Col. Avi Gil returned to the West Bank seven weeks ago and couldn't believe it was the same place he had left just two years before. Since 2007, Gil has served as the IDF's attachÃ© to the US Marines in Washington. In late November, he returned and took up his new post as commander of the Central Command's Efraim Regional Brigade, which is responsible for Palestinian cities like Tulkarm and Kalkilya, as well as Israeli settlements like Kedumim and Karnei Shomron.
Before becoming attachÃ© to the Marines, Gil served from 2005 to 2007 as the commander of the elite Duvdevan unit, which conducts undercover, high-profile arrest operations in the West Bank. Duvdevan carried out the operation in Nablus two weeks ago during which its soldiers killed the three Fatah gunmen who had murdered Rabbi Meir Chai in a drive-by shooting near his home in Shavei Shomron just two days earlier.
When Gil left for the US, Duvdevan was carrying out daily arrest operations in the West Bank. Today - under the current political climate - an operation like the one in Nablus two weeks ago is a rarity.
What has changed, as one senior IDF officer explained this week, was not the outbreak of peace, but rather a mutual interest shared by Israel and the PA to stop Hamas from growing in the West Bank. In simpler terms, the officer said, the PA does not want to see Fatah men thrown from the roofs of buildings in Nablus and Ramallah like they were thrown from the roofs of buildings in Gaza City during Hamas's violent takeover of the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2007.
There is also another difference - both Israel and the Palestinians are graduates of the Oslo Accords. Gil, for example, was a junior platoon commander in the Paratroop Brigade in 1993 when the IDF began joint patrols with the PA. This came to a violent end, however, with the eruption of the second intifada in 2000, when PA security personnel turned their weapons against the IDF.
The lesson has been learned. While the IDF is supporting the PA forces in the West Bank by allowing them to be trained by the US in Jordan and to deploy in most Palestinian cities, it is not interpreting this as peace, but rather as a shared interest. In other words, the understanding in the IDF is that if one day the shared interest fades, things in the West Bank could change as well.
For this reason, there are no joint patrols or transfer of security control over cities to the PA. While the IDF has scaled back its operations, it continues to retain operational freedom to go where it wants, when it wants.
The same cannot be said about the Gaza Strip. Since Operation Cast Lead ended a year ago, the IDF rarely enters the territory, and if so, only a few meters at a time to clear brush and search for roadside bombs.
The end of the second intifada and the IDF's clear and decisive victory over Palestinian terror in the West Bank has had a completely different effect on Fatah than it did on Hamas. For Fatah, the defeat reinforced the position - as voiced recently by PA President Mahmoud Abbas - that terror doesn't pay.
Hamas walked away slightly different. While the IDF defeated Palestinian terrorism in the West Bank, it also - at the same time - helped collapse the PA, which, combined with the unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2005, was one of the catalysts that contributed to Hamas's victory in parliamentary elections in 2006 and enabled its eventual takeover of Gaza a year later.
This led to another interesting phenomenon which further demonstrates the secular Fatah and religious Hamas divide.
IDF studies of Palestinian prisoners have shown that if you ask a Fatah terrorist why he killed an Israeli, the answer you will likely get is to "advance the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in my lifetime." If you ask the same question to a Hamas terrorist, the answer will likely be, "because this is what my religion dictates and this is how I ensure my place in heaven."
This is also the main difference today between the group's different leaders. Abbas talks about a resolution that can be achieved only though peace while Khaled Mashaal, the Hamas leader in Damascus, said recently in Iran that "peace talks are worthless and the path of the resistance is the only real option."
Mashaal, some here believe, is modeling himself after Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah. Before the Second Lebanon War in 2006, Nasrallah began talking as if he was a leader of the Arab world. This was apparent in his speeches encouraging resistance in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and, of course, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Mashaal is beginning to do the same - as demonstrated by his speeches, as well as his trip to Iran - but is coming under criticism for it. On a trip to Saudi Arabia earlier this week, he was asked during a press conference about the significance of his earlier trip to Iran. Mashaal replied that Hamas is friends with Iran - its greatest financial supporter - but is ultimately part of the "Arab world," in other words Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
The ideological difference between Mashaal and Abbas leads IDF intelligence analysts to predict that the reconciliation talks between Fatah and Hamas will fail, and that Palestinian elections will also not be held for at least another year.
IF THIS assessment is true, the question that needs to be asked is how can Israel talk about renewing peace talks with Abbas in the West Bank if there is no chance of him taking control of Gaza and implementing any peace deal there as well?
The answer is that there is currently zero likelihood of that happening, and, as a result, Israel is facing two options: Either continue to embrace the two-state solution, or begin to talk about the three-state solution - Israel, West Bank (Fatah) and Gaza (Hamas).
Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) chief Yuval Diskin, for example, is extremely skeptical of the possibility that Hamas will want to become part of a diplomatic resolution, and in recent closed-door meetings has gone as far as to say that the Hamas-Fatah divide will likely prevent an Israeli-Palestinian resolution for years to come.
Others in the defense establishment believe that even though Hamas will not be an active part of it, if a deal between Israel and Abbas is signed, it will create an umbrella under which Hamas will eventually be incorporated. This will not mean that Hamas will accept Israel's right to exist, but it will likely make the group more pragmatic.
Hamas's supposed pragmatic side is demonstrated by its repeated calls for an extended hudna - or cease-fire - if Israel were to withdraw to pre-1967 borders. This would not mean peace with Hamas, but rather a pragmatic deal that would allow the terror group to solidify its control and build up its military in Gaza.
The concern in Israel is that this so-called pragmatic side of Hamas will open the door for European countries to directly engage the group, a move that would severely undermine Abbas and Israeli efforts to renew peace talks with the PA.
Instead, for the time being, the likelier scenario for the defense establishment is a new conflict with Hamas. While Hamas has stopped its rocket attacks from Gaza and is even reining in other groups, the defense establishment is concerned with the possibility that it will try to launch a large-scale attack in the West Bank or even overseas, like Hizbullah.
OC Southern Command Maj.-Gen. Yoav Galant made that opinion clear this week when, in a meeting with local council heads from the South, he said: "While there hasn't been a quiet year like this in the past decade, the horizon is still not completely safe, and we are preparing for evil wherever it might be."
Some Israelis, though, appear to not want to wait for another round with Hamas. According to a poll taken by Ma'agar Mochot this week and commissioned by Independent Media Review and Analysis, headed by Dr. Aaron Lerner, 67 percent of Israelis support launching a military operation to destroy the tunnels Hamas uses along the Philadelphi corridor to smuggle weaponry and explosives into Gaza.
The same 67% believed that Israel also needed to declare a new policy under which it will no longer tolerate the digging of additional smuggling tunnels from Sinai into Gaza.