On Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and took the unusual step of traveling to the site where preschool teacher Batsheva Nigri, 42, was shot to death by Palestinian terrorists in front of her 12-year-old daughter on Highway 60 near Hebron in the West Bank.
Nigri, a mother of three who had grown up in Efrat, received a ride from her Beit Hagai home to nearby Kiryat Arba with neighbor Aryeh Gottlieb, 39, who was shot multiple times by the terrorists, but has been improving following surgery at Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba.
After inspecting the scene, Netanyahu and Gallant both made comments to the media, and they both pointed the finger of blame in the same direction, making their visit perfectly clear.
“We are in the middle of a terrorist onslaught that is encouraged, guided, and funded by Iran and its proxies,” said Netanyahu. “A significant portion of this wave of terrorism came from external guidance.”
Gallant, in his comments, added, “It is important to understand the significant change that is taking place on the ground – it is related to Iranian funding, and to the proliferation of weapons under the Iranian directive. Iran seeks every means to harm the citizens of Israel.”
Their decision to accuse Iran is important because it shows how the defense and security establishment is increasingly convinced that Iran is behind the increased attacks in the West Bank. This extends beyond what is already known about Iran’s backing of Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and Hamas. Iran’s hand is seeking to inflame the West Bank. This is also linked to the smuggling of weapons in the West Bank, as the statement noted “proliferation of weapons.”
“We will reach the terrorists,” the defense minister went on to say, “and we will take additional action in order to ensure the security of Israel’s citizens, while exacting a price from those responsible for any harm.”
Iran’s role in the West Bank
Iran’s role in supporting threats to Israel has led to an increase in violence in the West Bank. Iran’s own leaders and pro-regime media have revealed this over the last year. For instance, Iran’s regime has said in the past that it seeks to move weapons to the West Bank. In November 2021 then-defense minister Benny Gantz said that a drone launched from Syria in February 2018 had been carrying explosives for terrorists in the West Bank.
“In that case, Iran was using the drone for something we’ve never seen before: transferring weaponry to its proxies for use in terror attacks. The UAV was launched by Iranian emissaries in Syria, carrying an explosive package of TNT, and its destination was terrorist operatives in Judea and Samaria, and it was shot down by Israel near Beit She’an,” Gantz said.
In the last year Iran has mentioned the smuggling of weapons to the West Bank, and recently the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force head, Esmail Qaani, pointed to increased attacks on Israel. He didn’t say whether these were carried out by Iran’s proxy, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, in the reports, but he did openly discuss the attacks.
“Recently, 15 to 30 attacks are carried out daily in the West Bank by the resistance forces against the Zionist regime,” Qaani said, according to Tasnim news. The term “resistance” is used by Iran to describe Hamas, Hezbollah, and Islamic Jihad.
Al-Mayadeen news also revealed in July that Hamas was using improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, in the West Bank. That report noted that these are linked to the similar Iranian-style and IEDs used by Hezbollah and Iran-backed groups in Iraq. These are generally called EFPs and were used against US forces in Iraq after 2003.
Iran’s goal today has matured from its historic support of groups like Hamas, PIJ and Hezbollah. Iran wants to increase threats in many sectors and areas, including inflaming the West Bank.
Amikam Norkin, the former head of the Israel Air Force, gave a recent interview in which he said: “I strongly suggest not being dismissive of our enemies. When we look at what’s happening today in Iran, as compared with 10 years ago, the situation is different in terms of the scale of the targets, level of protection, air defense and detection capabilities. The whole picture has changed.”
He said it is important “prepare for a multi-arena war. That is what’s needed from the personnel, and that is the approach today. We don’t just ask ourselves whether we have the ability to attack target A or B, but if the capability exists to attack a broad range of targets a number of times, and whether we have the ability to conduct a war simultaneously in additional arenas. That is the cardinal question.”
Iran is trying to move its pawns in the region closer to Israel to create more threats in the case of the multi-arena or multifront war.
Israel has been practicing for such a scenario. In June the IDF completed the Firm Hand exercise. This drill simulated dealing with operational challenges in all operational arenas and in a multitude of arenas simultaneously, the IDF said. It took place over two weeks and included the 91st Galilee Division as well as elements of the 36th Ga’ash Division, and soldiers from the Infantry, Armored, Combat Engineering and Artillery corps, in cooperation with the IAF, the Intelligence Directorate and the J6 and Cyberdefense Directorate.
The IDF noted at the time: “The first part consisted of training in defense scenarios in large numbers along the Lebanese Front, and in the second part, the division practiced wide-ranging offensive scenarios.
“Simultaneously, the Israeli Air Force trained in the opening of intense combat, complex aerial defense scenarios that included thousands of interceptions, outlining strategic strikes deep in enemy territory, achieving aerial superiority in the region and extensive striking of thousands of targets, using hundreds of aircraft from all arrays.”
In June of 2022 the IDF also conducted an exercise in Cyprus practicing for operations far from Israel’s borders, deep in a simulated environment, practicing for potential conflict with Iranian-backed groups.
Iran has been Israel’s main enemy for many years. In recent years Israel has tackled this threat in various ways, creating Depth Corps, establishing a Third Circle Directorate and modernizing the IDF with a new multidimensional unit, and engaging in the “war between the wars” campaign.
Iran has been making moves in Syria and to unify various threats across the region. For instance, Iran sought after 2017 to encourage militias in Iraq to threaten Israel via Syria. This meant that groups such as Kataib Hezbollah began to play a role in Syria’s Albukamal, and Iran moved to ship weapons via Iraq through al-Qaim to Albukamal and then onward to places like the T-4 base where the drone was launched in February 2018.
Iranian-backed proxies such as Hezbollah have also become bolder, moving to create provocation on Israel’s northern border over the last year. Hezbollah was emboldened by a maritime deal which it thinks made Israel look weak. Iran believes that it has many options now to threaten Israel. It can encourage Hamas operations in Gaza, such as Hamas recently flying drones over Gaza; it can seek to empower PIJ and Hamas in the West Bank, exploiting the power vacuum left by the weakened Palestinian Authority; and it can make moves in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq.
The recent terrorist attack in the West Bank and Iran’s boasting about its ability to influence attacks in the West Bank showcase the danger of Tehran’s hand. If Tehran is behind increased weapons smuggling, and if it thinks it can carve out a mini-Gaza in Jenin, it will be able to create yet another arena of threats. Although Israel has worked to prevent this, the recent attack illustrates the current challenges ahead.
Iran has a political track to this threat as well. It wants the Syrian regime to be legitimized in the region, while it views with suspicion any potential Saudi-Israel ties. If it can increase the legitimacy of Syria, where it operates, while inflaming the West Bank to force Israel to concentrate closer to home, it may see this as a major success. •