Learning to live like neighbors

IDF, PA forces have come a long way since 2000.

By
June 11, 2010 16:59
AN IDF soldier talks with a little Palestinian boy

soldier west bank 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerzolomiski)

 
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On Tuesday, just after midnight, Brig.-Gen. Yoav Mordechai’s cellphone rang. On the line was Brig.-Gen. Nitzan Alon, commander of the Judea and Samaria Division, who was calling to inform Mordechai , head of the Civil Administration in the West Bank, about intelligence that had just been received according to which an Israeli had been kidnapped in the Kalandiya refugee camp near Jerusalem.

Mordechai immediately made a few phone calls to a number of top officials in the Palestinian Authority.

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Within minutes, the Israeli, who was not kidnapped but had entered Kalandiya for personal reasons, possibly illicit, was located and returned.

On Wednesday morning, Mordechai was back in his office at Civil Administration headquarters near the settlement of Beit El. In the middle of a meeting he had convened, his cellphone rang again.

This time, it was a text message from the IDF command center reporting that a reserve soldier, who was armed and in uniform, had accidentally entered Tulkarm. He was located by PA security forces and returned within a matter of minutes.

Just a few years ago, these two incidents would have required the IDF to scramble large forces, including elite units, such as the police’s Yamam counterterror unit, which specialize in hostage situations. The forces would have begun laying siege to the town, the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) would have been called in to activate its agents and unmanned aerial vehicles would have started hovering up above.

In October 2000, for example, at the beginning of the second intifada, two reservists accidentally entered Ramallah and were lynched by a violent mob, their bodies later thrown from the window of a PA police station and stamped and beaten. A famous picture was one of the attackers raising his blood-soaked hands out of the police station’s window.

In August 2007 an IDF officer accidentally entered Jenin and wasattacked by a mob, which included Islamic Jihad terrorists.

He was rescued by a PA policeman who took him to a nearby police station and later escorted him out of the city.

BUT THE situation in the West Bank today is nothing like it was three years ago, let alone a decade ago. The change in the Palestinian leadership, the wake-up call Fatah received from Hamas’s violent takeover of the Gaza Strip and the continued IDF operations in Palestinian cities have led to an unprecedented drop in terror activity. In May, for example, there were 17 attacks against Israelis in the West Bank, 14 of them were firebombs thrown at passing cars. One involved gunshots.

This trend is what turned 2009 into the first year in a decade without a suicide bombing inside Israel. This has continued so far into 2010.

The change has two partners. First is the Israeli contribution, which includes the construction of the security barrier and the continued IDF presence, although scaled back, in the West Bank. The second is the PA, which has recognized that a weak and even nonexistent Hamas in the West Bank is in its strategic interest.

From an Israeli perspective this is actually a better state of affairs. “We prefer that the PA fights Hamas for itself and not because it wants to save our lives,” explains a senior IDF officer. “Under [Yasser] Arafat whenever we complained that the PA wasn’t doing enough to fight terror, it would round up some Hamas terrorists and then release them the next day.

Nowadays that doesn’t happen, since it is really in the PA’s interest to keep the Hamas operatives in jail.”

Without a doubt, a major catalyst in the change has been the security and civil coordination led by Mordechai and the Civil Administration. Mordechai has been in his post for close to four years and will step down at the end of the year. He previously served as head of the Gaza Coordination and Liaison Administration, as well as in Military Intelligence.

Mordechai is what the IDF calls an Arabist. He speaks fluent Arabic, is intimately familiar with Palestinian culture and society, and has cultivated a close relationship with top PA officials, including Prime Minister Salaam Fayad.

During the last round of peace talks under former prime minister Ehud Olmert, Mordechai served as the IDF’s liaison to the negotiations and served the Israeli team as something of a consultant on security affairs.


The current proximity talks have yet to reach the stage where Mordechai is needed, but when and if they do, he will most likely be called in to play a role.

Together with OC Central Command Maj.-Gen. Avi Mizrahi and his predecessor, current military attaché in Washington Maj.-Gen. Gadi Shamni, Mordechai has completely revolutionized the West Bank. If just up until a year ago, the Central Command’s official orders were to prevent terror and defend Israel, today there is another line that reads: “To continue civil and security cooperation with the PA.”

“Coordination is built-in to the military system today,” the senior officer explains.

The new reality has stood a number of recent tests and succeeded. First was Operation Cast Lead last winter. One would have expected, based on past experience, that the IDF would impose a full closure on the West Bank during the fighting in Gaza out of fear that it could also turn violent. But the decision was made to leave the crossings open and it paid off – no violence and no terrorism.

The next test came in October surrounding the Temple Mount. Then there was an arson attack against a mosque in the village of Yasuf. Most recently was last week’s raid on the international aid flotilla which ended with nine dead passengers. All of these ended without violence or an increase in terrorism in the West Bank.

This does not mean that the possibility for a new round of violence does not exist, but the understanding within the IDF is that for this to happen it would need to have the support of the PA and involve the security forces, most of which are undergoing USdirected training in Jordan.

Five US-trained battalions have already deployed in cities including Jericho, Nablus, Jenin and Hebron, alongside seven existing regional battalions. A sixth battalion has already left for Jordan for training and by the end of 2011 another five will have undergone training. Add the police and the Presidential Guard and the number of armed PA security officers will come to approximately 20,000.

But Israel is not overly concerned with this. While the PA has decided to boycott products produced in the settlements and fights Israel on the international front, it will, according to military assessments, take a lot for the current leadership – Fayyad and President Mahmoud Abbas – to abandon everything in a new intifada that will ultimately be smothered by the IDF.

Therefore, the Civil Administration’s current focus is on increasing coordination not just on security but also economics. The numbers speak for themselves.

In 2009, the number of cars imported into the West Bank climbed by a whopping 49.5 percent. In the first quarter of 2010, there was already an additional rise of 26.8%. In 2006, just as the second intifada was winding down, a mere 2,871 cars were imported. In 2009, the number was close to 15,000.

Take GDP as another example. In 2009, the GDP grew by 6.7%. World Bank predictions are that it will climb by another 8% this year. Profits for banks have also increased by 35%, as Palestinians last year deposited $6.2 billion.

Lastly, in 2002, 28.3% of Palestinians in the West Bank were without work. In 2005, the number dropped to 20%. Today, it is at 16.5%. In Israel, the unemployment rate is close to 8%. In Jericho it is 7%.

A lot of the improvement has to do with increased foreign investment – rising by the hundreds of millions of dollars on an annual basis – but also due to an Israeli decision to allow Israeli Arabs to travel freely with their own cars into Palestinian cities to purchase goods. On Fridays and Saturdays, PA police prevent residents from parking on streets at the entrance to the cities so there will be room for Israeli Arabs to park.

A lot of this has been made possible by the calculated risks Mizrahi and Mordechai have taken in lifting checkpoints and dirt roadblocks over the past two years. In 2008, there were 41 manned checkpoints.

Today, there are 14. This has a direct impact on regular people’s lives. If a Palestinian in Jenin used to pass four-to-five checkpoints on his way to Hebron, today he will pass one, which he will likely be waved through without having to stop.

The main challenge will come when Fayyad’s twoyear statehood plan, which calls for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state by the summer of 2011, comes to fruition. The PA could decide to take its case to the UN Security Council. If Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu feels under international siege due to the flotilla raid, it will be interesting to see how he reacts a year from now.

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