OpinionIsrael-Palestinian Conflict

Israel is struggling with incitement in Judea and Samaria

With Jerusalem unlikely to decide on the annexation of Judea and Samaria in the foreseeable future, officials appear intent on maintaining the fragile status quo.

The scene of a car-ramming attack at the Te’enim checkpoint, near Tulkarm in Judea and Samaria, Dec. 6, 2021. Credit: Israeli Defense Ministry Border Crossing Authority.
The scene of a car-ramming attack at the Te’enim checkpoint, near Tulkarm in Judea and Samaria, Dec. 6, 2021. Credit: Israeli Defense Ministry Border Crossing Authority.
Eyal Zisser
Eyal Zisser is a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University.

Jerusalem’s security outlook, which goes back to the days of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, is focused first and foremost on responding to existential threats. In the past, this meant regular Arab armies that threatened to invade its territory. Today, the country is investing great effort in thwarting the Iranian nuclear threat.

The arsenal of missiles at the disposal of Hezbollah and Hamas may not constitute an existential threat but could result in loss of life and material damage, disrupt the lives of Israeli citizens and harm the proper function of vital systems.

In contrast to these threats, the ongoing security challenge in Judea and Samaria is deemed to be of secondary importance. It may make the headlines every once in a while, in particular following a stabbing or vehicular assault. It is doubtful that decision-makers have come up with a solution to this challenge, let alone given it the necessary attention.

National security cannot be summed up as merely defending citizens from existential threats. It focuses on providing a sense of security that allows the state’s citizens to maintain their daily routine, without fear. And so, every time terrorist attacks make life intolerable, the ongoing security challenge forces the government to respond.

The infiltration of the fedayeen [guerilla fighters] into Israel in the 1950s did not constitute an existential threat to Israel. Yet concerns over the deterioration of national resilience and a fatal blow to routine life led Ben-Gurion to launch the Sinai campaign against Egypt in October 1956 to put an end to the issue. This is also how the Fatah organization’s terrorist attacks on Israel from Syria in the mid-1960s escalated into the 1967 Six-Day War.

How, then, can Israel contend with the threats it faces in Judea and Samaria? These currently comprise “lone-wolf” attacks that are difficult to predict and impossible to prevent. One must keep in mind, though, that just 20 years ago, in the days of the Second Intifada, suicide attackers emerged from this territory who killed hundreds of people and paralyzed Israeli life.

The shift from spontaneous, lone-wolf attacks to organized terrorist attacks requires motivation, which exists in both the Palestinian public and Hamas. It also requires operational capability, something security forces invest great efforts to prevent, and their success in these efforts should not be taken for granted. Apart from this, there are always concerns that Palestinian Authority mechanisms could collapse, leading to anarchy and mass riots that would turn the international heat up on Israel.

The difference between the other arenas Israel must contend with and Judea and Samaria, and apparently eastern Jerusalem as well, is rooted in the intentional ambiguity Israel has fostered regarding its conduct in the area.

Judea and Samaria is “here,” not beyond the border, and to many Israelis, it is an inseparable part of the State of Israel that should be annexed at the appropriate time. In contrast to Judea and Samaria, the Gaza Strip is “there,” beyond the border.

On the other hand, Israel has refrained from annexing Judea and Samaria. Doing so may have drawn international criticism, but a large part of the Palestinian population would have welcomed the move out of a desire to integrate economically into Israeli life. Such a move would also ease security tensions and make it easier for security forces to operate in the area. Likewise, Israel maintains full security control of the territory, while at the same time allowing the Palestinian Authority to operate inside it.

The P.A. may maintain security ties with Israel, but it also lends its hand to incitement and fosters an atmosphere of hatred, which serves as fertile ground for violence. With Jerusalem unlikely to make a decision on the future of Judea and Samaria, Israel is destined to contend with the existing reality of this complicated arena for the foreseeable future.

The Israeli response is therefore to maintain the fragile status quo in an effort to maintain stability and prevent cycles of violence. This is done through silent assistance to the P.A., which constitutes a partner for managing the Palestinian population that lives in Judea and Samaria. Jordan, too, is a vital partner in this effort. Unlike the Sinai Peninsula, which was Hamas used to smuggle missiles in from Iran, the Jordanians maintain a quiet and secure border and have prevented local terrorist groups in Judea and Samaria from connecting to Hamas terrorists or other radical organizations.

The significance of this, however, is that Israel is reconciling with the reality of sizzling embers of incitement and terrorism, in the hope that it will prevent a major flare-up of both suicide attacks and widespread riots.

And yet, this reality is preferable by far to a total withdrawal from the territory. Disengagement could turn Judea and Samaria, like Gaza and Southern Lebanon before it, into an arena run by Hamas, which is armed with enough weapons to strike the entire Dan Region. To many Israelis, the current reality is preferable also to the provision of Israeli citizenship to Palestinian residents of Judea and Samaria, a move Israel would be unable to avoid were it to annex the territory.

Eyal Zisser is a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University.

This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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