‘A West Bank Ruin, Reborn as a Peace Beacon.” That was the headline of a New York Times article in September 2008 celebrating a pilot program – supported by Israel and the international community – to create a model for successful Palestinian governance in Jenin.
The plan envisioned a reinforcement of PA security forces in the Jenin area and Israel, which wanted to support it, implemented economic and civil measures to improve the living conditions of the local residents.
In the article, US Gen. James L. Jones, at the time the special American envoy to the region and later former US president Barack Obama’s national security advisor, said: “I see this as a kind of dress rehearsal for statehood, a crucible where the two sides can prove things to each other.”
Then, the pilot was celebrated as a model for what can happen throughout the West Bank. A large number of construction projects were approved, an industrial zone was established and sewage and electricity infrastructure was upgraded.
Israel did its part. It loosened restrictions to enable the free flow of goods, pulled back its forces, and allowed Israeli-Arabs to enter Jenin – Area A is usually off limits to Israeli citizens – with the aim of boosting the local economy.
It’s interesting to recall those days of hope for economic prosperity and PA governance in Jenin after this week’s military operation (someone needs to help the IDF come up with better names for its operations than “Home and Garden”). Peace beacon? Crucible for both sides? That is anything but Jenin today, which instead has turned into the epicenter for Palestinian anti-Israel terrorism in the West Bank.
The Jenin operation was a success
OVERALL, THE operation was a success. Terrorist infrastructure was discovered and destroyed, weapons and explosive devices were confiscated, and the Palestinians killed were almost all known terrorists and card-carrying members of Islamic Jihad or Hamas. Such results, in such a dense urban setting, are unheard of on the modern battlefield.
But this is a far cry from a defeat of terrorism. Most of the gunmen in Jenin went underground or fled the refugee camp during the IDF operation, preferring to live to fight another day than to die this week. They will return to the camp, rebuild the damaged infrastructure, start to make bombs again, and continue to orchestrate attacks against Israelis – in the West Bank and over the Green Line.
That is why while this operation was nothing like Defensive Shield in 2002 in its scope or duration, it is similar in its objective. Defensive Shield was launched after hundreds of Israelis had been murdered in horrific suicide attacks emanating from Palestinian cities that Israel had withdrawn from years earlier and over which it had transferred control to the Palestinian Authority. The operation 22 years ago was a return of the IDF to all parts of the West Bank and it has continued to operate freely in them since then.
That is what “Home and Garden” means to achieve as well. The IDF went into Jenin, mowed the metaphorical terror lawn with the aim of returning in the days and weeks to come as intelligence dictates regarding terrorist suspects, weapons caches, and attacks that are being set into motion.
When thinking about Jenin though, it is hard to forget the not-so-distant past when it represented hope. A number of factors contributed to the change.
The first was the breakdown of the PA and the decision by its security forces to stop entering the refugee camp and the city. This has been the case for a couple of years and is mostly an illustration of the weakness of the PA, its ineffectiveness, and the growing power of terrorist forces in the West Bank.
For years, Israeli intelligence officials have warned that when PA President Mahmoud Abbas steps down or passes away, Israel will miss the man who might have unforgivably paid salaries to jailed terrorists, but openly condemned terrorism. The reason this will happen, they say, is because Hamas and Islamic Jihad will try to take over and have a chance of succeeding. The first place they will do so will be in Jenin.
THE OTHER catalyst for the deterioration of the situation in Jenin is Iran. The West Bank is a perfect example of the destabilizing role Iran plays in the region. While the world tends to focus its attention on Iran’s nuclear program and its continued enrichment or uranium, the threat from Tehran is much more and plays out in places like Jenin.
Iran is frustrated by its failure to exact revenge and settle the score with Israel over its covert operations inside Iran as well as the frequent attacks against its infrastructure in Syria. What it can do though, is send money to terrorists in Jenin, try to smuggle weapons into the West Bank from Lebanon, Jordan, or Egypt, and give instructional and ideological support to these Palestinian factions.
While this is nowhere near the threat level of what a nuclear bomb would one day pose to Israel, terrorist attacks undermine national security, people’s quality of life, and have the potential to hurt the economy. With Palestinians from Jenin responsible for 50 attacks in the last few months, this effort was clearly bearing fruit.
And we cannot ignore another catalyst for this violence – the lack of hope and of any diplomatic breakthrough on the horizon. Israel needs to fight aggressively against all acts of terrorism but at the same time, it cannot pretend that the solution is only a big stick. The youth who are participating in these attacks were born during the Second Intifada. They have only known periods of violence, despair, and zero political engagement between Ramallah and Jerusalem.
No future means no hope, and no hope also contributes to terrorism. It doesn’t make a difference who is at fault for the lack of progress – the PA or Israel – but we cannot ignore that this is also part of the reality and a piece of the puzzle.
A comparison can be made with the Gaza Strip where Hamas has sat out two of the recent conflicts – one in Gaza a few months ago and one this week in Jenin. If in the past, Hamas would have immediately joined the fray to be able to claim ownership over the West Bank and Gaza, today it does not.
One of the reasons is that the economic situation in Gaza has improved since Palestinian workers started crossing into Israel every day, something Hamas cares deeply about. It does not want to see that fall apart because of a conflict it is not (yet) really interested in.
Terrorism is not something that can easily be defeated, if at all. To win, a strategic and holistic approach is needed, otherwise, the operation in Jenin will remain just that – a single operation.
The writer is the immediate past editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.