What is Israel's silent war on terror in the West Bank?

MILITARY AFFAIRS: West Bank Palestinian deaths tripled between 2020-2021 and the number is still climbing.

 PALESTINIANS CLASH with Israeli security forces near the West Bank village of Kafr Kaddum last week. (photo credit: JAAFAR ASHTIYEH/AFP via Getty Images)
PALESTINIANS CLASH with Israeli security forces near the West Bank village of Kafr Kaddum last week.
(photo credit: JAAFAR ASHTIYEH/AFP via Getty Images)

The masked Palestinian gunmen who issued a video warning to the IDF on Thursday morning not to enter Jenin have little to do with the shooting death of American-Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in that city in May while on assignment for the Al Jazeera network.

But the two narratives of an IDF operation against enemy combatants and the rights of a journalist or indeed any innocent civilian to move about safely within West Bank Palestinian cities against the backdrop of clashes between the Israeli army and Palestinians have merged in the public consciousness.

So much so that the US request that Israel review its military rules of engagement was met with a harsh retort from Prime Minister Yair Lapid.

He stated, “I will not let a fighter in the IDF who defended his life under fire from terrorists be prosecuted just so that we will receive applause abroad.”

“I will not let a fighter in the IDF who defended his life under fire from terrorists be prosecuted just so that we will receive applause abroad.”

Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid

For the US and indeed the Palestinians, the topic was press freedom and the protection of civilians in situations of combat. For Israel, it is about the war on terrorism. This is not because anyone thinks Abu Akleh was a terrorist, but because her death took place in the midst of an Israeli war on terrorism that few know about or have even paid attention to, known as Operation Break the Wave.

 Shireen Abu Akleh (credit: AL JAZEERA) Shireen Abu Akleh (credit: AL JAZEERA)

Israel's little-known war on terror: Operation Break the Wave

The operation began on March 31, after a slew of Palestinian terrorist attacks against Israelis left 11 people dead. Since then, Palestinian terrorism has claimed another seven lives. The last such fatal terrorist attack was on Independence Day, on May 5 in Elad.

The threat remains acute and  this week, seven Israelis were injured in an unusual terrorist attack against a bus in the Jordan Valley.

Break the Wave has involved scores of IDF raids into the West Bank, which have led to at least 1,500 arrests and thousands of Palestinian casualties, with a heavy focus on Jenin.

“Many suspected of committing security offenses are arrested, and weapons are seized. In some cases, intense exchanges of fire have even developed between terrorist operatives and IDF forces,” the IDF said.

“We will emphasize that the IDF does not target journalists, women or children,” it added.

In a public address this week, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kohavi emphasized that due to Operation Break the Wave, “hundreds of terror attacks have been prevented.”

The Palestinian Authority has not acted strongly enough to prevent terrorism, and as a result, it has flourished in certain areas of the West Bank, he explained.

“We will get to every neighborhood, ally, home and basement. Our only criterion is to secure and defend Israeli citizens. We will continue the operation, and, if we need to, we will expand it,” Kohavi said.

The threat level is very high and must be foiled, said Oz Noy, formerly of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and now a research fellow at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, Reichman University.

“We are in a vicious circle [where] the level of threats gets higher, there are more operation activities, foiling activity, and as long as there is more operation activity, there are more casualties and deaths,” he said.

“Always in the ISA [Israel Security Agency] and in the IDF as well, we are calculating the level of the threat that we need to foil and the level of the friction with the local terrorist activity and the chance that these operations will cause injury and death,” he said.

These operations, however, he said, are there only to save Israeli lives.

Even before Operation Break the Wave, however, Palestinian and IDF violence was already high.

The year 2020 was among the quieter ones in the West Bank, with 20 Palestinian deaths at the hands of Israeli security forces and one Israeli civilian victim of terrorism and one Israeli Border Police officer. A third victim of terrorism that year was killed in Petah Tikva, within sovereign Israel.

The situation shifted dramatically in 2021, when the number of Palestinian deaths jumped to 73, a 265% increase based on UN numbers. By August 29 this year, there were 69 Palestinian fatalities, including Abu Akleh, and that number is only climbing and very likely to outstrip last year’s figures.

According to the UN, 22 of the West Bank Palestinian fatalities in 2021 and six so far in 2022 occurred during attacks or alleged or attempted terrorist attacks against Israelis.

Many of the others were killed in situations of violent clashes with the IDF. Fatalities in all the cases, including Abu Akleh’s, were from live-fire situations.

The spike in Palestinian deaths in 2021 was largely due to inflamed West Bank tensions as the result of the Gaza war in May known as Operation Guardian of the Walls and the clashes in the area of the Palestinian town of Beita due to the creation of the nearby Evyatar outpost.

Some 17 Palestinians were killed by Israeli security forces in the West Bank in the first three months of 2022, even prior to the launching of Operation Break the Wave.

The death of Shireen Abu Akleh and IDF rules of engagement

Abu Akleh’s death stands out for Palestinians. She was a popular television correspondent whose face had appeared for decades on their living room television screens. She has also come to represent those situations where innocent Palestinians are killed or are fatally shot in situations that do not warrant such a live-fire response, even as the IDF has stressed it takes utmost care to make sure that such deaths do not occur.

There is a particular focus on the IDF rules of engagement, which monitors situations where live fire is used, by way of preventing innocent deaths. The fact that the rules of engagement are classified makes pushing for change even more difficult.

The IDF said that “the use of live fire by the security forces is done after all other options are exhausted and in accordance with the opening-fire instructions that comply with the rules of international law.”

Dror Sadot, the spokeswoman for the left-wing B’Tselem NGO, disputes that. She pointed to, as just one example, a fairly unknown story that occurred on the same day of Abu Akleh’s death.

On the outskirts of the city of El-Bireh, near the Psagot settlement, some 10 Palestinian teens, on May 11, blocked an intersection and threw stones at soldiers from a vantage point of some 100 meters.

Thaer Mislet, 16, who was nearby but not involved in the violence, stopped to see what was going on and was fatally shot in the chest by an IDF soldier, according to B’Tselem.

Ziv Stahl, the executive director of the left-wing NGO Yesh Din, said she believes there is an increase in such incidents, but had not yet compiled the data to back up that assertion.

In the face of what we are seeing, “there is room to revise” the rules of engagement,” Stahl said.

“For sure, there should not be rules that allow soldiers to shoot people who are not posing a threat, even if they are standing near a riot,” she said.

“If they shoot, they should aim not to kill, which they say they do and are part of the rules of engagement, but somehow a lot of people get shot and not just below the knee,” she said, adding that she was speaking of noncombatants. These situations are not specific to Break the Wave and occurred before that operation, she said.

There was one woman in Jenin in 2020 who went to close a window in her home to keep out the tear gas, and was shot in the head and died, she said.

Such situations are happening more than before, Stahl said. In the case of Abu Akleh, “she was identified as press, so the chances that this was a mistake are not very high.”

The soldier “was standing 200 meters away. It sounds very suspicious” that he would not know she was a reporter, Stahl said.

Even in cases of Palestinian violence, it is not a situation of an army against an army, but one of a military acting against rioters.

“There are different situations, and the rules of engagement should be applied differently, according to the specific situation. Unfortunately, it’s not the case, and we see the use of lethal weapons in many situations that are not life-threatening,” she said.