Itamar Ben-Gvir seems to have forgotten what it means to be a member of the security cabinet. On Tuesday, after the horrific murder of four Israelis outside the community of Eli in the West Bank, he put on his rabble-rouser hat, went to the scene of the attack and called on the IDF to demolish buildings.
Demolish buildings? That is what is needed? It was a strange demand but one that he could push for in the appropriate security forums, not at the scene of a terrorist attack. The problem is that he is not invited to those forums since even in the cabinet they no longer take him too seriously.
But then again, it is these kinds of solutions that can be expected from a person who – even after six months in government – seems to not yet realize what responsibility means. And that is kind of how his entire party operates.
MK Almog Cohen, one of Ben-Gvir’s choices to serve in the Knesset, yelled at the head of the Ben-Shemen Youth Village this week and said that he will personally come to the place in a few weeks and “blow up” a camp that will be hosted there.
What bothered Cohen so much that he yelled and threatened a youth village director? The fact that it will host kids attending a summer camp run by the Parents Circle, a joint Israeli-Palestinian NGO that brings families who have lost a loved one – on both sides of the conflict – together to attempt reconciliation.
No one is forcing Cohen’s three children to attend the camp but that is not why he wants to “blow it up” as he said. Like Ben-Gvir, they do not want anything that is even a private attempt at reconciliation to take place. Israel, for them, needs to constantly be in conflict and at war.
If Ben-Gvir wasn’t in government, his frustration would be understandable. Since this government took office with a promise that it would restore order and security to Israel’s streets, over 100 Israeli-Arabs have been killed in criminal killings and 25 Israeli Jews have been killed in terrorist attacks.
There have been more than 100 shooting attacks in the West Bank so far this year, continuing the increase in 2022 when there were more than 200 attacks compared to the previous year when there were just about 70. Clearly, there is a terror wave that needs to be defeated.
Why did Palestinians kill four Israelis outside Eli in the West Bank?
The question that Israel needs to ask is not why four people were killed outside of Eli on Tuesday – which will have a tactical answer that will be solved by a roadblock or modifications to troop deployments – but rather why it keeps happening and why the number of attacks is consistently on the rise.
The easy answer is to simply say that the Palestinians hate Israelis and want to kill them. If that is the answer then what Ben-Gvir suggests is an appropriate response. Israel should demolish some buildings, kill some people in targeted killings from the air and instill the fear of the IDF in a few million people.
For this reason, the IDF is opposed to a large-scale operation right now in the West Bank. What happened in Jenin on Monday when a large bomb went off next to a military vehicle – reminding commanders of past battles in Gaza and Lebanon – is a grave escalation that needs to be confronted. The drone attack on Wednesday night against an Islamic Jihad cell was an appropriate response. What is happening now is an extension of the past year that saw the IDF being forced to increase its efforts to dismantle new terrorist infrastructure.
While Ben-Gvir might use rhetoric that is extreme, there are growing voices within the settlement community, as well as among some of the more moderate right-wing politicians, that a large-scale operation – style Defensive Shield in 2002 – is required. For now, the IDF is pushing back since it does not yet see the benefit such an operation could bring Israel beyond what the more pinpointed operations are already doing.
Why does the IDF not want a Defensive Shield style operation now?
There are three primary reasons. First, there is no disconnecting the political and social environment in the West Bank from the escalation in violence. There is no political horizon, the Palestinian Authority has been in decline for years and there does not look like any change in the near or even long-term future. Instead, these young Palestinians – who don’t know a different period – see normalization with Abraham Accords countries and hear about possible rapprochement with Saudi Arabia and feel that they are being left behind. A large-scale operation might buy some quiet for a period of time but it is not – in any way – a comprehensive solution.
The second reason has to do with PA President Mahmoud Abbas. Recent months have seen increasing reports about his health and the succession process. There is no clear next-in-line and Israel is afraid that when Abbas passes away or simply decides to resign, the situation will anyhow escalate. Israel prefers to try and contain the situation until then, so it can remain focused for when that might happen.
The third reason is that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu knows that the way you start an operation is almost never the way you finish it. There are complications, things go wrong and mistakes are made. Israel is currently in a delicate situation. On the one hand, it is trying to advance a possible diplomatic deal with Saudi Arabia and on the other hand, it is trying to get the Biden administration to increase its demands in a new interim nuclear deal with Iran.
The tweet on Tuesday night by US Ambassador Tom Nides that seemed to equate the Palestinian deaths in Jenin on Monday and the four Israelis murdered outside of Eli on Tuesday might have been a slip of the tongue, but it also might represent a growing frustration in Washington with the Netanyahu government that does not seem to be going in the direction Biden would like it to.
The violence in the West Bank is not going away anytime soon and the IDF will need to continue to crack down and increase its counterterror operations. But a deeper analysis of the situation is needed than what Ben-Gvir and his allies offer. That is what the government needs to focus on figuring out.
The writer is the immediate past editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.