IDF revamps anti-terror strategies in West Bank after attacks

Military to use advanced technology, better training to help soldiers prevent terror attacks and more effectively respond to them

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Illustrative: Israeli soldiers take part in operations in the West Bank. (Israel Defense Forces)
Illustrative: Israeli soldiers take part in operations in the West Bank. (Israel Defense Forces)

The Israeli military on Sunday unveiled plans to improve the operations of its West Bank division, including increasing the level of intelligence gathering and sharing, and better preparing troops before deployments in the region.

These changes came after a spate of terror attacks in the West Bank in late 2018 and early 2019, in which terrorists opened fire on civilians and troops, catching soldiers off guard and allowing the gunmen to flee the scene.

The military expects the coming months to be potentially volatile ones in the West Bank, due to the ongoing efforts involved in the US-led “deal of the century” peace plan, which has attracted the ire of the Palestinian Authority and terror groups.

On December 9, a terrorist opened fire at a bus stop outside the Ofra settlement in the northern West Bank, hitting seven people, including a pregnant woman whose fetus was killed. Four days later, the brother of the Ofra shooter shot up a bus stop near the Givat Assaf outpost, killing two soldiers and seriously injuring two people. On March 17, an Israeli father of 12 was killed in a shooting attack near the Ariel settlement in which the terrorist used a gun that he’d stolen from a soldier whom he’d stabbed to death earlier in the day.

In all those cases, the gunmen were able to flee the scene, and in two of them, they were able to carry out additional attacks.

In order to prevent future surprise terror attacks and to better respond to those that do occur, the military plans to deploy more surveillance cameras and other sensors in the West Bank — especially around road junctions — and use advanced computer algorithms to review the footage and identify imminent threats. Soldiers will be alerted to risks through smart watches and other wearable computers, the army said.

Illustrative. Israeli soldiers in a command center assist in operations in the West Bank. (Israel Defense Forces)

“The system knows to identify… and prevent violent terrorist activities. In this way, it provides soldiers with quick warning of an impending threat,” the Israel Defense Forces said.

The technology-driven plan is known as the “Digital Regional Brigade” and is the result of a collaborative effort throughout the military’s intelligence, technology and ground forces units.

It is already being tested in the West Bank division’s Samaria Regional Brigade.

Beyond the technological and infrastructure improvements planned for the West Bank, the IDF also intends to better train and deploy troops in the often volatile area as part of a program called the “Operational Edge.”

Illustrative. Israeli soldiers take part in operations in the West Bank. (Israel Defense Forces)

The military said its new deployment strategy for infantry soldiers focuses on five central issues: improving shooting skills and hand-to-hand combat, “mentally” preparing troops for the types of threats they face in the West Bank, training troops to operate under a unified set of techniques that is most suited for the region, improving training facilities, and establishing division-wide standards and measurements to accurately assess efficacy and success.

To upgrade its training facilities, the military is increasingly relying on virtual reality headsets and controls that are meant to simulate real-world locations.

Illustrative. An Israeli soldier conducts a training exercise with a virtual reality set. (Israel Defense Forces)

The military said it was also creating a new strategy of using “mixed combat teams” during terror attacks in which the assailant flees the scene, “which will help oversee large swaths of land during a manhunt.”

Those teams will include infantry, field intelligence, special forces, and other security services to track an escaping terrorist.

Illustrative. Israeli soldiers take part in operations in the West Bank. (Israel Defense Forces)

While these new proposals for the West Bank division can be traced back to lessons learned in the terror attacks that occurred in 2018 and 2019, they are also largely a response to the the general trend of so-called lone wolf terror attacks that began in late 2015.

Those attacks, mostly stabbings and car rammings, were not carried out by established terrorist groups, which could be infiltrated and monitored by Israeli security forces, but by individuals who typically left far fewer clues as to their intentions.

“To deal with the growth of the [West Bank] population and the decrease in alert time, the [West Bank] division needed to come up with a solution that fit the current situation in the region,” the army said.

The military said aspects of its proposals have already been implemented in recent months in “dozens of training exercises” for troops about to be deployed in the West Bank.

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