(October 18, 2018 / JNS) As tensions mount in the Gaza Strip and Israel following a severe security escalation, the question of whether the West Bank will also flare up remains relevant. Israel’s defense establishment is working quietly around the clock to prevent large-scale terrorist attacks that are being planned by Hamas and other Palestinian factions. It has also worked to encourage new economic opportunities for West Bank Palestinians, which is seen as an Israeli security interest that helps prevent major disturbances or rioting.
Yet after a lengthy period of calm, the West Bank saw a number of terrorist attacks in recent days, including a deadly shooting by a lone Palestinian gunman on Oct. 7, who murdered two civilians at an industrial park. A stabbing attack came four days later, injuring a soldier and civilian. The gunman remains on the run, pursued by Israeli security services, while the knife attacker was caught a day after his attack in a joint operation by the Shin Bet intelligence service, special forces and the Israel Defense Forces.
A third attempted knife attack, targeting IDF soldiers in recent days, resulted in soldiers firing on and killing the assailant.
These incidents do not necessarily represent the start of any new wave of attacks and could reflect the “copycat phenomenon,” in which a high-profile and murderous atrocity leads others to attempt to replicate it.
They do, however, underline the risk that continues to be posed by unorganized, so-called “lone wolf” attackers, who are able to more easily evade Israeli intelligence. The Shin Bet has been using new technology to preemptively track down and dramatically reduce such unorganized attacks, but as recent weeks have shown, risks still remain.
The Shin Bet has also been very busy thwarting a different kind of threat— that of organized terrorism in the West Bank. This is a threat being spearheaded by Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Hamas in Gaza continues to launch daily efforts to remotely build terrorist cells in the West Bank, and dispatch them on bombing and shooting missions against Israelis on both sides of the Green Line.
Israel’s preventative counter-terrorism activities, which rely on nightly arrests and high-quality intelligence, stand in the way of these plots. Without such preventative action (which is rarely reported on), major levels of death and destruction would have plagued Israeli streets—meaning that the relative calm in the West Bank is utterly deceptive.
Despite this complex and ignitable situation—and despite the fact that volatile events in the Gaza Strip have the potential to spill over into increased violence in the West Bank—any such “knock on” effect is likely to be limited and short-lived, a senior former defense official told JNS.
‘There has been a total disconnect’
Dr. Col. (res.) Moshe Elad, one of the founders of security coordination between the IDF and the Palestinian Authority, noted that Gaza and the West Bank have been separated since 2007. As a result, he said, the West Bank “does not identify with Gaza” in any significant manner any longer. Gaza, on the other hand, continues to identify with the West Bank, he added.
“There has been a total disconnect,” said Elad. Any West Bank flare-up of violence sparked by events in Gaza would be tantamount to “lip service,” he assessed.
“The West Bank exists under different circumstances. It works differently with Israel. Therefore, there is no linkage,” said Elad.
Nevertheless, he cautioned, Hamas in Gaza is intent on preparing armed sleeper cells throughout the West Bank—not only to create an ability to attack Israel, but also to target its internal rival, the Palestinian Authority.
“They believe that the day will come when they can take over the West Bank, like they did in Gaza,” he said.
Elad explained that senior Hamas leader Salah Al-Arouri, who is currently based in Lebanon, manages this. “It has been exposed that he received a special budget to prepare an uprising in the West Bank. He is trying to arm sleeper cells for the day that Hamas decides to activate them,” said Elad. “They are waiting for when they think the time is ripe to launch a revolution.”
The IDF’s presence in the West Bank—intended to defend the 400,000-strong Israelis living in the settlements—is also therefore having a protective effect on the P.A., argued Elad. “Abbas won’t admit it, but this is the truth. He understands that we are his flak jacket,” he said.
“And it must be pointed out that cooperation between the IDF and the PA, in the pursuit of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, is excellent. What the PA does – closing Hamas offices, and arresting suspects, – is satisfactory to the IDF,” Elad said.
“I set up the coordination mechanism along with others in 1995, and commanded it for three years,” he added. “From what I understand today, it is working in an extraordinarily effective manner, which is good for both sides.”