Fearful that the current fragile calm in the West Bank could give way to a return to Palestinian violence, an elite Israeli undercover unit is carrying out nightly missions into Palestinian territory and training for the possible outbreak of a third intifada.
“We need to be alert and stay one step ahead,” the commander of the IDF’s Duvdevan unit told Israel’s Channel 10 news Tuesday night. “The potential for another uprising exists and we have to prepare ourselves for such an eventuality,” said the officer, a lieutenant-colonel who was identified only as S.
According to the TV report, Duvdevan soldiers take to the streets of West Bank cities on a nightly basis to arrest terror suspects and foil plots before they can come to fruition. Israel battled a mass uprising in the territories between 1987 and 1993 — the first intifada — and an onslaught of suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks from late 2000 — the second intifada. That terrorism declined after Israel built a security barrier, physically cutting off access from the West Bank into Israel.
The PA has long been urging the Israel Defense Forces to cut back in operations inside territory that it controls. Tuesday’s report indicated that the Duvdevan unit, at least, is still routinely operating in PA cities.
The TV report said Israel was particularly concerned that the ongoing civil war in Syria, or the consequences of any upsurge in tension with Iran — Israel is widely reported to be contemplating carrying out a strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities — might lead to an upsurge in Palestinian violence.
Last week, furthermore, saw large protests in several West Bank cities against the Palestinian Authority over austerity measures taken by the government, and calls for the resignation of PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. Some in Israel fear that Palestinian public bitterness in the West Bank could turn quickly against the Jewish State, the report said, with the PA already complaining that its interim peace accords with Israel are harming Palestinian financial affairs.
The last few days have also seen low-level Palestinian protests, directed at the US and Israel, over the anti-Islam movie “Innocence of Muslims” — underlining the potential for violence.
While the military, for the first time in several years, placed no extra restrictions on Palestinian movement during the Jewish Rosh Hashanah holiday this week, the army believes the current calm in the territories is misleading, the report said.
Later this month, PA President Mahmoud Abbas is set to fly to New York to again seek UN recognition for a Palestinian state. Stymied at the Security Council last year, he is set to seek upgraded status at the General Assembly this time, but is being pressured by the US to abandon the gambit. Tensions could flare on the ground over this issue too.
“Nobody knows what the future holds,” said S. “A year and a half ago, who could have predicted what’s taking place in the Arab world today. I’m sure we’re in for surprises,” he added. “We are getting ready, honing our skills, for when we are required to use them.”
The report said the army has set up a detailed mock Palestinian village, where soldiers train in carrying out surprise raids, with fellow soldiers playing the parts of Palestinians.
In the field, accompanied by Shin Bet intelligence officers, Duvdevan soldiers often work undercover, themselves dressed as Palestinians, swooping on suspects by closing in on them unnoticed.
The unit goes into Palestinian population centers with aerial drones flying above and scanning the territory, on missions referred to as “lawn-mowing” operations — aimed at ensuring that nascent terror plans do not grow into full-fledged bombings and other operations, by arresting conspirators.
S. said Duvdevan’s work has become more complex since the second intifada terrorism tailed off, because the PA now has a legally armed security force. “It used to be a simple equation,” said S. “An armed person equalled a terrorist. Today there are Palestinian police and security officials carrying guns and rifles. There are many shades of grey in what was once a black-and-white world.”
Another new factor is that the unit has found itself arresting Palestinians only recently released from Israeli prisons. More than 1,000 Palestinian security prisoners were freed last October in a deal that saw Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier kidnapped inside Israel and held hostage by Hamas in Gaza, finally freed after five years. According to the report, Duvdevan soldiers have arrested over 10 of the Palestinians who were freed in the Shalit deal, because they had resumed unlawful activities.
“Our job is to capture wanted men,” said S. “What the state does with them is not up to us.”
Still, remaining detached is not always easy, he said. S. and his men were the ones charged with capturing the perpetrators of a particularly brutal act of Palestinian terrorism last year, in which a mother, father and their three young children — one of them a three-month-old baby — were murdered in their beds in the West Bank settlement of Itamar last year. More than 100 people from a nearby Palestinian village were questioned over the killings of the Fogel family — which brought considerable criticism from human rights groups, S. noted — before the murderers were identified.
S. said he had expected to capture monsters, but that the young men appeared to be ordinary youths, at least superficially, with posters on the walls of their bedrooms. “It reminds me of ‘Lord of the Flies,’” he said. “Anyone can turn into a beast.”