanistan, and Israel is not a distant foreign country that can easily remove itself from the scene. Even in the case of a profound crisis in the West Bank if and when the current status quo comes to an end, the situation will most likely develop differently.
The Palestinians and Israelis are divided over the question of whether the PA’s security forces would be capable of holding on to their weapons and fighting Hamas on their own. For now, however, it is mainly a theoretical discussion, as the IDF is not leaving anytime soon.