Reporter's notebook'It's a very explosive place, like a powder keg'

Aggressive IDF – and PA – operations keep West Bank flashpoint quiet after October 7

Despite last week’s deadly ramming attack, violence is significantly down around Nablus and Huwara after the Samaria Regional Brigade adopted new, more aggressive posture

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

IDF troops of the Samaria Regional Brigade operate near Nablus, May 2023 (IDF Spokesperson)
IDF troops of the Samaria Regional Brigade operate near Nablus, May 2023 (IDF Spokesperson)

In his first year as commander of the Israel Defense Force’s Samaria Regional Brigade, Col. Shimon Siso faced one of the most active and complex areas in the West Bank.

With 13 Jewish settlements containing around 30,000 residents, and 300,000 Palestinians centered around the Palestinian Authority-controlled city of Nablus, there was ample room for friction in the heart of the northern West Bank.

That friction produced a range of threats. There were shooting attacks on Route 60, the north-south West Bank artery that links both Palestinian cities and Israeli settlements. That road cuts right through the Palestinian town of Huwara, the site of repeated shooting attacks against Israeli civilians and soldiers, including the killing of two brothers in early 2023.

There were also repeated instances of Israeli violence targeting Palestinians, including a deadly rampage that unfolded hours after the fatal Huwara shooting attack. Settlers rampaged in the town, setting fire to Palestinian homes and cars. One Palestinian man was shot dead under unclear circumstances during the riots.

Military officials later said they had failed in not preventing that attack on Palestinians, which elicited shock and condemnations inside Israel and around the world.

Settlers look on as cars and homes burn in the West Bank town of Huwara on February 26, 2023. (Courtesy)Siso’s brigade also had to deal with the emergence of the Lion’s Den armed terror group, an offshoot of Palestinian Islamic Jihad that formed in 2022 in Nablus.

The group, a loose confederation of Nablus-based gunmen who won widespread popularity on the Palestinian street with repeated brazen attacks on military posts, troops operating along the West Bank security barrier, Israeli settlements and civilians on the roads, was the focus of a series of IDF raids that slowly ground it  down.

Gunmen at the funeral of those killed in clashes sparked by an overnight Israeli raid against the Lion’s Den terror group, in the West Bank city of Nablus on October 25, 2022. (Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP)

In February 2023, an IDF raid against the Lion’s Den in Nablus killed 11 Palestinians, the deadliest single operation by Israel in the West Bank in nearly two decades.

Other small groups, like the Balata Brigade, emerged over the same period.

Despite intensive Israeli efforts, attacks continued. In August 2023, a terrorist approached a Huwara carwash on foot and opened fire at two Israelis, then fled the scene. A father and son were killed in the attack.

Days after the massive October 7 attack, Hamas called for Palestinians in the West Bank to join it in attacking Israelis. To the initial surprise of officers serving in the Samaria Regional Brigade, that didn’t happen.

IDF troops of the Samaria Regional Brigade operate near Nablus, May 2023 (IDF Spokesperson)

In the eight months since the October 7 attack on Israeli civilians and soldiers along the Gaza border, Siso’s sector has been surprisingly quiet.

That doesn’t mean terrorists can’t strike. Last week, two IDF soldiers from the Kfir Brigade were killed in a car-ramming attack at one of the entrances to Nablus.

But the number of attacks has undeniably dropped since October. The year before the Hamas invasion saw 77 shooting attacks in the Samaria Brigade’s sector. In the eight months since, there have been five such incidents, and all the perpetrators have been caught or killed.

An IDF officers looks out over Nablus from Mount Gerizim, May 24, 2024 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

There were around 50 rock-throwing attacks every month before October 7, and less than five per month since then.

The senior officer said the main reason that local terrorist groups have been unable to fuel a wave of violence is because of significantly expanded IDF operations since the start of the war in Gaza.

“We are on the ground. We are in the villages. We are in the refugee camps. We are in the casbahs. That is the big difference between us and Gaza,” he said, referring to the period between 2005 and October 7, 2023, during which the IDF was largely absent from the Gaza Strip.

Not letting the monster grow

As word and footage of the October 7 attacks began to reach them, officers from the Samaria Regional Brigade were certain that similar attempts would be made in the West Bank. A reserve battalion arrived by early afternoon, and a day later, two more were deployed.

Israeli soldiers are seen in Balata, a Palestinian refugee camp in Nablus, West Bank, on Thursday, Nov. 23, 2023. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed, File)

The brigade had ballooned from around 2,000 soldiers to 4,500, which they believe deterred an outbreak of violence.

“There was a demonstration or two which ended very quickly,” said one officer, “because they saw the number of soldiers.”

In short order, every settlement was protected by an infantry company.

And then the brigade went on the offensive. From 50 operations a month, the troops began carrying out an average of 250.

“We went into the villages.” said an officer. “We implemented a very strong defense of the roads.”

The Palestinian town of Huwara, May 24, 2024 (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

Huwara, the scene of high-profile attacks in the month before the war, was sleepy, almost abandoned, on a Friday in late May. Route 60 now loops around the town, leaving only hardcore settlers driving through Huwara to show that they are not afraid.

The residents of the town were not behind the attacks, said an officer. Terrorists came to Huwara because of its easy access through alleys to the main road, and because of the vulnerable Israelis stuck in the rush-hour traffic jams.

“It became a symbol,” said an officer.

While an entire company secured the main road after the 2023 attacks, now a solitary IDF jeep sits near the main intersection.

The Balata Brigade terror group was dismantled as part of the IDF campaign, as troops began operating regularly inside the refugee camp. A brigade-sized overnight raid in November netted several wanted terror suspects, and included a strike from a fighter jet on a hideout apartment in Balata. It was the first time a plane had hit Nablus since the Second Intifada two decades earlier.

The campaign included drone attacks as well. In November, a strike reportedly took out four members of Fatah’s Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade.

A January drone attack killed Abdullah Abu Shalal and several members of the terror cell he headed in Balata. Abu Shalal had received financing and instructions from Iran, as well as terror groups in Gaza and overseas, according to the IDF and Shin Bet.

Aggressive offensive operations were also directed at those attempting to form small terror cells.

IDF troops of the Samaria Regional Brigade operate near Nablus, May 2023 (IDF Spokesperson)

Officers said they were “not letting a monster [grow] on the other side.”

The IDF has full freedom of action across the sector, according to an officer. “We used to need special forces to go into Balata. Now, we go in whenever we want.”

Despite the potential for tension, the IDF continues to coordinate occasional visits by Jews to the Joseph’s Tomb shrine near the Balata refugee camp, all of which have taken place without serious incident.

The brigade records indicate it has killed around 200 terrorists. It also lost one soldier to friendly fire.

The high operational tempo and aggressiveness has kept a serious terror infrastructure from emerging in the heart of the West Bank.

“We will continue the system of mowing the grass here, and we won’t need to reach the type of fighting in Gaza,” said an officer.

Notably, it’s not only Israeli forces keeping the area relatively quiet. Palestinian Authority security forces also operate against terror cells.

The PA has a significant interest that Hamas doesn’t establish itself in the sector, according to officers. They carry out arrests and confiscate weapons.

This composite image shows Staff Sgt. Diego Shvisha Harsaj and Staff Sgt. Eliya Hilel of the Kfir Brigade’s Nahshon Battalion, who were killed in a car-ramming attack outside the West Bank city of Nablus on May 29, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

The suspect from last week’s ramming attack turned himself in to the Palestinian Authority’s security forces after fleeing into Nablus.

IDF officers meet with PA commanders, including at the brigade headquarters. According to the Israelis, the PA forces discuss how to prevent an October 7-style attack, and how to keep Nablus from becoming like the nearby Palestinian city of Jenin in recent years, which became a no-go zone for PA forces and a major terror hub.

The Jewish challenge

The IDF around Nablus also faces an ongoing challenge from Jewish extremists, but the brigade is developing new methods to deal with them as well.

Israeli security forces argue with Israeli settlers at the entrance to the West Bank village of Turmus Ayya on the day that Jewish extremists set fire to homes and vehicles in the town, June 21, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)Last month, Jewish extremists tried to burn a house in the Palestinian village of Sebastia. IDF forces arrested four people after they burned two cars, and prevented them from doing any further damage.

The soldiers, said an officer, understand that combating Jewish violence is part of their mission, even though being cursed and spit at by their fellow Israelis takes a mental toll.

A recent riot was organized by an activist who wrote on social media that an aid convoy from Jordan was passing through the area on its way to Gaza. That wasn’t true, but some 200 young protesters showed up to block the road. The brigade drove them away with some force, using tear gas and stun grenades.

Far-right Religious Zionism MK Zvi Sukkot and other Israeli Jews pray in Huwara, after he set up a sukkah in the Palestinian town to protest a shooting attack there, October 5, 2023. (X. Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

The brigade has gotten much more adept at stopping Jewish extremists than it was during the Huwara riots. It sets up a joint situation room with Israel Police and Border Police, calls up reserve forces, and deploys in multiple rings around the site rioters want to target.

Despite the tensions between the IDF and the extremists, they generally wait until troops reach the area before carrying out attacks, said a senior officer, in order to guarantee their own safety.

To prepare the young active-duty soldiers for the complexities of the sector, which includes close contact with both Palestinians and Jews, the brigade holds a daylong seminar including simulations.

The training has proven itself, according to the army.

“ I get the impression that we are operating here in a very ethical and proper manner,” said an officer.

A Palestinian vendor waits for customers at his watermelon stand in the Balata camp near Nablus in the West Bank on May 12, 2024. (Zain JAAFAR / AFP)

In March, a reservist soldier hit a Palestinian civilian in the face with the barrel of his gun. He was sent to military prison for five days and was then kicked out of the brigade. The case is now being handled by military police, said an officer.

An isolated act of that nature risks throwing off the delicate balance that persists in the Samaria region.

“The IDF is operating with determination, sensitivity, within the ethics of war, operating like human beings,” said a senior officer. “We are not animals. We are operating against terror, we are stopping terror, and enabling Palestinians to live normal lives.”

“The wrong tactical move by us in the field can undermine this,” he warned. “So can an incident in Gaza. It’s a very explosive place, like a powder keg.”

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