The fear that West Bank terror groups will eventually succeed in manufacturing Kassam rockets that will threaten the heart of Israel is a real one, but such a threat remains a long way off, Haruv Battalion commander Lt.-Col. Arik Hen told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.
Nonetheless, since disengagement, terror organizations in the Gaza Strip have intensified their attempts to transfer knowledge, funds and directives to those operating in the West Bank, he said during an interview at the Beit Iba checkpoint outside Nablus.
"Until now we have witnessed preliminary attempts by terrorists to build rockets, but I would like to remind you that that is how it started in Gaza. The first rocket had a 500-meter range and the second reached a kilometer, and from there it progressed," he said.
While the threat of Kassam attacks from the West Bank remains a distant one, once the terror groups attain the capability, it will force the army to change its deployment and adopt a different strategy, and possibly intensify its presence in West Bank cities, Hen added. "It is a situation that we will be unable to accept," he said.
Another cause for concern is the widespread use of minors by the terror groups, he said. "They are often used as scouts to track down the location of soldiers; terror groups take advantage of them to smuggle explosive belts, bullets and other weapons," Hen added.
He recalled the incident at the Beit Iba checkpoint outside Nablus last month in which soldiers caught two teens attempting to smuggle two explosive belts. Their arrest prevented a double suicide bombing, and security forces subsequently arrested the two would-be suicide bombers.
At the same checkpoint last week, a youth was caught attempting to smuggle a bag of 64 bullets through the checkpoint. "Soldiers asked him to lift his shirt, and the bag of bullets he had hidden in his underpants fell to the ground," he said.
The situation his soldiers are forced to confront daily is a complex one, he explained. "A soldier realizes that a firebomb thrown at him is life-threatening, no matter the age of the perpetrator," he said. "Not long ago we had a problem with firebomb attacks on cars between Yitzhar and the Giatt junction. For more than two weeks, we set up ambushes day and night. One night soldiers spotted three minors, one of whom threw a firebomb. The soldier, who was 60 meters from the perpetrator, aimed for his lower body after he saw he was young," said Hen, even though open-fire regulations in that specific area allow soldiers to shoot to kill.
Confronted with one of the largest and most complex regions in the West Bank - with an area that encompasses villages west of Nablus, the city itself and the adjacent refugee camp - the soldiers are also responsible for guarding settlements such as Shavei Shomron, Kedumim and Yitzhar.
"Nablus is considered a hotbed of terror. The threats stemming from the city require soldiers to operate intensively around the clock," he said. "The battle against terror does not end with the arrest of a fugitive, or the blowing up of a bomb factory. It is a constant battle, and despite the intensive complex operations conducted by my soldiers, they know that every act minimizes the chance of a terrorist blowing up in Israel," he said.
On Thursday morning, the Beit Iba checkpoint bustled with pedestrian and vehicular traffic, where soldiers daily check hundreds of Palestinians seeking to enter and exit Nablus.
A long, roofed cement corridor-like structure straddles the middle of the road, offering shelter to those waiting to undergo inspection. In the middle, two soldiers man a small command center where they used a computer to check the identity of everyone passing through.
One of the soldiers operated the turnstile, located meters from the position. One by one, people passed through the metal detector and then through the turnstile, submitting their identity papers for inspection and within a minute were passed through.
"There is no direct physical contact with the locals. Those who carry goods are required to place them on the table and open them up before they are permitted to continue," deputy battalion commander Maj. Gilad Farhi said.
A reinforced surveillance position that was transferred from Gush Katif after disengagement allows soldiers to monitor movements on the outskirts of Nablus. Farhi said up to 30 people are caught daily attempting to leave the city via the fields instead of going through the checkpoints.
"Usually they are just seeking a quick way to get out, but there have been instances in which suspected terrorists have been nabbed. The majority, however, are forced to return to Nablus and use the official checkpoints after their identities are checked," he said.