With a New Surge in Violence, Israel Faces West Bank Dilemma Yet Again
A Palestinian youth standing behind flaming tires throws a rock with a slingshot at Israeli security forces during clashes at the northern entrance of the city of Ramallah in the West Bank on Oct. 3, 2022. (Abbas Momani/AFP via Getty Images)

With a New Surge in Violence, Israel Faces West Bank Dilemma Yet Again

Since capturing the territory more than 50 years ago, Israel has confronted the predicament that countering Palestinian violence with greater military force may spur more violence

Tensions between Israelis and Palestinians have been running high in the West Bank in recent weeks. Daily clashes between Israeli military forces and Palestinian fighters have resulted in the deaths of approximately 100 Palestinians. Many others have been put under arrest.

Armed Palestinian groups and individuals have continued to carry out attacks against Israelis, mainly in the West Bank. Incidents of rock-throwing and gunfire at vehicles have been on the rise.

The current escalation has been going on for several months now. The decades-old conflict is characterized by the ebb and flow of violence, yet events in recent weeks have escalated further, in both intensity and frequency. In addition to the tensions, the Palestinian Authority (PA) which controls the West Bank, appears to be losing its grip on the territories it controls.

This leaves Israel with a dilemma on how to tackle the current problem. Should more military force be used, or will that just further fuel the violence, plunging the region into more strife? It is not clear whether Israelis are willing to pay the price of increased use of force against Palestinians.

It is the predicament the Israeli government and military have been faced with since capturing the West Bank over 50 years ago.

What we are seeing is a cycle. When there is an increase in attacks, more Israeli forces are deployed, and rules of engagement are tightened. This leads to more casualties on the Palestinian side, which then creates sentiments of revenge.

As violent events continue, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), along with other security forces, have conducted daily incursions into West Bank cities and villages. The IDF says the purpose of the raids is to dismantle terrorist infrastructure and thwart impending attacks.

Most of the military activity focuses on the cities of Nablus and Jenin. In these cities, armed gangs that appear to have new, previously unseen, geographic affiliation, are leading the struggle against Israel. This is a new situation that both Israel and the PA face.

The current wave of tension began last spring when 16 civilians and three members of Israel’s security forces were killed in Israel and the West Bank in a series of attacks by Palestinian assailants, many of whom had no direct affiliation with known armed organizations.

Israel then beefed up its military presence and operations in the area. The result, according to B’Tselem, an Israeli nongovernmental organization that monitors the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, is that 2022 is looking to be one of the deadliest years in the West Bank since 2014.

“What we are seeing is a cycle. When there is an increase in attacks, more Israeli forces are deployed, and rules of engagement are tightened. This leads to more casualties on the Palestinian side, which then creates sentiments of revenge,” said Col. (res.) Dr. Shaul Arieli, a former IDF officer and an expert on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

For Palestinians, the Israeli presence in the West Bank has been unwanted for 55 years. They see the territories as part of their future state. Israel has maintained that the status of the territories should be determined in negotiations. However, in the last decade, as Israel has leaned further to the right, there are many Israelis who refuse to consider any territorial concessions to the Palestinians.

As violence spirals, Palestinian militias continue to call for more armed resistance.

Israel captured the West Bank during the 1967 Mideast war. The international community does not recognize its right to the territories. Throughout these years, it has erected hundreds of settlements that dot the territory, making it harder for Palestinians to establish a continuous hold on the land. Currently, there are an estimated half a million Jewish settlers in the West Bank, which is also home to over 2 million Palestinians.

As part of the Oslo II Accord signed in 1995, the PA was given full control of some areas in the West Bank, known as Area A. This includes Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin, and other cities. Throughout the years, there has been close security cooperation between Israeli and PA forces.

In 2002, after two years of a bloody Palestinian uprising that resulted in the deaths of scores of Israelis and Palestinians, the late Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided on Operation Defensive Shield. During the operation, the IDF took back control of several Palestinian cities. For Israel, the death of 30 soldiers during the operation is still traumatic.

No one wants to back to re-entering and re-occupying Palestinian territory

“No one wants to back to re-entering and re-occupying Palestinian territory,” said Arieli. “This will bring to the complete collapse of the PA security forces and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, both of them already hanging on a thread.”

Israel would have to assume civilian responsibilities in the West Bank should the PA collapse.

“Everyone wants to avoid that; it is in no one’s interest,” said Ido Zelkovitz, head of the Middle Eastern Studies program at Yezreel Valley College and a research fellow in the Chaikin Chair of Geostrategy at the University of Haifa. “Such an operation comes at a very high price for Israel, not only in casualties.”

With Abbas politically weakened in recent years, his hold on the cities, mainly those in the northern West Bank, has changed accordingly. His security forces are struggling to cope, and some feel conflicted about their loyalty to the PA.

Israel’s continuing control of other areas of the West Bank makes Abbas’ position, as PA president and leader of the Fatah party, increasingly delicate.

“Israel’s policy on outposts, settlement expansion, and settler violence towards Palestinians creates a huge problem for Abbas, not only vis-à-vis Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, but also internally, within his own Fatah party,” Arieli explained.

The PA sovereignty is being challenged from within. This is a major warning sign for both Israel and the PA.

Despite not wanting to weaken Abbas further, Israeli defense officials and government ministers have warned of further action.

“The talk of using more force without actually doing so is an attempt to make Abbas act more determinately,” said Zelkovitz. “The militant action harms the security and economic stability of the PA, but also his ability to govern.”

“If he doesn’t act, Israel will be forced to take measures that can also be seen as weakening Abbas, rendering him a less relevant actor,” he added.

Israel is also heading to a general election in less than a month. This puts caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid in a tricky position. To woo voters from the right wing, he will want to be seen as taking a tough stance. However, further military involvement in the form of increased incursions could go wrong and harbors the risk of souring potential voters.

Further intensifying operations could also put Israel on a collision course with the US. The State Department has already voiced its concern over the deterioration of the situation.

Last week, when a 7-year-old Palestinian boy died during an Israeli incursion, the Americans called for a “thorough investigation” of the incident.

“We call on all parties to do everything in their power to de-escalate the situation and return to a period of calm,” said State Department spokesman Vedant Patel at a press briefing.

As PA control over the West Bank weakens, Israel will continue to face the predicament – not wanting to further involve itself but needing to thwart attacks.

“The PA sovereignty is being challenged from within,” said Zelkovitz. “This is a major warning sign for both Israel and the PA.”

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