Israel increasingly fears West Bank chaos, rise of Hamas

TEL AVIV — Deadly clashes between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants in the West Bank town of Jenin on Monday reflected accurately regional tensions, with Hamas growing in popularity, nonexistent control by Palestinian security forces and heightened pressure by hard-liners in Israel’s government to wipe out Palestinian militant attacks. 

What began as yet another routine operation by uniformed troops and undercover forces to arrest Palestinians wanted for suspected involvement in militant activity went awry and turned into a 12-hour battle. Five Palestinians were killed and dozens were wounded, as were seven Israeli soldiers. For the first time in over two decades, an Israeli Apache helicopter was deployed over the West Bank, firing missiles at armed Palestinians to help extract troops whose armored vehicle was hit by explosives in the first such successful Palestinian ambush against Israeli forces in many years. 

“Deluxe operations are over,” a senior Israeli military source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity after Monday’s events, referring to generally precise and limited Israeli operations against Palestinians in recent years. “Violence is increasing and spilling over from Nablus and Jenin to other places. There may be no escaping a larger-scale military operation in northern Samaria [West Bank region].”

The troops went in to capture two Hamas militants in the Jenin refugee camp, which has long been a hotbed of anti-Israel activity and a flashpoint in clashes between the sides. But this time Hamas was prepared, planting a powerful bomb that incapacitated an armored vehicle carrying undercover forces. Additional explosives were detonated against the Israelis and large groups of militants directed heavy gunfire at the troops. The Apache fired missiles to deter the Palestinians from approaching the armored vehicle, which was eventually retrieved. The Israelis also took with them the two Palestinians they had come to arrest.

“We will eventually have to do something more dramatic here,” said the senior military source.  “We cannot leave a vacuum in northern Samaria, the security apparatuses of the Palestinian Authority [PA] no longer exist here, the Israel Defense Forces will have to take their place.” 

This statement is not as simple as it sounds. In recent months, the pressure exerted on the army to launch an extensive operation in the West Bank has been increasing. Initially, the settlers, headed by Samaria local council head Yossi Dagan, were the ones demanding such an operation. But they have recently been joined by right-wing ministers and lawmakers in the governing coalition, headed by Religious Zionism leader and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who favors Israeli annexation and widespread settlement in the West Bank. 

On Monday, during the battle in Jenin, Smotrich tweeted, “The time has come to replace the tweezers [precision operations] with a broad operation to eradicate terrorism in northern Samaria.” 

Netanyahu and his Defense Minister Yoav Gallant have so far withstood the pressure, backed by the military’s opposition to such a campaign, but their opposition is being eroded. Netanyahu is even toying with the idea of mounting an extensive operation in the northern West Bank in order to divert attention from the anti-government demonstrations and to ease pressure from the hard-liners in his government to carry out a deeply controversial judicial overhaul.

The army and Shin Bet security agency have until recently opposed such military action. Unlike the days of the second intifada — the Palestinian uprising that erupted in 2000 and resulted in a massive 2002 operation to wrest back control of the Jenin area from militant groups — this time the challenge is not from an organized militant infrastructure, but rather from lone attackers and small groups of loosely affiliated militants. 

The army believes the disadvantages of such an operation this time would far outweigh its advantages. But the Shin Bet now appears more inclined toward such a counterterrorism operation, mainly due to Palestinian advances in manufacturing increasingly sophisticated and heavy improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The agency is warning that these IEDs will at some point appear on roads in Judea and Samaria used by settlers and the military.

Until now, Israel’s defense establishment has focused on almost daily military raids in Jenin and the nearby Palestinian city of Nablus in order to contain the anti-Israel violence in these two locations and prevent it from spilling over to other areas of the West Bank. This strategy seems to have exhausted itself. But given the increased cycle of Palestinian militancy and Israeli counteroperations, the army may be forced to redeploy its air force in the region as well as armored personnel carriers and tanks. 

“This would be a very significant development in terms of public perception,” a senior Israeli security source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “When fighter planes and tanks appear, they spell war, a clear absence of governance, and they also place the population in a different, more negative mode.”

According to Israel’s strategic assessment, the era after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has already started, although the Palestinian leader is still alive and still at the head of the government. Governance in the West Bank is declining, the PA’s security apparatuses are ineffective, the Palestinian president appears indifferent or unable to deal with the deterioration, refusing to appoint heirs and thereby fueling an almost certain battle for succession, and failing to prepare the ground for events after his demise. 

Hamas has been sucked into this vacuum, with its growing popularity in the West Bank overtaking that of Abbas’ Fatah faction. “The main problem is that Fatah is perceived as a corrupt organization by many Palestinians, and it is divided into many groups, while Hamas is united. If elections are held here at some point, the results will be a sweeping victory for Hamas,” the senior Israeli security source said.

Even as the battle in Jenin was underway, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh arrived in Tehran to meet senior Islamic State officials.

“Iran is constantly increasing its effort to wage a war of attrition against us [Israel] in every way, by any means and with every possible proxy,” noted the senior security source. “The only place in the Middle East where Sunnis and Shiites are united around some cause is the arena of terrorism against Israel, and it cannot be ignored,” the source concluded.

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