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Growing security challenges in the northern West Bank

Jun 27, 2023 | AIJAC staff

A scene from the unusually intense and extended battle that took place in Jenin on June 19, which left eight Israelis injured and seven Palestinians dead, six of them gunmen (Photo: Ayman Nobani/dpa/Alamy Live News)
A scene from the unusually intense and extended battle that took place in Jenin on June 19, which left eight Israelis injured and seven Palestinians dead, six of them gunmen (Photo: Ayman Nobani/dpa/Alamy Live News)

Update 06/23 #04

 

This Update looks at the increasingly difficult security situation in the northern West Bank, especially the city of Jenin – in the wake of a major clash between Israeli troops and gunmen there on June 19. Moreover, yesterday, a militant group attempted to fire rockets at Israel from outside Jenin. This update offers some analysis from the intense debates inside Israel about the situation in the northern West Bank and what should be done about it.

We lead with an analysis of Jenin situation from Israeli academic Kobi Michael of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. He explains that the situation in Jenin – where the Palestinian Authority (PA) has lost all control of the city – and other northern West Bank areas is similar to Lebanon in the 1980s, and predicts it will get worse if more is not done. He recommends that the IDF will have to launch a major operation into Jenin, to isolate the city for a period of time and dismantle the terrorist infrastructure inside it. For Michael’s solid analysis,  CLICK HERE.

Next up is Seth J. Frantzman, Senior Middle East Correspondent and analyst at the Jerusalem Post. He looks much more at the history of Jenin as a major epicentre of terrorist activity, such as in the Second Intifada, and as a difficult place to govern – and how the violence in the city was brought under control for many years, up until recently. He also looks at the Iranian role in helping spark the current violence there – and the potential role of the PA in bringing it back under control. For this more historical look at the northern West Bank situation, CLICK HERE.

Finally, veteran Israeli Arab affairs correspondent Ehud Yaari looks at the whole northern West Bank situation in more detail. He documents the recent upsurge in terrorist violence from the area, and the reason for it – including the changing tactics of Hamas and Iran, and the proliferation of weapons. Yaari says a limited IDF operation to disarm Jenin may be necessary but urges efforts to build up the capabilities of the PA to control the area, and offers some specific suggestions on how this can be done. For Yaari’s always insightful reporting and views in full, CLICK HERE.

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The Events in Jenin: Lebanonization is Already Here

 Kobi Michael 

The Institute for National Security Studies, 21/06/2023

The complications during the operation in Jenin on June 19, 2023 point to another change in the current campaign against terrorism, which began with Operation Break the Wave in May 2022. Although this is not the first incident when explosives were used in the arena, it is the first time that significant explosive devices were operated. In this case, there was significant damage to IDF armored vehicles, and seven soldiers were injured. Furthermore, the incident did not end with the detonation of the explosive devices, but led, rather, to an exchange of fire that lasted for many hours and required reinforcements and, for the first time since the second intifada, even the use of combat helicopters.

The Palestinians have demonstrated the ability to organize and recruit many armed operatives, and above all, motivation and determination to confront the IDF forces, while not deterred by IDF firepower. The June 19 event, which ended with a Palestinian victory parade displaying the charred remnants of the IDF vehicles that were damaged in the incident, became a kind of formative narrative event. The armed resistance withstood a larger and stronger IDF force, and even succeeded in inflicting damage and casualties on the Israeli side. This message trickles down and inspires, and thereby heightens the level of motivation.

The general atmosphere – with the lack of governance on the one hand and the expansion of terrorist circles using explosive charges and Iranian-Hezbollah involvement on the other – is reminiscent of southern Lebanon in the 1980s. The potential for escalation and spillover has risen, and Israel may find itself in a much wider and more significant round of fighting at a time and under conditions that are not necessarily favorable.

The hornet’s nest of Jenin has become a Palestinian national symbol and another layer in the ethos of Palestinian heroism and resistance. This in turn erodes Israel’s ability to deter, and testifies to the limited relevance of its current modus operandi. The mode of operation based on the logic of containing and preventing the spillover of terrorism from Jenin to the West Bank and into Israel, based on accurate intelligence and commando operations by special units and covert forces, succeeds in yielding impressive tactical achievements, but fails to produce a strategic impact. Compared to the scope of terrorism in May 2022, we are on an upward and escalating trend, both in the number and quality of attacks, the number of people joining the terrorist cycle, and the number of victims on both sides.


Jenin, along with Nablus, has become the epicentre of an area of the northern West Bank that is no longer under Palestinian Authority control – and is increasingly violent. (Photo: Shuttterstock, Rainer Lesniewski). 

 

Given the existing reality in Jenin and the Palestinian Authority territories, the narrative of the Palestinian resistance, and the Palestinian Authority’s governmental vacuum in the region, clinging to the existing modus operandi will not lead to an improvement in the situation. Israel is required to rethink approach in the area. A broad military operation in the Jenin area should be prepared, while encircling and completely isolating it for a limited period of time and entering the area with a large and significant military force for the purpose of dismantling the terrorist infrastructure there and preparing the conditions for the return of the Palestinian Authority to more effective control. The military move must be significant and its results unequivocal, both to neutralize the terrorist infrastructure in the area and to produce the required psychological effect.

The elimination of the terrorist infrastructure in the area must be viewed not only in the Palestinian context. The move will also harm Iranian efforts to undermine stability and security in the region and disrupt the Iranian strategy, which seeks to activate the Palestinian arena as another front against Israel. The June 19 event must be seen as a warning sign and a wake-up call. From Israel’s standpoint, what was and what is must change, and the sooner the better.

Prof. Kobi Michael is a senior researcher at INSS and editor in chief of “Strategic Assessment” and a visiting professor at the International Centre for Policing and Security University of South Wales UK. 

 


Jenin’s threat to Israel and the region – analysis

 

Rocket fire, explosives targeting vehicles, and the need to use armed drones and helicopters, reflect a serious escalation.

By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

Jerusalem Post, June 26, 2023


Screenshot from a video purporting to show a rocket being fired from outside Jenin on June 26, 2023 (Source: Twitter.)

 

Jenin is increasingly becoming a hub of terrorist threats and infrastructure in the West Bank, with the surrounding area continuing to pose an increasing challenge to Israel. It is a threat to the region because Iran has been encouraging its proxy, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, to expand operations.

These operations, combined with acts of other gunmen from the area, now include the use of explosives and ambush attacks, as well as rockets, such as on Monday.

Israel has had to step up its methods to combat the attacks, including the use of a combat helicopter with live fire last week and a drone on Wednesday. To confront the threat, the stakeholders in the region, including the Palestinian Authority, Israel, the US and other partners, will need to take the attacks seriously.

Videos posted to social media by a group calling itself the Ayyash Battalion showed two rocket launchers. It was a simple rocket, but that doesn’t mean more sophisticated ones can’t be made. The video was allegedly taken near the village of Nazlat Zayd, about eight kilometers west of Jenin. The village is located north of Yabad and about four km. from Umm el-Fahm in Israel. Mevo Dotan, a Jewish community in Samaria, is located south of that. There have been attacks in this area in the past, as recent as two weeks ago, last month and also in March 2018.

Jenin’s history as a terrorist hub

In 2001, Jenin was a central terrorist hub at the height of the Second Intifada. A list compiled by the Foreign Ministry mentions numerous attacks. In May of that year, Mevo Dotan resident Zvi Shelef was killed in a shooting attack near Tulkarm; in November, fellow resident Hadas Abutbul was killed driving near Shaked; and in September 2002, Yosef Ajami was killed in the same area.

At the time, the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades took responsibility for the attacks. More killings followed, including Zion Boshirian in 2003, Victor Kreiderman in 2004 and St.-Sgt. Yair Turgemann in October 2004.

Israel launched Operation Defensive Shield in March 2002, moving army units back into Palestinian towns and cities that had been under PA control since the 1990s. After Ramallah, Tulkarm, Kalkilya and Bethlehem, the army targeted Jenin on April 1.

What followed was the battle of Jenin in which 23 soldiers and at least 27 Palestinian gunmen were killed. Some compared the battles in Jenin refugee camp to the battle of Stalingrad, nicknaming it Jeningrad because of the house-to-house fighting and the “resistance” in the camp.

The city was as known for its central role in fighting Israel, as it is now. Zakariya Zubeidi, who became the leader of the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades in the city, was a central figure. He faded into a bit of obscurity over the years and eventually was arrested by the PA and later by Israel in 2019. He briefly escaped from prison in 2001 before being recaptured.

The city has always been challenging for authorities. Juliano Mer-Khamis, an actor, teacher and artist, was murdered in Jenin on April 4, 2011. Even the peace activists were driven out, either in spite of, or because of, supporting peace.The city fell to gang violence as well. Qadoura Moussa, the governor of the district, died in 2012 of a heart attack while dealing with the gun violence in the city. At the time, The New York Times reported, “Brig. Gen. Radi Assidi, commander of the [Palestinian] security forces in the region, said people throughout the West Bank ‘realize that law and order started in Jenin, so any lawlessness that starts in Jenin could spread throughout the West Bank.’”


The remains of an explosive vehicle found in Jenin in 2006, during its first incarnation as a terrorist hub (Photo: Israel Defense Forces). 

 

Another governor, Talal Dwaikat, was appointed.

“Jenin will not be a place for the gangs,” he said. “Jenin will be a place of security.”

The PA tried to crack down over the following years. The situation, nevertheless, got worse. In early 2002, the PA detained Zubeidi’s son, Mohammad al-Zubeidi, leading to clashes with the Palestinian security forces. Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader Khader Adnan was a target of an assassination attempt in March 2022, which an article at Al-Monitor suggested might have been linked to tensions between the PA and PIJ.

As the PA has retreated from Jenin, leaving a power vacuum, Israeli raids have increased. A large number of young men want to fight Israel, the journal EIPSS reported earlier this year.

“You realize they are wanted only because instead of an iPhone; they have a Nokia. To dodge drones. And yet they are jihadists. No connection with al-Qaeda,” the report said, adding that the men were just fighting the “occupation.”

The similarities to 2002 are clear. This Week in Palestine ran a report in 2021 about how Jenin was now returning to the spotlight after 20 years. Shireen Abu Aqleh, who would become a victim of clashes in Jenin in May 2022, wrote in October 2021: “It was like going back to 2002 when Jenin lived something unique, unlike any other city in the West Bank. Toward the end of al-Aqsa Intifada, armed citizens spread out all over the city and publicly dared the occupation forces to raid the camp.”

Jenin is different, she wrote, adding: “At first sight, life in Jenin may appear normal, with restaurants, hotels, and shops that open their doors every morning. But in Jenin we have the feeling that we are in a small village that monitors every stranger that comes in.”

This is now the city and the region that presents the greatest challenge to Israel in the West Bank in 20 years. First it was clashes with PIJ and other gunmen. These groups are fueled by arms that flood the West Bank. The arms trade has increased, and even if hundreds of firearms have been found by the IDF, there are many more M-4s and M-16 variants out there, with modern sights and accessories.

PIJ is backed by Iran and encouraged to expand its attacks and use new tactics. Israel is also increasing the types of methods it must employ. A Hermes 450 Zik drone was recently used to take out a terrorist cell. However, the use of rockets on June 26 presents a new potential front against Israel.

As Jerusalem Post reporter Khaled Abu Toameh pointed out last week, the images from Jenin “create the impression that certain parts of the West Bank, particularly Jenin, are beginning to resemble the Gaza Strip and Lebanon, where the IDF faced similar tactics by Palestinian terror groups and Hezbollah.”

Rocket fire, explosives targeting vehicles and the need to use armed drones and helicopters reflects a serious escalation. Iran is watching. It tried in 2018 to fly munitions from Syria to the West Bank via a drone. It has recently hosted Hamas, and it would like to spread the instability from Jenin to other areas – all while pushing a diplomatic offensive in the Gulf.

The PA will have to crack down on the threats in Jenin. The US and the West, which have backed the Palestinian Security Forces, will need to take the emerging threat seriously.

 


The Danger of Violent Escalation in the West Bank

by Ehud Yaari

Policy Watch 3752
June 23, 2023


An Israeli arrest raid into a West Bank town as part of “Operation Breaking the Wave” last year (Photo: IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

 

Brief Analysis
The West Bank is rapidly becoming Israel’s most active front, with terrorist incidents increasing, extremist settler groups rampaging in response to the murder of Jews, and near-daily clashes becoming more intense as Israeli forces arrest armed youths planning further attacks.

West Bank violence is on the rise this year, and the numbers tell the grim story. Since January, 28 Israelis have lost their lives in terrorist attacks in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and 137 Palestinians have been killed, including more than 20 unarmed civilians. Authorities have recorded 148 “critical” terrorist attacks—120 using firearms, and the rest involving explosives, stabbings, or car ramming (see chart). In addition, Israeli security services have foiled another 375 planned attacks during this period (300 involving firearms) and arrested more than 1,400 Palestinian suspects. Although attacks have not reached the levels seen during the second intifada (2000-04), the increase in recent months has been sharp and troubling.

Much of this escalation has been concentrated in the northern part of the West Bank, mainly Jenin and its refugee camp. It is also gradually spilling over to the old quarter of Nablus and villages in the Ramallah countryside. Southern parts of the West Bank have mostly stayed out of this cycle of fighting, but the relative calm there may not last.

In response to the mounting violence, Israel’s tactics are expanding. On June 21, it deployed a drone to strike three terrorists who were considered ticking bombs on their way to mount an attack—the first time in two decades it has used such methods in the West Bank. For their part, Palestinian terrorist elements have improved the explosive charges they use against the Israeli military, and in many cases have mobilized dozens or even hundreds of gunmen to engage in battle after such attacks rather than fleeing as in the past. A June 19 confrontation in Jenin’s refugee camp lasted seven hours after an Israeli Panther heavy armored vehicle was damaged by a powerful improvised mine similar to those frequently planted by Hezbollah in Lebanon. An Apache attack helicopter was rushed to the site to assist the withdrawal—a tactic rarely if ever used in the West Bank.


A “critical attack” is defined as a shooting, stabbing, vehicular attack, improvised explosive device attack, or some combination of these elements. Incidents in which Palestinians throw stones or Molotov cocktails are not included. Source: “Spotlight on Terrorism and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (June 14-20, 2023),” June 21, 2023. Used with permission from the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center.

 

On top of this, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad—with generous funding and advice from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force and close cooperation with Hezbollah—are investing heavily in efforts to establish clandestine West Bank workshops for assembling rockets of the types manufactured in the Gaza Strip. The first attempt to fire such a rocket was detected early this month, and although the launch failed, the transfer of such know-how will continue in the long run, and the smuggling of light rockets across the Jordan River cannot be excluded. Even short-range rockets would constitute a direct threat to Israel’s densely populated central region if placed in towns adjacent to the Green Line (e.g., Tulkarem).

Why Now?
The deteriorating security situation reflects a change in modus operandi by Hamas and other groups. They have largely (though not completely) abandoned their previous approach in the West Bank, which focused on establishing disciplined underground networks with chains of command and communication channels in order to set specific targets and timing for action. Apparently, they concluded that Israeli authorities found it easier to penetrate and dismantle such networks. Instead of trying to control operations from Gaza and Beirut—the main headquarters of the Hamas “West Bank Committees”—the policy now is to flood the area with weapons and funds, enabling local (not necessarily affiliated) groups to arm themselves and select targets.

Replacing hierarchical terrorist structures with this more chaotic landscape makes Israel’s counterterrorism efforts much more complicated. Weapons are now reaching the West Bank via Jordan from as far away as Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Libya. Effective cooperation between Israeli and Jordanian forces has led to the capture of many such shipments, but the long border between the two states is far from sealed. Significant quantities of weapons are also stolen from Israeli bases and sold by criminal gangs.

These weapons and funds are eagerly received by the array of militant groups that have emerged within West Bank refugee camps and the poorer neighborhoods of numerous towns. These groups use different names in each locale and usually do not identify as branches of any larger movement. Their members include hundreds of young Palestinians who did not experience the defeat of Yasser Arafat’s second intifada and hold no respect for the Palestinian Authority, widely perceiving it to be corrupt and coercive. They are also exposed to enormous amounts of anti-Israel propaganda and incitement combined with glorification of “resistance” and martyrdom. The majority of them are half-educated and employed on just a temporary or part-time basis in the stagnant Palestinian economy, and they are too young (under twenty-seven years old) to obtain work permits inside Israel.

Thus far, PA security agencies have been reluctant to enter the strongholds of these groups. In fact, the closest allies of President Mahmoud Abbas have repeatedly informed high-ranking U.S. officials that their units will not venture into “problematic” places such as Jenin, while the PA-appointed governor of that district, Akram Rajoub, has publicly praised local gunmen. In discussions with U.S. delegations, PA officials warn that Hamas-facilitated attacks and Israeli measures are dramatically weakening the PA’s credibility and could spur its collapse. And while the PA has tacitly committed to intelligence sharing with Israel, formal security cooperation remains suspended. Notably, the ruling Fatah Party’s assorted contenders to succeed the eighty-seven-year-old Abbas (e.g., Mahmoud al-Aloul, Jibril Rajoub) are quietly forming ties with various armed groups.

The PA is also upset by Egypt’s initiative to broker a long-term armistice between Israel and Hamas—despite the fact that the proposals include an option to start extracting natural gas from the Gaza Marine field and split the revenue between the PA and Hamas. Abbas seems convinced that Hamas is bent on taking over the West Bank, and apparently believes the movement has avoided taking part in further Gaza clashes with Israel for this reason.

For its part, Israel’s current “Full Right” government is exacerbating tensions by announcing plans to speed up construction of thousands of new houses in the West Bank. Controversial figures such as National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich (who also holds responsibility over settler issues in the Defense Ministry) have issued a stream of statements promising tougher policies toward the Palestinians and rejecting political compromise toward a two-state solution. Many in the PA and elsewhere believe that the recent drive for Israeli “judicial reform” is largely motivated by those coalition members who want to weaken the Supreme Court in order to facilitate their West Bank annexation plans. In the meantime, the government is not preventing settlers from returning to places evacuated under the 2005 disengagement law (e.g., seven new unauthorized outposts were established over the past ten days, and no action has been taken to evacuate them so far). The coalition has also failed to condemn or curb settler retaliation following Palestinian terrorist attacks.

The settler lobby and right-wing politicians are now pressuring the government to launch a new version of Operation Defensive Shield in the Jenin district and perhaps beyond, referring to Israel’s 2002 military response to the second intifada. Yet the Israel Defense Forces General Staff believes a more modest approach—intensifying the current “mowing the lawn” tactics—would eventually put a lid on the boiling pot, while the Israeli Security Agency apparently leans toward a restricted operation to disarm Jenin. Of course, even limited operations could cause a flare-up on the Gaza front or the fragile Lebanese frontier, especially if they lead to Palestinian casualties. At any rate, local groups in Jenin are already preparing for a potential Israeli incursion by setting up ambushes, dispersing explosive charges, and establishing sniper positions.


Ehud Yaari at an AIJAC function in 2020: Recommends Israel “Avoid a wide military operation in the West Bank for now” and instead seek to reform the Palestinian Authority.

 

Recommendations
In the immediate term, the best way for Israel to address the challenge posed by these new threat patterns is to improve its countermeasures and revive full-scale security and intelligence cooperation with the PA. Yet a longer-term remedy to prevent the West Bank from becoming the Wild West will require a solid plan to rescue the PA. Any Israeli, PA, and U.S. efforts to reach that goal and de-escalate the situation would be wise to incorporate the following principles:

  • Avoid a wide Israeli military operation in the West Bank. At present, less drastic methods for scaling down terrorist activity should be tested. For example, joint Israeli-PA efforts in Nablus earlier this year led to a deal for dismantling much of the local “Lion’s Den” terrorist faction. Israel should also consider renewing the offer to drop gunmen from its wanted list and refrain from pursuing them if they turn themselves and their weapons into the PA.
  • Encourage Abbas to appoint a new government. The United States and other donor countries seek to bolster the West Bank economy, build social services, and combat corruption, but forming a new government focused on those goals is the only way to achieve them. There is no other way for the PA to regain domestic credibility and respect. Steering financial resources away from the current patronage system and ever-expanding public sector is urgently needed to foster investment in projects that create more jobs.
  • Freeze settlements and restrain rogue elements. Israel should reciprocate any positive moves by the PA, in part by preventing rogue settler elements from inflaming tensions in the West Bank. The government should also accept some adjustments in its current financial arrangements with the PA. Although a change of attitude seems unlikely in the present Israeli coalition, restraint and dialogue with the PA remain indispensable.
  • Reform the PA’s security agencies. For example, these agencies currently have more officer-level personnel than soldiers and policemen. Moreover, a large proportion of their 35,000 members are close to retirement age, and many serve on a half-time basis. New blood is urgently needed—particularly individuals who understand that stopping Israeli incursions requires Palestinian authorities to take responsibility for maintaining the peace themselves.

Ehud Yaari is the Lafer International Fellow with The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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