The coming weeks and months present an uncertain security forecast for the West Bank.
Security forces and the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) are continuing to put a lid on organized terrorism, and the Palestinian Authority is monitoring and disrupting Hamas and Islamic Jihad efforts to rebuild their influence. Yet there are nagging concerns among Israeli security officials that unforeseen events may trigger mass rioting in the future, as levels of frustration among the Palestinian public grow.
Three Palestinians were shot dead in gun battles that erupted during a counter-terrorism raid in Jenin last weekend, in an incident that testifies to Israel’s ongoing ability to track and take apart developing terror threats in real time.
Security forces had entered Jenin last Saturday to arrest Hamas member Hamza Abu Aleija, who, with the help of Hamas in Gaza, planned to carry out a campaign of shooting attacks on Israeli civilians and military targets. Aleija resisted arrest and fired on the Border Police’s Counter-Terrorism Unit. He and two Palestinian gunmen, who came to his aid and fired at soldiers, were shot dead.
The raid is the latest example of the IDF’s ability to enter complex West Bank urban environments and neutralize threats, as well as the Shin Bet’s tight intelligence grip, which stunts the growth of organized terrorist infrastructure in the area.
It is also a reminder that in inner city areas, referred to as “refugee camps” by many, in cities like Jenin and Nablus, heavily armed combatants affiliated with terrorist groups roam free and plot attacks.
The PA does not send its security forces into these trouble spots, for fear of provoking a civil conflict. It does, however, make tangible efforts in other regions to keep Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the newest threat to appear on the map – Salafi jihadis – in check.
The security situation varies from one Palestinian city to another, and often hinges on the policies of various Palestinian governors. Some governors take a firmer line than others against elements that threaten PA rule and Israeli security alike.
Ultimately, the PA is willing to fight for its interest in maintaining stability in the West Bank, an interest shared by Israel. It represses subversive activity by groups that are as interested in toppling it as they are in launching attacks in Israel. And its forces cooperate with the IDF where needed.
The PA’s financial health, and its ability to pay steady wages to its security forces, play a crucial role in its ability to maintain reasonable levels of order.
The fact that members of PA security forces have been receiving their monthly salaries for over a year, after earlier disruptions, is contributing to the relative stability.
The wages are made possible to some degree by foreign donors such as Europe, the US and Japan, and Israel’s policy of transferring tax funds to the PA. Yet donations from other, once reliable sources, like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have waned.
In addition to organized terror plots, the IDF Central Command is on the lookout for potential incidents that could spark unplanned mass rioting.
On March 30, Israeli Arabs will mark Land Day with protests. Although this event is not expected to spill over into the West Bank, the army will be on a higher than normal alert. The risk of mass violence set off by an unforeseen incident, such as the deaths of several Palestinian rioters, is just the kind of trigger that might upset the status quo.
As apparently fruitless negotiations drag on between the PA and Israel, rising frustrations among the Palestinian public could boil over into violent demonstrations.
The PA, for its part, does encourage unarmed protests in order to let off steam, though these calls have largely been met with apathy by Palestinians over the past 12 months.
“On some days, we take it for granted that there will be friction,” one security source told The Jerusalem Post in recent days. On the whole, though, there has been a minimal willingness by Palestinians to take to the streets, and events organized by the PA have failed to take off, he noted.
Yet this could change. The lack of willingness by the Palestinian masses to protest is deceptive. With anger mounting over their poor economic situation and lack of satisfaction with the PA’s rule, violence might be around the corner.
IDF officials are acutely aware of the dangers posed by a deadly combination of catalysts.
They are overseeing preparations to ensure that army battalions are ready to respond to a sudden upsurge in unorganized violence, and to stay vigilant of developments that intelligence agencies cannot predict or prevent.