Reporter's notebook

In the West Bank as Obama visits, a subtle escalation of violence

A Bethlehem-region tour with the IDF underlines the complex challenges of keeping the peace

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

A soldier fires a smoke grenade at a demonstration at Birzeit University, February 15 (photo credit: Issam Rimawi/ Flash90)
A soldier fires a smoke grenade at a demonstration at Birzeit University, February 15 (photo credit: Issam Rimawi/ Flash90)

A mid-level army officer in the Bethlehem region, whose command covers 300,000 Palestinians and 100,000 Israelis, stood on a flat patch of earth just above the Jerusalem-Hebron route recently and pointed to a scythe-like bend in the road.

“This place is a good example of the complexity of the situation,” he said.

On one side of the road, a little deeper into the West Bank than President Barack Obama will travel Friday when he visits Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, are rain-washed olive trees and almond blossoms. On the other: a chain link fence — a relic of the first intifada — runs across the mouth of the al-Arub refugee camp, a jumble of houses that rises up a hillside and is home to 15,000 Palestinians. And in the middle, there is a steady flow of Israeli and Palestinian cars and buses.

Increasingly, across the West Bank, it is in places like this, on the roads — where contact between the Israeli and Palestinian populations is inevitable — that violence has come to the fore.

In 2012, for the first time in years, no Israelis were killed in terror attacks in the West Bank. But in the weeks ahead of Obama’s visit, the atmosphere seemed to be shifting. February saw a 66 percent rise in terror incidents as compared to the month preceding it, according to Shin Bet data on terror attacks in Jerusalem and across the West Bank.

Over the past week alone, one Palestinian, Mahmoud Titi, was shot and killed in the el-Fuar refugee camp (a reserves squad, stuck in the camp, came under assault and had to shoot its way out). Another, an 18-year-old male, was shot and gravely wounded Thursday after he and another teenager hurled Molotov cocktails near Tulkarem. (February saw a 70 percent rise over January in the number of Molotov cocktails thrown at Israelis — from 70 to 119.)

Additionally, an Israeli woman, Adva Biton, was injured along with her three daughters near Ariel when a skull-sized rock thrown at the car caused her to swerve into oncoming traffic. Her two-year-old daughter, Adele, is still in critical condition.

There were several other incidents north of Jerusalem over the weekend. And on Monday morning, a car approached a bus stop outside the settlement of Kedumim and, after asking for directions, a passenger opened fire and wounded a 71-year-old man.

“There’s been an escalation,” said the officer.

He characterized the rise in violence as carrying “the scent of 1987, not 2001,” meaning that it was more like the chaotic and largely unarmed first intifada than the roaming gunmen and suicide squads of the second one. But he stressed that “the difference today is the PA. Then we were inside [Palestinian population centers] a lot. Today they have the ability and, to an extent, the will,” to prevent or at least moderate widespread public unrest.

To be sure, no mass protests truly reminiscent of the winter of 1987-8 have broken out. But the flammable circumstances are strewn all about: There are several Palestinian prisoners on prolonged hunger strikes. The Palestinian Authority lacks funds to pay its workers. The peace process is paralyzed. The PA’s bid for statehood at the United Nations has made little impact beyond formalities. Elections have been pending for years. Hamas has every reason to try to stir up an uprising and shake the PA’s control of the West Bank, perhaps pitting Israel against the PA and reaping the rewards, as it did so successfully in Gaza. And the reverberating changes of the Arab Spring, the shaking off of autocratic leadership across large swaths of the Middle East, have not been lost on the Palestinian residents of the West Bank.

The IDF commander is aware of the situation. He likened it to what he called the Arab winter, saying that no one can know in advance what “will ignite” the area.

For this reason, he said, he has tried to avoid “standing on the throats” of the Palestinians.

On the public relations front, he has made sure that each company is outfitted with a video documentarian — a combat soldier whose primary task is to shoot footage. This, he indicated, would ensure that no doctored or one-sided images would be released without the corresponding IDF side of the story.

In the field, he has instructed his soldiers at times to avoid conflict, “to take a step back and let them [the Palestinians] blow off some steam.”

Finally, while the rules of engagement are rigid and clear — soldiers are only to open fire when lives are at peril — he said that caution and basic preparedness often raised the threshold for such a circumstance. “If a soldier is wearing a helmet and body armor,” he said, “he is less quickly put in life-threatening danger.”

His mission, though, requires a blend of offensive and defensive action. During the past four months of his battalion’s deployment, he said, it has conducted 300 nighttime arrests. “Every night,” he clarified.

For Palestinians, these arrests are often the most painful element of life under military rule. Army troops do not need a warrant and at times they are not compelled to openly discuss the incriminating evidence against an individual accused of nationalistically motivated crime.

For the military, though, the most challenging element of the deployment is out in the field, at the foot soldier level. Because so many of the attacks in the region are unplanned — they are not handed down from any sort of chain of command — and are perpetrated with improvised weapons – the officer mentioned seven stabbing attempts at Gush Etzion Junction over the past four months and frequent shooting attempts with makeshift arms — they are impossible to predict.

This means that mid-level officers have to deploy their soldiers in a way that enables them to address an array of threats across a large swath of territory.

Standing near the al-Arub camp, above the bend in the road — where Palestinians threw Molotov cocktails at an army vehicle in February and at a Jerusalem-Kiryat Arba bus several weeks before that — the officer leaned in to his armored white Land Rover and radioed two unseen soldiers to move toward a lookout point.

As the moved into view, it was clear they carried rifles and teargas, bullets and rubber bullets, radios and stun grenades. As they shuffled forward, the officer pointed to their nonlethal weapons and explained the difficulty of their task: The soldiers are asked to thwart threats that, like rocks and firebombs, are both deadly and often wielded by children. If they fail to stop an attack, they then have to decide how to respond — with live fire or rubber bullets, and whether or not to give chase into the alleys of the refugee camp or to radio in for backup. If they do chase assailants, how far and at what cost?

“It’s all a question of might,” the officer said. “Too little, and the soldiers are at risk. Too much, and the area could go up in flames.”

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