The escalation of Palestinian violence in the West Bank is reminiscent of the second intifada, but has not yet turned into a third one, Judea Brigade commander Col. Avi Bluth told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.

He spoke as he walked through Hebron on the third day of Passover, when thousands of Israelis and tourists flock to the city to visit its historic and religious sites.



“Are we in a period of escalation? The answer is yes. Are we on the way to a third intifada? As an army we are prepared for it, but it is my personal assessment that we are not,” Bluth said.

To be in charge of security for Hebron – where some 1,000 Jewish settlers live among more than 30,000 Palestinians in the portion of the city under Israeli control – is to always have one’s finger on the trigger.

The situation has become even more complex since September, when Palestinians began to escalate their violence in the West Bank in response to economic hardship, according to Bluth.

The area became even more inflamed during and after November’s Operation Pillar of Defense in the Gaza Strip, he said.

“Every small incident explodes into a larger one,” he said.

Bluth said he takes the constant stone-throwing attacks very seriously.

“Stone-throwing is not a prank. It is clear that stones can kill,” he said. Still, each incident must be evaluated individually, he said. “Not every stone-throwing incident is the same.”

Bluth said he was prepared for further violence that was likely to happen this weekend, as Palestinians mark Land Day, in which they express their rage at Israeli expropriations.

In Hebron, the escalation of violence over the past seven months has been expressed in Palestinian riots, in which young men throw stones and firebombs at IDF guard towers and checkpoints, or at settlers’ homes, mostly from areas of the city that are under the control of the Palestinian Authority.

The smart thing, he said, was to figure out how to place his forces in the right place at the right time. He tracks movement, for example when pupils head in and out of school or when the mosques open and close for prayer.

Security personnel in Hebron had been trained for all possibilities and, owing to recent escalations, all had real-life experience in handling such violence, he said.

As Bluth spoke, he led the Post as well as reporters from Army Radio and Channel 1, into the Palestinian area of the city, near its old-fashioned market place with stalls selling spices, meat, fruit and candy.

The street, located just one block over from the Jewish building of Beit Hadassah in the Israeli section of the city, is separated from that area by a steel gate that is typically locked.

As Bluth stood there, he wore a red beret, with a flak jacket over his olive green uniform and a rifle slung over his shoulder.

This street was one of the continual flashpoints for violence, from where Palestinians often throw stones or Molotov cocktails at the concrete IDF guard tower or over the gate into the Israeli section of the city, he said.

But on this day, the street appeared peaceful. It was one of the few days of the year when Israelis can take organized tours through the gate, into the Palestinian section, so they can see homes in its marketplace that the Jewish community once owned.

In 1929, Arab residents of the city murdered 67 of its Jews. The structures are now rented to Palestinians.

But Bluth showed how there are still Jewish symbols on the building, including a Star of David, etched into the stone.

On Thursday, Jewish visitors, some in black hassidic garb and others in T-shirts and jeans, walked through the Palestinian market, heavily guarded by soldiers.

At the same time, Palestinian residents, including women in traditional dress and men with keffiyehs on their heads, passed by.

Allowing Palestinian life to continue as normal, in spite of the Jewish tours, enhanced security, Bluth said.

To keep the city calm, he often works in coordination with the PA security forces. But he was careful to note that the operative word was “coordinate,” and not “cooperate.”

He added that the two forces worked best when it came to operating against Hamas in Hebron. There, he said, there was a joint interest, on the part of Fatah and the IDF, to prevent Hamas from gaining strength.

He remains hopeful, he said, that Fatah will prevail over Hamas, and that the situation in Hebron and the West Bank will not escalate into a third intifada.

He noted, however, that an army often operates with an eye toward the worst-case scenarios and not the best.

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