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Ongoing Samaria terror will likely lead to military campaign

The P.A. has become largely irrelevant in trouble spots, and more significant Israeli military action is likely unavoidable.

Israeli soldiers during the raid in Al-Yamun, near Jenin, to arrest Maher Aseid, May 24, 2023. Credit: IDF.
Israeli soldiers during the raid in Al-Yamun, near Jenin, to arrest Maher Aseid, May 24, 2023. Credit: IDF.

The security situation in Judea and Samaria remains disturbingly unstable, with terror attacks repeatedly targeting Israeli civilians and military positions, particularly in Samaria.

On May 30, 32-year-old father of two Meir Tamari was murdered in a drive-by shooting near Hermesh, west of Jenin. In the days preceding that attack, Palestinian gunmen fired on Mevo Dotan in northern Samaria and Gan Ner in Gilboa.

The Israel Defense Forces launched “Operation Break the Wave” in early April 2022 in response to a series of deadly terror attacks. Though the operation is estimated by the Israeli defense establishment to have saved hundreds of Israeli lives, it has not been able to quell the ongoing terrorism stemming from Samaria.

Israeli observers have told JNS that a wider military operation could become unavoidable.

Intifada reality

Professor Kobi Michael, a senior researcher at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies and former head of the Palestinian desk at Israel’s Strategic Affairs Ministry, said that the Palestinian Authority has become almost irrelevant, and for all intents and purposes has ceased to exist in northern Samaria.

Meanwhile, he said, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, with the backing of Iran and Hezbollah, took advantage of the vacuum over the past year to boost its presence in the sector. Since then, he said, the situation has deteriorated further.

“Now we see terror organizations that are not established—not Hamas or PIJ—but rather localized groups, like Lions’ Den. They are not affiliated with established terror organizations, but are still supported by them, through weapons, funds and political support. There is a sense of unity among the ranks,” he said.

He went on to state that he was aware of some 20 localized terror organizations active in the area, with high motivation to strike Israelis and take on the IDF.

“The fact that the IDF is not able to bring down the level of terror, that Jewish civilians in Judea and Samaria are in distress and threatened, that the groups continue to try and strike in Israel from Judea and Samaria, and can drag in this big army, the IDF—this is for them is big achievement,” said Michael.

“The incidents are moving to other areas too—Jericho, Hebron, Ramallah and the Jerusalem envelope. We are in an intifada reality that we are denying. I don’t think it can continue like this,” he said.

IDF Col. (res.) Moshe Elad, one of the founders of security coordination between Israel and the P.A. and  a lecturer at the Western Galilee College in northern Israel, said, “The solution will be through an operation against terror organizations, but that requires intelligence and this is something that needs to be waited on. In the meantime, the treatment will be pinpoint, and aimed at [particular] cells and terrorists.”

According to Elad, contrary to public expectations there is little point in launching a second “Operation Defensive Shield,” referring to the large-scale IDF offensive in 2002 in Judea and Samaria to extinguish a wave of deadly suicide bombings and shootings.

“That’s because ‘Defense Shield’ gave the IDF the possibility of reaching terror groups—paths that had been blocked until then because of the failed Oslo Accords,” he said. “Today, there is no such problem, and therefore, there is no need for a second ‘Defensive Shield.'” 

Michael argued that June 2022 would have been the more optimal timing for a larger Samaria operation.

“It should have been launched then, but it will likely need to happen now with more cost, more effort, more issues with international legitimacy,” he said.

“This will have to be a significant operation that goes after terrorist infrastructure in northern Samaria. It could have a big impact, which, in turn, can strengthen the P.A.’s rule there by enabling it to refill the vacuum.”

Elad shared the assessment that the next military operation will be more difficult and will stir up a global storm of controversy, which will include international pressure for a rapid conclusion. With a window that likely won’t be long, Israel might not have the time it needs to deal with the threat.

“In total, there are three to four centers in Samaria and Judea where focused operations can occur, but the known problem of acting in heavily populated civilian areas could cause casualties, and subsequently, lead to pressure to stop the operation,” he said. “This is a complex problem that has no easy solution.”

Michael stated that “Israel is working according to a strategy that is based on precise intelligence and elite forces raids. This creates a very high level of friction [with Palestinians], alongside security achievements—terrorists arrested and killed,” he said. “But it also creates a bigger motivation to respond to this. Every operation in which a Palestinian is killed produces a new national hero for Palestinians, with a square or maybe a school named after him. It spreads on social media and becomes a major Palestinian event.”

 He described a new generation of Palestinians that rejects the status quo “comprising both an Israeli presence and the P.A., which it sees as a collaborator with Israel. It fights against the existing order, seeking to shatter it,” he said.

Elad described the general situation as falling under the description of “everything being stuck.”

As time goes by, Elad said, it becomes clear that the P.A. is not functioning, and has no motivation to do so.

The local Palestinian population, meanwhile, is increasingly talking about a binational state, “which is something that the leaders of Israel oppose and will want to prevent,” he said, both among the center-left and the right.

“The question is, when will the P.A. fall or collapse?” he said.

A second phenomenon, Elad added, is the lack of any third party acting as a mediator. With the United States “busy mainly with itself, and Arab states like Saudi Arabia setting unreasonable conditions for negotiations, like the [2002 Arab Peace Initiative]. We are stuck,” said Elad.

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