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3 Jul, 2023 18:17

Spiraling West Bank violence could spell political doom for both Israeli and Palestinian leadership

People on either side want their leaders to act against the other as Washington’s de-escalation efforts falter
Spiraling West Bank violence could spell political doom for both Israeli and Palestinian leadership

The latest upsurge in violence throughout the occupied West Bank signals the failure of US-led efforts to create calm. Both the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the Israeli government have been faced with domestic pressure to take escalatory measures against the opposing side, resulting in an Israeli military operation against Palestinian armed groups in Jenin.

Beginning with an Israeli raid on the city of Jenin, a string of violent events again ignited tensions between Palestinians and Israelis inside the occupied West Bank. In mid-June, a number of Israeli armored vehicles stormed Jenin to arrest members of the armed group known as the Jenin Brigades, when they were ambushed by local Palestinian fighters. Seven Israeli soldiers were injured by improvised explosive devices that were detonated underneath their military vehicles. This led to the deployment of Apache helicopters and a large number of Israeli ground forces, who ended up killing seven Palestinians and injuring 91.

Just one day later, two Palestinian gunmen carried out an attack near the entrance to the West Bank settlement of Eli, killing four Israeli settlers and injuring four others. The two shooters were identified as having an affiliation with the armed wing of Hamas, the Qassam Brigades. Both were shot and killed by Israeli forces that same day.

The increase in violence followed the decision of the Israeli government to allow its far-right finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, to assume special powers to develop settlement expansion plans, even without the approval of the Knesset. The move sparked only light condemnation from the US government, which said that it “opposes such unilateral actions that make a two-state solution more difficult to achieve and are an obstacle to peace.”

The following night, radical Israeli settlers decided to attack Palestinian villages, in what they called “revenge” for the shooting attack against settlers earlier that day. In the Palestinian village of Turmasaya alone, around 400 armed settlers torched 30 homes and 60 cars. The attack also resulted in over 100 injuries and 1 death. Israeli settler attacks like these target any Palestinian community that they are able to penetrate, almost always with the protection of the Israeli army. One such attack, earlier this year in the village of Huwara, was even described as a pogrom by Israeli general Yehuda Fuchs.

The Israeli government, headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was put in an embarrassing position following the events in both Jenin and the settlement of Eli. Both these situations represented a clear development in the sophistication of the West Bank armed groups, proving them capable of inflicting casualties on both Israeli soldiers and settlers in just over a 24 hour window. Already there had been calls from Israeli settler communities, in the northern West Bank, to launch an all-out military operation in order to crush the armed groups, with the above mentioned incidents only leading to further pressure being placed on the government to act.

In an Israeli security session, held to assess the situation inside the West Bank following the Eli shooting attack, it was reported that both Netanyahu and his defense minister, Yoav Gallant, opposed the option of launching a military operation inside the occupied territory at the time. The expectation was raised on the government, at that point, to react disproportionately to such attacks, given that the Israeli coalition is held together by a number of hardliners who seek a complete annexation of the West Bank and currently live inside illegal settlements themselves. 

Earlier this year, the Biden administration set up two security summits, aimed at improving cooperation between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Israel. The conferences were held in Jordan’s Aqaba and the Egyptian city of Sharm El Sheikh. The goal was to have the PA’s security forces and the Israeli military to work together in order to prevent a further deterioration in the security situation. One of the components to creating a more stable environment was a plan to utilize a specially trained PA force that would directly confront the West Bank armed groups that have emerged over the past two years. The plan, drawn up by US security coordinator Michael Fenzel, represented political suicide for a PA that is already facing a massive backlash from Palestinians.

According to a recent poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, roughly 80% of Palestinians want the current PA President Mahmoud Abbas to resign. During the latest string of Israeli settler attacks against defenseless Palestinian villages, locals have also gone viral calling on the PA to deploy its roughly 70,000-strong security force to protect against settler attacks. The PA only has limited areas of jurisdiction inside the West Bank and uses its forces to handle domestic Palestinian crime, in addition to protecting Israeli security interests. Under the current circumstances, a direct confrontation between PA forces and Palestinian armed groups could lead to a revolt against its rule inside the territory.

Mahmoud Abbas is currently 87 years old and there is a fear that when he passes away, there will be a power vacuum, which could result in the PA’s collapse or even a revolutionary anti-Israeli group taking over. Although the PA is currently attempting to sit on the fence, knowing that no conflict resolution dialogue has even been entertained with the Israeli side since 2014. It attempts to pretend as if there aren't thousands of armed Palestinian fighters who are currently operating outside of the administration’s control and that it cannot do anything about Israel’s actions either. This attitude is mostly born out of a desire to remain in the good graces of their top donors, the United States and European Union. While the PA does not want to assume the role of an active protector against Israeli military and settler attacks, which the Palestinian people call on it to be, neither does it want to commit to being a direct aggressor against the armed militant groups.

Unlike the PA, the Israeli government was in the position to launch a military operation against the West Bank armed groups, so it waited and decided to carry out its attack on Sunday night. In 2002, Israel launched Operation Defensive Shield, during which they killed around 500 Palestinians and effectively eliminated many of the strongholds for the armed groups that were operating at the time. Israel’s army would seek to replicate the 2002 model in any large-scale operation, however, it has instead chosen to isolate Jenin in order to set back the groups, instead of attempting all out elimination. If it is to launch an all encompassing campaign, it is also likely that it will lose many soldiers and that there will be attacks from other territories, such as Gaza, Syria and Lebanon. Therefore, there will be a political price to pay for launching such an operation, which is something that Netanyahu knows and is perhaps why he ordered a more limited attack.

Instead of declaring war inside the entire West Bank, it seems that the Israeli army has decided to increase the heat on the armed groups, using tactics like drone strikes to assassinate fighters, while this current escalation is an attempt to show strength and cut back the abilities of the groups. The day after the settlers' "revenge" attack, Israeli forces announced that they had carried out a missile strike on a car, near a checkpoint that is located in Jenin, killing three Palestinian fighters. This airstrike was significant because it was the first assassination by missile strike in the West Bank since 2005. Now, the current invasion of Jenin is the largest since 2002.

If the Palestinian armed groups are allowed to grow stronger and their influence spreads to other cities, it may be politically impossible in the future for the Israeli government not to launch a large-scale military campaign, which is likely why it has opted for the current approach. However, one interesting element to the recent military operation in Jenin, is the lack of care from Palestinians in Ramallah and other cities, only Palestinians from the refugee camps came out in large demonstrations. This reflects a massive victory of Israeli policy over the Palestinians of the West Bank, they have successfully disconnected them from the suffering of their fellow people and it seems as if life can go on as normal for people living in cities like Ramallah.

Due to the US refusal to present any pathways forward, the West Bank is heading towards even greater violence. Its roadmap for the PA is not reasonable, given that it essentially asks the Palestinian Authority to commit suicide, but on the other hand, it won’t actually punish Israel for violating its own red-lines. Washington is frequently expressing its concern over the Israeli government's constant approval of settlement expansion plans, yet it is unwilling to take a single step toward doing anything about it and supports Israel’s military solution to a problem that Washington failed to solve. The Biden administration has the power to pressure both the PA and Israel to sit down together today, yet it refuses, offering nothing more than platitudes about peace negotiations that have essentially been dead since the late 1990s. Without any viable options for a solution on the table, there will only be more violence, even if tensions calm temporarily.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.