Following another deadly terrorist attack in Jerusalem, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir started off a new debate by calling for a new “Defensive Shield”-style operation in east Jerusalem similar to what the IDF carried out in the West Bank in 2002.
Let’s put aside that Ben-Gvir cannot personally order this and it will not happen anytime soon because it would need IDF assistance, something beyond his power, and would take months to plan and build up, requiring a series of security cabinet meetings – not a declaration by one cabinet member.
Is he on to something?
How exactly is the country going to stop a wave of terror that emanates from east Jerusalem?
There are 350,000-400,000 east Jerusalem Arabs who have Israeli ID cards and can travel seamlessly anywhere in the country.
The IDF had authority to put extended lockdowns on West Bank cities and villages in 2002 because the Palestinians are not Israeli citizens and have some kind of foreigner status that at least arguably allows a variety of stern national security measures.
Security forces could kick in doors and search house to house day after day with no warrants or court hearings because they were hunting terrorists in a “foreign” territory of sorts, even if the Palestinians still formally lack statehood.
Essentially, Defensive Shield was declaring much of the West Bank to be under martial law with a constant military presence and a committed Israeli willingness to root out any terrorists.
No such authority exists in east Jerusalem.
In fact, most security incidents in east Jerusalem are handled by the police and not by the IDF.
The Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) does operate there, but at a much lower volume and profile.
Effectively, the IDF, the police and the Shin Bet cannot do anything to east Jerusalem Arabs that would be illegal to do in Tel Aviv, Petah Tikva or the western side of Jerusalem.
Put differently, if Israeli Jews do not want the security forces to take certain actions against them, they should probably hope that these actions do not happen in east Jerusalem.
Of course, it is not that simple.
Arabs in east Jerusalem have a special status and many of them have citizenship benefits, but not full citizenship. Their neighborhoods are part of the broader Israeli-Arab conflict and many of them also hope to someday be part of a Palestinian state.
Invariably, Israeli security forces in 2002 took heavy fire almost anytime they entered certain West Bank areas, something that rarely happens in east Jerusalem, and certainly not in the same volume.
But Israeli forces are much more timid in general in peacetime about too many loud and public activities in east Jerusalem neighborhoods as opposed to “regular” neighborhoods in Israel.
So much of east Jerusalem is nothing like the West Bank, but also not really like anywhere else within Israel.
However, we come back to the original bottom line: there is no obvious legal way to use force in east Jerusalem to block a terror wave the way there is in the West Bank.
During the Knife Intifada of 2015-2016, there were temporary barriers built between some east Jerusalem Arab neighborhoods and adjacent Jewish ones. The number of police was heavily increased with soldiers taking up other police positions or providing backup.
But this is not the same as building a permanent security wall to secure Israel’s border with the West Bank like it did during the Second Intifada in parallel to Operation Defensive Shield.
There is another option that no politicians are really talking about, but that some commentators and top former security officials have talked about in the past.
For example, Yoram Cohen, a life-long right-winger and observant Jew who ran the Shin Bet from 2011-2016, told The Jerusalem Post in a 2019 interview that he opposed a full Palestinian state, but would support a “Palestinian state-minus.”
In the context of such a Palestinian state-minus, which would have significant autonomy but still leave space for overall external Israeli security control, Cohen said that in the distant future he would “not view it as a disaster” if some of the all-Arab neighborhoods in east Jerusalem “which have no Jewish historical, religious or security value” would be part of a Palestinian autonomous-area.
He cited Jebel Mukaber, Sur Bahir, Sheikh Sa’d, Shuafat Refugee Camp and Isawiya as examples. Cohen is against ceding away the Mount of Olives or splitting the Old City.
This would sidestep the dispute of giving up formal sovereignty over Arab parts of east Jerusalem, which many in Israel oppose on a deep symbolic and historical level, but could suddenly free up Israel’s hand in areas of security.
If these areas became part of a Palestinian state-minus in terms of health services, education and other internal issues, it is possible that Israel might not need to continue to let all of those residents travel freely within the rest of the Green Line.
In addition, Israel might be able to justify building a more serious separation barrier between those neighborhoods and other neighborhoods in Jerusalem.
It might be possible to allow the IDF and the Shin Bet a freer hand if these east Jerusalem Arabs were basically part of a new Palestinian state-minus entity, which many of them have said they wanted to be part of.
In that case, if needed, a new Operation Defensive Shield, endorsed by the IDF and the full security cabinet after proper consideration, might be possible.
This would not solve all of the issues.
How would Israel deal with Arab east Jerusalemites who wanted to remain “Israeli”? Would it offer them full citizenship to move into western Jerusalem areas?
There would still be a significant number of Arabs in east Jerusalem neighborhoods who would remain – under Cohen’s plan – part of Israel.
For those who would be peaceful, everyone could enjoy the blessings of coexistence. For those who turned to terror, it would still be more complicated for Israel to cope with.
But Cohen’s idea, which has overlaps with the Trump plan and which some others have endorsed over the years, would allow Israel to potentially fight terror in many east Jerusalem neighborhoods without a hand behind its back – essentially where it is today.