CIA director: Current Israeli-Palestinian tensions resemble Second Intifada

Bill Burns says his meetings with leaders during last week’s trip to the region left him more concerned about prospect of increased violence

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

CIA director William Burns meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the latter's Ramallah office on January 29, 2023. (Wafa)
CIA director William Burns meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the latter's Ramallah office on January 29, 2023. (Wafa)

The director of the United States Central Intelligence Agency expressed his concern last week that the current period of tensions between Israel and the Palestinians is beginning to resemble the violence of the Second Intifada.

“I was a senior US diplomat 20 years ago during the Second Intifada, and I’m concerned — as are my colleagues in the intelligence community — that a lot of what we’re seeing today has a very unhappy resemblance to some of those realities that we saw then too,” Bill Burns said during a live interview at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service in Washington on Thursday.

The Second Intifada lasted from 2000 to 2005 and for Israelis became synonymous with the suicide blasts and bus bombings that led to the deaths of over 1,000 civilians and soldiers. The uprising that followed the Camp David peace negotiations also saw intense clashes with Israelis troops that left over 3,000 Palestinians dead.

Burns made the remarks days after returning from the region, where he met with senior Israeli and Palestinian leaders, as the Biden administration has intensified its efforts to calm tensions between the sides.

But Burns said he did not leave the trip feeling optimistic. “The conversations I’ve had with Israeli and Palestinian leaders left me quite concerned about the prospects for even greater fragility and even greater violence between Israelis and Palestinians.

“Part of the responsibility of my agency is to work as closely as we can with both the Palestinian security services and the Israeli security services to prevent the kind of explosions of violence that we’ve seen in recent weeks. That’s going to be a big challenge, and I’m concerned about that dimension of the landscape in the Middle East as well,” he added.

Ties between Jerusalem and Ramallah have been strained for months. The previous Israeli government took some steps to bolster the PA, but still refused to engage in diplomatic negotiations. Tensions have soared since the swearing-in of a new coalition in late December led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Widely seen as the most right-wing government in Israel’s history, it slapped a series of sanctions against the Palestinian Authority in early January in response to the latter’s successful initiative at the United Nations to have the International Court of Justice weigh in on Israel’s conduct in the territories.

Then on January 26, the IDF conducted a raid in the northern West Bank city of Jenin during which nine Palestinians were killed, including one civilian. Israel has defended the operation as a necessary anti-terror measure. The PA responded by announcing the severing of its security coordination with the IDF (though Abbas later told Burns ties were only partially cut).

A day later, a Palestinian gunman opened fire outside a synagogue in East Jerusalem, killing seven Israelis.

The IDF has pressed on with an anti-terror campaign to deal with a series of attacks that left 31 people in Israel dead in 2022, and seven more in an attack last month.

The IDF’s operation has netted more than 2,500 arrests in near-nightly raids. It also left 171 Palestinians dead in 2022, and another 41 since the beginning of the year — many of them carrying out attacks or during clashes with security forces, though some were uninvolved civilians.

The US has pressed the PA to walk back its announcement cutting security ties with the IDF, which the Israel security establishment has long touted as crucial for maintaining stability and preventing terror in the West Bank. The PA’s supporters have warned, however, that it will be harder to sustain in the long term in the absence of diplomatic negotiations that boost its image in the Palestinian street.

Palestinians clash with Israeli forces following an army raid in the West Bank city of Jenin, January 26, 2023. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

Abbas told Burns on Sunday that intelligence sharing with Israel — a key component of the sensitive security ties — has continued, an official familiar with the details of their meeting told The Times of Israel.

Among other elements, the security coordination includes regular communication between Israeli and PA security forces to prevent entanglements when the IDF enters Palestinian towns. The PA also assists in extracting Israelis who mistakenly enter Palestinian areas and carries out arrests of terror suspects on Israel’s behalf.

The official, who requested anonymity, said the PA president also assured Burns that PA security forces will continue arresting terror suspects and that the security coordination would be fully reinstated once calm is restored.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Abbas two days later, during which he encouraged Ramallah to adopt a plan aimed at boosting the PA’s security presence in the northern West Bank, where fighting between Israeli forces and local armed groups has grown increasingly deadly, two US and Palestinian officials told The Times of Israel.

In recent months, the PA has seen its control over growing swaths of the West Bank slip away, particularly in northern West Bank cities such as Jenin and Nablus. Israel says that as a result, it has been forced to send its own troops into those areas — which under the Oslo Accords are supposed to be under full PA control — to carry out arrests of security suspects.

In the past, similar raids may have been carried out by the PA.

Left: Soldiers carry the coffin of Staff Sgt. Ido Baruch, killed in a shooting attack in the West Bank, at a military cemetery in Gedera, October 12, 2022. Right: Palestinian gunmen and mourners carry the body of Raafat Ayassah, killed during clashes with Israeli security forces, during his funeral in the West Bank village of Sanur, near Jenin, November 10, 2022. Avshalom Sassoni; Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)

Many of the Israeli raids have sparked increasingly violent clashes with armed Palestinians frustrated over the Israeli incursions and the PA’s willingness to cooperate.

The US plan would see the establishment of PA Civil Police SWAT teams in Jenin and Nablus in order to re-establish the PA’s control in the area. It would seek to reduce friction between PA police and Palestinian civilians by deploying civil police to operate and carry out arrests instead of paramilitary forces normally used, according to a source familiar with the matter.

While Abbas did not provide Blinken with a final answer regarding the proposal, PA officials have given a chilly response to it thus far, lamenting its lack of inclusion of an Israeli commitment to cease raids into PA-controlled Area A of the West Bank, a Palestinian official said.

The official added that recruitment for such a force would also be difficult amid growing public frustration with the PA. Israel, meanwhile, supports the US plan, according to Axios.

Commenting Monday on Burns’ remarks, State Department spokesman Ned Price said the CIA director’s concern “is precisely the reason Secretary Blinken from Israel, from the West Bank, from Egypt, encouraged Israelis, Palestinians to take urgent steps themselves that would de-escalate this situation and lead to greater degrees of security and stability for Israelis and Palestinians alike.”

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