Hamas in Gaza fails to ignite similar violence in the West Bank

Hamas is not the only entity trying to set things on fire. Iran and its proxies, such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah, have sought to infiltrate the West Bank and create armed cells there.

Palestinians participate in a rally in Nablus marking the 30th anniversary of the founding of Hamas. Credit: Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90.
Palestinians participate in a rally in Nablus marking the 30th anniversary of the founding of Hamas. Credit: Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90.

One of the major objectives of Hamas is to spread violence and instability from its own turf in the Gaza Strip across the State of Israel to the West Bank—a goal that Hamas leaders have openly and repeatedly expressed.

Yet despite months of violence occurring along the Gaza-Israel border, the West Bank has remained quiet for the most part, marking a significant setback to Hamas’s ambitions.

In Gaza, Hamas is using the violence as a means to force others—Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt and the international community—to save the declining Gazan economy and its equally deteriorating civilian infrastructure. Hamas is also seeking to win points and legitimacy in the global court of public opinion.

The terror organization wants to see border crossings with Gaza opened and to improve the purchasing power of Gazan civilians, which is currently extremely low, before the economy collapses, which would threaten its rule.

Hamas’s game plan appears to be fairly intricate, yet clear. In Gaza, it is engaged in brinkmanship, initiating a controlled escalation of the situation, but stopping short of a dramatic armed conflict that could cost it dearly. In the West Bank, however, Hamas would, if it could, ignite a full-scale armed insurgency against its rival, the Palestinian Authority, overthrow it and launch waves of deadly terrorist attacks on Israeli targets.

‘Like an octopus, trying to insert tentacles’

So why has Hamas failed to rally the West Bank or set up shop in it?

For one thing, Col. Dror, head of the Israel Defense Forces Judea and Samaria Division Headquarters, said Hamas does not govern Palestinians in the West Bank. The P.A. does. And the P.A. uses its security forces to crack down hard on Hamas.

“If Hamas saw a situation in which it could rise to power in Judea and Samaria, it would do so. There’s no question. That’s why the P.A. acts against it. It’s acting in its interest. They don’t want to be thrown off roofs like they were in Gaza [during Hamas’s violent coup in 2007],” said Col. Dror. “The P.A. and its security forces have a directive against Hamas. Every time Hamas tries to raise its head, they operate against it.”

These actions are joined by Israel’s powerful intelligence coverage and security operations, deployed throughout the West Bank to break up Hamas armed cells as they form.

“Every time Hamas tries to set up infrastructure, or speaks or thinks about it, we usually know about it and we stop them,” said Col. Dror. “In Gaza, they are relatively free to act. In Judea and Samaria, we have operational and intelligence superiority. That does not mean that Hamas can’t pull off a terrorist attack tomorrow. But in the territories, it has two entities—Israel and the P.A.—that make it very difficult for Hamas to raise its head.”

Hamas is not the only one trying to set the West Bank on fire. Iran and its various proxies, such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad and even Hezbollah, have sought to infiltrate the West Bank and create armed cells there.

“In general,” said Col. Dror, Iran will go in and destabilize wherever it can—in the north, the south, anywhere. It is like an octopus, trying to insert tentacles.”

For the Israeli defense establishment, what matters most is the ability to detect and thwart such time bomb threats before they go off.

“Anyone seeking to destabilize things, anyone planning attacks, it doesn’t matter who they are. We can get to them. It can take a little time, but we will reach them,” said Col. Dror. “We can get to any point in Judea and Samaria, at any time, in the manner that we want.”

Another key factor keeping things calm is the quality of life for Palestinians in the West Bank, which has risen, making ordinary Palestinians more reluctant to get involved in violence.

“In Gaza, they don’t have much to lose. The economy is bad. The electric supply is poor. In Judea and Samaria, the situation is different. I’m not saying the situation is excellent, but the quality of life is higher. They have something to lose,” argued Col. Dror.

All of that would be undone by a new round of violence, he added. Checkpoints would reappear between Palestinian cities and town, and Israeli security raids, disrupting the fabric of Palestinian life, would intensify. These are things most Palestinians are now keen to avoid.

‘The situation is never fully stable’

Col. Dror recalled that in 2015, a wave of unorganized Palestinian attacks occurred in the West Bank, but because they failed to accomplish a thing, the Palestinian public lost interest.

Still, he warned, the West Bank can always ignite into violence, if sensitive pressure points like Jerusalem are triggered. “The situation is never fully stable,” said Col. Dror. “But relative to Gaza, it is more stable.”

In order to further boost this stability, the IDF takes steps aimed at reducing unnecessary friction with the Palestinian population when possible. During the current Muslim holiday of Ramadan, for example, security raids into Area A have been reduced.

“We as a military have to see when it is right to act, how to act, when to move into Area A, and to know when it is necessary or not. This is how we activate force,” said Col. Dror. “We seek to decrease friction. … We go into Area A only when we need to.”

The IDF will not set up checkpoints on busy routes unless it learns of an immediate security threat. Otherwise, Col. Dror said, it advocates free Palestinian travel between cities.

Other steps that can reduce tensions include further improving the quality of life for Palestinians, he added, by doing things like building more roads and kindergartens, and creating more jobs.

“These are less military-security steps and more civilian-economic [ones]. Like in our own lives, when one experiences a rise in the quality of life, it is hard to go back,” he said. “One gets used to a higher quality of life.”

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