Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave carte blanche and his complete support to the army and other security forces in their operations in the West Bank on Monday in order to crack down on the terror that has rocked Israel.
In addition to supporting the IDF, police and Shin Bet security service rhetorically, Netanyahu and other high-ranking officials have proposed bold new steps to confront the threat of attacks on Israeli citizens.
More arrests, IDF reinforcements at sensitive areas, closures and checkpoints in Palestinian villages, threats of home demolitions and the revoking of work permits have all been offered by the government and defense establishment as the cure — or at least a curb — for the violence in Israel and the West Bank.
While some of these steps have been applied consistently since the start of this not-quite-an-intifada, many have waxed and waned.
Throughout the past two months, some members of Knesset and key public figures have called for even more dramatic action, an “Operation Defensive Shield 2,” in which, like in the original 2002 operation, IDF troops and tanks would take over major Palestinian cities to root out terrorism. Others have dismissed the demands as empty populism.
More and more arrests
The arrests have certainly happened. Arab media reports over 1,000 Palestinians have been detained since October 1, while Israeli media puts the number closer to 500. And that trend does not appear to be tapering off in the near future.
The government will also mull the possibility of large-scale, mass arrests of known Hamas operatives in the West Bank, according to a Channel 2 news report on Monday.
As a result of Thursday’s shooting attack at the Etzion Junction, the IDF sent troops into a deeply Hamas-affiliated village of Sa’ir near Hebron. The army typically avoids entering that village, as the possibility of violent altercation is always high, an IDF spokesman told The Times of Israel on Sunday.
These incursions into a Hamas hotbed could be the preamble to larger crackdowns on the terrorist group, should the government opt to carry out mass arrests.
Yes, some of the attacks — and certainly the most deadly — have been carried out by individuals affiliated with Hamas or the militant wing of Fatah. The terrorists who shot and killed Eitam and Naama Henkin were affiliated with Hamas; the cousins who shot up the number 78 bus in Armon Hanatziv had ties to both Hamas and Fatah; the gunman who killed a father and son on their way to a family celebration was a member of the Islamic Jihad.
But the majority have been carried out by seemingly random individuals. The two teenage Arab girls who attacked an elderly Palestinian man with scissors in Jerusalem on Monday had no links to a terror organization. Wissam Tawabte, who stabbed Hadar Buchris to death Sunday at the Etzion Junction, had no previous ties to terror activities. The 36-year-old father of five who killed two Israelis as they prayed in a south Tel Aviv office building last Thursday also had no direct connections to terror organizations.
As a result, crackdowns on established groups may prevent larger-scale shootings or as-yet-unseen bombings, but will not likely have an impact on the stabbing attack trend.
Helmets on, helmets off
Since the start of the ongoing violence, the Etzion Junction has been a problem for the IDF.
The army must strike a balance between securing the area and preventing attacks, and allowing citizens — both Palestinian and Israeli — to go about their lives, the IDF spokesman explained.
The junction services a major highway, Route 60, which runs through Jewish settlements and Palestinian villages alike. There is also a commercial center adjacent to the junction, where local residents do their shopping. A popular winery-cum-restaurant is also just up the road.
“We don’t want to turn it into a closed military zone,” the IDF spokesman said on Sunday.
Though the IDF is willing to increase its presence and frequency of security checks for short periods of time, he said, that’s not a situation that can last indefinitely.
Even the physical appearance of the soldiers can change depending on the security level.
“We have been strict about soldiers wearing helmets since Thursday,” the army representative said.
This was not the case, however, in the days following attacks at the junction last month, when soldiers were instructed only to wear their protective ceramic vests while on duty.
“[The helmets] project something to the civilians,” the official explained, and not necessarily something desirable. While a fully decked-out soldier can broadcast a sense of safety to citizens, it can just as easily signify a frightening reality — something the IDF hopes to avoid, the spokesman said.
Hurting them, hurting us
Nearly 60,000 Palestinians from the West Bank have work permits allowing them to enter Israel. Another 20,000 or so work within Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Approximately 30,000 East Jerusalem residents work in western parts of the city and surrounding Jewish settlements.
Including the estimated tens of thousands of Palestinians who enter the country illegally, well over 100,000 Palestinians work in Israel and Jewish settlements, primarily in construction, maintenance and hospitality jobs.
While many politicians have scored easy populist points by proposing a complete shutdown of Arab villages and East Jerusalem neighborhoods, the effects could be devastating on both the Palestinian and Israeli economies, Marik Shtern, a researcher at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, told The Times of Israel last month when a closure was proposed for Arab neighborhoods in the capital.
As it is, the IDF’s Combat Engineering Corps has put up roadblocks and checkpoints around Palestinian cities and towns in the West Bank in order to better restrict and control the population’s movements, the IDF said.
On Tuesday, the army ramped up its efforts to control Palestinian transit. Soldiers began checking all Palestinian automobiles traveling on roads alongside Jewish drivers. The thorough checks caused heavy traffic jams around Hebron, Nablus and other Arab cities, according to the Walla news site.
A complete shutdown or a continuation of these exhaustive checks would also constitute collective punishment of the Palestinian people, something that Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon has often spoken out against.
“We must strive to differentiate between the Palestinian population and terror,” Ya’alon said last month at an event for the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories.
“We must continue to assist residents of Jenin, Nablus and Ramallah to earn a living and live decently. We must help as much as possible in their economy, welfare, medicine, infrastructure and all areas of life because these are our values, and also because it serves our interests,” Ya’alon said.
One of the main arguments against these crackdown measures is the assertion that arrests, checkpoints and roadblocks effectively create more terror than they prevent by further frustrating the Palestinian population.
To wit, the same morning the IDF began inspecting all Palestinian vehicles near Nablus and Hebron, an Arab man plowed his vehicle into an IDF colonel, lieutenant colonel, enlisted soldier and Border Police officer, injuring them to various degrees.
Davidi Perl, head of the Etzion Regional Council, who has consistently called for lockdowns of Palestinian villages since October, recognized the possibility that increased checks and other measures can have a blowback effect, but insisted it was still the right choice.
“Yes, anything can happen,” Perl told The Times of Israel after Sunday’s attack at the Gush Etzion Junction. “But what can we do? We’ve tried being defensive, we’ve tried everything else.”
Instead, the settler leader offered, it’s time to take the fight to them. “Yes, it’s a complex situation, but look at what happened in Operation Defensive Shield,” Perl said, in reference to the large-scale 2002 campaign that saw tanks and ground troops enter heavily into West Bank towns. “Things calmed down after we went into Palestinian cities.”
Calls for an “Operation Defensive Shield 2” have been heard since the first days of this bout of violence.
In addition to Perl, right-wing Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett has also called for such a military action.
“We need to bring in lots of troops into Hebron and the cities surrounding it. There is no downside to doing a sort-of Defensive Shield in that area,” Bennett told Army Radio on Monday.
“I took part in the original Defensive Shield in 2002, and it wasn’t pleasant. However, we did go into the cities and also the villages and cleaned them out,” he said.
“We will continue to press for this in the cabinet,” he added.
Many on the left have denounced Bennett and the others proposing a large-scale operation, calling them chickenhawks and worse.
The IDF as an organization has not publicly called for an operation on this scale, but individuals have made it clear that should their services be required, they would stand up to the task.
“Right now I can go with my brigade and within 12 hours I will be in Hebron and take care of it. I will go to Jenin and take care of it. And when I finish there, Hebron and Jenin won’t be the same as when I came,” the head of the 188th Armored Brigade, Col. Nir Ben-David, told The Times of Israel last month.
However, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon on Monday evening dismissed the calls for a massive military action, saying the army has been acting constantly and effectively on a smaller scale.
“I hear those who say we should return and do ‘Operation Defensive Shield 2’ in the West Bank, but we have been on the offensive ever since Operation Defensive Shield,” Ya’alon said during a visit to the Etzion Bloc.
“The fact that the Hamas and Islamic Jihad infrastructures have been unable to raise their heads, and that as a result this terrorism is the terrorism of individuals, is because we are carrying out counterterrorism operations almost every night,” he said.
Though the army and security forces have indeed thwarted many attacks and confiscated large weapons caches, 19 Israelis, one American, one Palestinian and an Eritrean migrant have thus far died in terror attacks since October 1, and over 200 have been injured to varying degrees.
And with the solution being only more of the same, there’s still no end in sight.