The IED threat: Terrorism in the West Bank is fast becoming more sophisticated, deadly

2 soldiers have been killed recently by explosive devices buried under roads. Data on IED manufacture shows a fast-growing threat. The fear is that civilians will be targeted next

Israeli security forces operate in the West Bank city of Jenin, June 6, 2024.  (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)
Israeli security forces operate in the West Bank city of Jenin, June 6, 2024. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)

In barely a week, the Israel Defense Forces has lost two fighters to powerful roadside bombs in the West Bank. Cpt. Alon Sacgiu, 22, a sniper team commander in the Kfir Brigade’s Haruv reconnaissance unit, was killed in an explosion in the Jenin refugee camp on June 27; Sgt. First Class (res.) Yehuda Geto, 22, a combat driver, was killed in an explosion in the Nur Shams refugee camp on July 1.

Sources at the IDF’s Central Command speak extensively about the deepening threat posed by these improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and the imperative to tackle the hostile areas where they are being planted in order to preserve the IDF’s freedom of action.

In many ways, the process that the West Bank is undergoing is reminiscent of the threat that emerged in the 1990s in the Security Zone in South Lebanon. Then, too, Hezbollah identified the IDF’s movement on the roads as a vulnerability and focused on developing and refining IEDs placed along and under the roads.

But unlike the situation in the Security Zone in Lebanon, in the West Bank, the IEDs are, for now, located inside Palestinian refugee camps, towns and neighborhoods.

These are local initiatives, involving members of various Palestinian factions, usually joining forces in residential neighborhoods. Their goal is to create ex-territorial zones that the IDF will find difficult to access and operate in.

To counter this new threat, the IDF began sending backhoes and armored D9 bulldozers into the refugee camps of northern Samaria ahead of other forces, to shave the upper layer of asphalt on the roads.

But the terror groups quickly identified this method of action, and started burying the IEDs deeper, out of reach below the asphalt and soil. The 100-kilogram explosive device that killed Sacgiu and injured 15 other soldiers in a Panther armored personnel carrier, for instance, was placed at a depth of 1.5 meters.

An IDF Panther APC in Jenin on May 22, 2024. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)

The IDF is seeing a very fast learning curve among the Palestinians, who are utilizing information on the Internet and Iranian/Lebanese guidance. All of the explosive devices detonated against Israeli targets in the West Bank over the past year were made of improvised homemade materials, and some were very high quality.

As far as Israel is concerned, this is a high-priority challenge, in large part because of the ease with which explosives can be assembled locally from dual-use materials. Agricultural fertilizers, hydrogen peroxide, acetone, industrial acids and other civilian materials are transferred without supervision from Israel to the West Bank.

Unlike the Gaza Strip, where Israel sought to limit the entry of dual-use materials, such oversight does not apply to the West Bank. It is thus urgent that Israel establish a mechanism to control the influx of materials, based on quantity, type and destination.

The IDF is also re-examining the protection of its vehicles. In the Nur Shams refugee camp blast where Geto was killed, his Panther — which is protected at the bottom from IEDs – was severely damaged and flipped upside down. It is estimated that the explosive device buried under the road was particularly large and the blast was immensely powerful. A second soldier was seriously wounded.

More advanced protective solutions are being tested, similar to those used by the Armored Corps, including placing steel plates over the vehicles’ weak spots.

IDF R&D is also focusing on future potential threats, notably including against RPGs.

The Iranians, who have identified the Jordan Valley as an area of Israeli vulnerability to arms smuggling, are working to bring weaponry including RPGs and powerful IEDs across the porous border.

Palestinian gunmen at a funeral in the West Bank city of Jenin, June 6, 2024. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)

The IDF has faced thousands of explosive devices on the roads in Southern Lebanon. And an M18 Claymore device containing hundreds of bullets exploded in March 2023 at the Megiddo Junction in northern Israel after it was detonated by a Palestinian terrorist sent from Lebanon by Hezbollah.

In addition to improved protection, the IDF intends to bolster its intelligence activities in areas where the IEDs are being made. Military Intelligence Satellite Unit 9900 is about to begin operating in the West Bank. The unit aims to provide more accurate and better intelligence in real time thanks to advanced technology described by the IDF as “field control.” This enables continuous observation of certain areas and the use of highly advanced analysis and fusion technologies.

Data regarding the IED industry in the West Bank paints a worrying picture. Since the beginning of 2024, the IDF has disarmed more than 50 production laboratories. More than 1,000 IEDs were thrown at troops. And about 150 buried IEDs were found and neutralized beneath civilian infrastructure (buildings and roads).

The numbers point to a clear trend: The threat in the West Bank is in the process of transitioning from low-tech, grassroots terrorism to sophisticated and deadly organized terrorism. It is nowhere near the dimensions, quantity and quality of the Hamas onslaught on October 7, 2023, but it is certainly a significant threat. And it is exacerbated because, unlike in Gaza, Palestinians and Israelis are intertwined in the fabric of daily life in the West Bank.

To date, these particular kinds of attacks have been directed at the IDF inside the refugee camps and cities. The next stage may see it move to the roads used by Israeli citizens, where the consequences would be complex and deadly.

Translated and edited from the original on the Times of Israel’s Hebrew site Zman Yisrael.

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