IDF sends 3 more battalions to West Bank in bid to curb violence

Military sees limited attacks from Gaza as a positive sign, but fears unrest may continue through next week

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

IDF Chief fo Staff Aviv Kohavi, right, meets with Border Police officers who responded to a shooting attack in the West Bank two days prior, on May 9, 2021. (Israel Defense Forces)
IDF Chief fo Staff Aviv Kohavi, right, meets with Border Police officers who responded to a shooting attack in the West Bank two days prior, on May 9, 2021. (Israel Defense Forces)

The Israel Defense Forces deployed an additional three battalions to the West Bank on Sunday as it seeks to curb the growing violence in the area, the military said.

Those reinforcements — units that were originally meant to be in training — are in addition to four battalions already sent to the West Bank since the start of the month of Ramadan in April. That represents thousands more IDF soldiers deployed to the West Bank than usual.

The military said the additional troops were specifically meant to be deployed along the so-called “seam line,” the border between the West Bank and Israel.

The move was not the result of a specific threat, but due to a general concern that the situation in the West Bank may get out of control, particularly if the violence in the capital escalates.

Recent weeks have seen a major spike in violence in Jerusalem, with nightly clashes between Palestinian residents of the city and Israeli security forces. The Palestinian Authority, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and other Palestinian groups have called for additional clashes.

Israeli soldiers search for a Palestinian suspect in a drive-by shooting attack, in the northern West Bank town of Aqraba, May 4, 2021. (Flash90)

The violence has spread from Jerusalem to the West Bank, where there have been a number of attacks and attempted attacks against Israeli civilians and security forces in recent weeks, including a deadly shooting attack last week in which one Israeli student was killed and another seriously injured.

On Wednesday, according to Palestinian health officials, 16-year-old Palestinian teenager Said Odeh was shot and killed by Israeli forces, who said he was throwing Molotov cocktails at troops during a protest.

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi made his decision to send reinforcements to the West Bank after he visited the area on Sunday morning, meeting with local commanders and with Border Police officers who described a recent shooting attack against them in the West Bank, in which three Palestinian gunmen, who had been stopped as they attempted to travel into Israel illegally, opened fire at them with makeshift machine guns. The border guards and IDF troops returned fire, killing two of the men and critically wounding the third.

An Israeli soldier stands guard as the bodies of two Palestinian attackers, who opened fire and were killed by Israeli security forces, lie on the ground in front of the IDF military base of Salem near the West Bank town of Jenin, on May 7, 2021. (Jack GUEZ / AFP)

“Thanks to the soldiers here and especially the Border Police officers, a terror attack was prevented. The soldier’s finger that squeezed the trigger prevented a terror attack that could have had an impact on the situation in the entire country,” Kohavi said.

The violence has also reached the Gaza Strip, from which there has been intermittent rocket fire and the return of the launching of balloon-borne incendiary and explosive devices, which caused dozens of fires in southern Israel on Sunday.

In response to the rocket attacks, the IDF deployed additional Iron Dome missile defense batteries throughout the country.

However, the military saw a certain positive sign in the fact that level of violence emanating from Gaza was significantly less than it had anticipated. Hamas’s elusive military chief Muhammad Deif has threatened attacks over the violence in Jerusalem and the impending eviction of a number of Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem.

The military was gearing up particularly for Monday, when Israel commemorates Jerusalem Day, the anniversary of the IDF’s capture of East Jerusalem during the 1967 Six Day War. The day is traditionally marked by an event known as the Flag March in which thousands of people march through the Old City, including the Muslim Quarter, with Israeli flags. The event, which is often attended by far-right activists, has occasionally seen clashes between participants and Muslim residents of the Old City.

Israeli security services have warned the cabinet that given the already skyrocketing tensions in the capital, the event could lead to a major outbreak of violence. Yet police said they have no intention of canceling the event — a difficult proposition considering that the High Court of Justice has routinely upheld the rights of Israelis to hold the march — though they could alter its route on security grounds in order to keep the Jewish revelers away from flashpoint sites in the Old City, such as the Damascus Gate and the Muslim Quarter.

National-religious youth wave Israeli flags as they celebrate Jerusalem Day at the Old City of Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate on June 2, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

A hearing on the Sheikh Jarrah case was also meant to be held in the High Court of Justice on Monday, but the Justice Ministry fought to have it postponed by at least a month so that it can be officially involved in the matter.

The IDF anticipates that even after Jerusalem Day tensions will likely continue at least through the end of Ramadan, May 12, and through Nakba Day on May 15.

The military does not believe that Hamas or other Palestinian factions want a large-scale confrontation with Israel at this time, though a minor miscalculation or misstep by either side could lead to such a conflict.

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