In the last few weeks, Jenin has become the main center of terror in Samaria, and as a result, the main focus of Israel Defense Forces activity. The terrorist who carried out the March 29 attack in Bnei Brak were from the village of Yabed, which is in the area, and the terrorist who carried out the April 9 attack in Tel Aviv came from the Jenin refugee camp.

These two terror attacks led the Israeli security forces to focus their efforts on northern Samaria, transferring large numbers of reinforcements to the area. The fear is that further terror attacks will require a broader operation that would also inflame other sectors in Judea and Samaria, and maybe eastern Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, as well.

It’s a complicated security-civil-economic effort, in which Israel attempts to distinguish between those involved in terrorism and those only seeking to work, and between various sectors of Arab society. The focus now is the Jenin area, where the mission is defined as “preventing the next terror attack at any price,” according to Menashe (Jenin) Brigade commander Col. Arik Moyal.

In an exclusive interview, his first since he took up the command, Moyal said that there were no restrictions on his operational activities, nor would there be in the future.

“We will operate in any place necessary, and at any time,” he said. “Our mission is to stop the wave [of terror], and to return quiet to this sector. We won’t stop until it happens; it will take as long as it takes,” he added.

Moyal, 41, married to Emunah (whose brother, Lt. Amichai Merhavia, was killed in the 2006 Second Lebanon War in the Battle of Bint Jbeil), and a father of eight (the eldest is 14, the youngest is eight months). Originally from Beersheva, he lives in Kfar Tapuach. He joined the Nahal Brigade’s special forces (“Would you believe that they accepted a Moroccan like me there?”), and eventually commanded the unit. He was a Nahal battalion commander and an operational commander of the Southern Command, while at the same time completing an MBA.

Moyal hasn’t been home for Shabbat for four weeks straight, ever since the current terror wave began. Event follows event, and each day brings operations the next night. He lives on a few hours of sleep and many cups of coffee. But despite the intensity, he makes sure to appear relaxed, and, most importantly, speaks eye to eye.

He’s worth listening to. Those who accuse him of holding back or blinking in the face of terror don’t know the man. As a resident of one of the most ideological settlements in Samaria, you don’t need to teach him about determination. On the other hand, he understands that life in this sector is complicated, and that the Palestinians aren’t going anywhere.

“We can kill fugitives all the time. It’s really not a problem. I can finish every operation with injuries on the other side, but it won’t lead to anything,” he said. “It’s my obligation to see the wider picture. To understand that every event with injuries can set my sector alight, and maybe all of Judea and Samaria. We want to avoid this, and therefore from my perspective an arrest operation that finishes without casualties is an achievement—and this is what I demand from my forces.”

He is convinced that commanders in the field have an obligation to take the long view— to also think about the day after. To understand the sensitivity.

“In the long term, we want there to be a different reality here. The Jenin economy has been crazy in the last few years. On Saturdays more than 3,000 Arab Israeli vehicles enter via the Jalama [Gilboa] checkpoint. They come to do shopping, and they leave millions of shekels in Jenin. The stores and the commerce are flourishing. The rentals are sky high, and so are the proceeds. It’s good for the local economy, and it’s good for us, because they have something to lose.”

He is convinced that most of Jenin’s residents hate the refugee camp, and the reality that the entire sector is dragged toward it.

“At the end of the day, the majority want to live. To make a living. They understand that the refugee camp is taking them backwards. That the terror which comes from there destroys them. They would be very happy if we would deal with that place,” he said.

The same revolving door

The Jenin refugee camp has always been synonymous with “muquwama”—Palestinian “resistance.” Before “Operation Defensive Shield” in 2002, a stream of terrorist attacks in Israeli cities emanated from the camp. Terrorists, mainly from the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, operated undisturbed from there, building bombs and recruiting suicide bombers.

The most difficult battle in “Defensive Shield” also took place in the Jenin camp. After other West Bank cities were taken relatively easily, the IDF encountered uncompromising resistance in Jenin—23 soldiers, including 13 reservists, were killed in a single day of fighting. To complete the operations in the camp the IDF brought in bulldozers and destroyed multiple buildings.

Moyal thinks the events of “Defensive Shield” are also relevant to the current round. “They saw and heard what we were saying around the twentieth anniversary of ‘Defensive Shield,’ and it excited them. It’s not only us who want to build a narrative, they do too. It’s a story that fuels them, and part of it is from the terror attacks and the attempted terror attacks that we’re seeing now.”

The problems in the Jenin refugee camp began even before the current wave of terror. For over a year, things there have been restive. It began with COVID and the ensuing economic problems, which always have greater influence on the poor, and continued with the sharp drop in the Palestinian Authority’s governability in northern Samaria in general, especially in Jenin. As a result, Palestinian security forces have been prevented from entering the camp, which has essentially turned into an independent enclave, full of confidence and audacity. Events reached a peak when armed men from the camp began shooting at the Palestinian police station in Jenin, an event that resulted in the dismissal of all the high-level security officials in the area.

“We warned the Palestinian Authority, and we demanded that they act to restore governability, but they aren’t succeeding,” said Moyal. “They’re in a difficult bind. There’s a new police commander, because they kicked out the last one, but he’s wary of being seen as cooperating with us. This week I saw that he visited the mourning tent of the terrorist who carried out the attack in Tel Aviv, together with the governor of Jenin.

“I wondered what he thinks himself, because he knows that these terrorists are his enemy, and it’s clear to him that the fact that he’s there presents a very problematic message, because he himself embraces them and hints to them that he’s with them. I can understand the dilemma that he faces, even though his presence there really angered me.”

Despite this, Moyal is convinced that cooperation with the Palestinian security apparatus is necessary.
“It’s true that they hardly ever enter the refugee camp, because they’re afraid, but I hope that in the future, they will go in like they used to. But there is cooperation with them. We deliver them names, and they detain some of them—mainly arms dealers and criminals—although it’s the same revolving door that we know from the past. They detain them and then release them.”

‘There are no restrictions on me’

The IDF only returned to intensive operations in Jenin at the start of February. Until then, for a period a few months, it avoided open and intensive activities in an attempt to allow the Palestinian security services to improve their status, according to Moyal. This was a conscious decision that was approved at every level, out of the understanding that security cooperation between both sides is necessary for the war against terrorism, he said.

Moyal clarified, however, that the absence of open operations doesn’t mean that there weren’t any operations at all.

“During these months we also operated quite often, but using different methods. Sometimes we went undercover, and sometimes the Shin Bet lured out the fugitives and we captured them. All the criticism that we didn’t do anything is far from the reality,” he said.

Among other things, Moyal touches on an article that was published last week in Israel Hayom, in which one of his predecessors, Col. (res.) Oren Zini, attacked the lack of operations in northern Samaria in the months preceding the current wave of terror.

“I operate in every place and at any time that I want,” Moyal clarified. “There are no limitations, and the use of the term ‘Area A’ is incorrect. It’s a term that’s no longer relevant. But we do want there to be a Palestinian security presence, that there will be law and order and governance. That we will have a partner. But even then, we will always preserve full freedom of action for ourselves.”

In addition, he thinks that as part of this mistaken terminology an exaggerated ethos has been built up around the refugee camp.

“Jenin isn’t Gaza, even though they try to produce for themselves a narrative of ‘Little Gaza.’ What we have here is a bunch of thugs who are sitting around and playing toy soldiers. They’re setting up all kinds of confused units and other nonsense, but, ultimately, it’s not an army. There’s nothing here like there was in the Second Intifada. It’s not even close. We’re talking about a group of punks who got too full of themselves, and now we need to give them a whack on the nose and finish with this.”

According to Moyal, the Shin Bet estimates that there are hundreds of weapons and dozens of fugitives in the camp. Last week, Israel captured the deputy commander of the PIJ there, a senior figure responsible for the organization’s entire terror infrastructure in northern Samaria.

“It’s a really significant blow for them. There are very few ‘diamonds’ at his level,” said Moyal.

Operations in the camp are far more complicated than operations anywhere else, he said.

“They’re very sensitive and very experienced. If I shoot off a flare, they immediately see it and hear and escape. Faced with this awareness, we need to use different methods. I’ve got no problem entering with a battalion, but all the fugitives will escape. We try to surprise and to operate disguised like them. Every operation like that is more dangerous, because the force might be exposed, but it also gives us a greater chance of success, even though these operations often become violent and are also accompanied by shooting,” he said.

Military operations in Jenin returned in full on Feb. 1. “The directive was to do as much as possible to clean house before Ramadan,” said Moyal. “In March we carried out more than 150 operations to arrest suspects and foil terror plots in the camp and elsewhere.”

Most of the offensive operations in the area are carried out by Golani Brigade special forces, who are active in the northern part of Samaria. The undercover operations are carried out by the National Counter Terror Unit and the Yamas (Border Police special forces), as well as the Duvdevan Unit. All of the detentions are based on Shin Bet intelligence. Throughout Judea and Samaria, since the beginning of 2022 a total of 530 Palestinians have been detained (240 of them since the Bnei Brak attack), and 64 shooting attacks have been foiled.

“The lives of hundreds of Israelis have been saved thanks to attacks we foiled,” said Moyal. He rejects the claim that the IDF should have taken intensive action even earlier and prevented two major terror attacks that emanated from the area and murdered eight Israelis.

“It’s the wisdom of hindsight, mostly from former [officials]. There was a logic to what we did, and when we had information about wanted people or terror attacks, we dealt with them using different methods. There’s no 100% success in eliminating terror, and even now an attack could take place at any moment. Even when there’s a wall here it won’t be 100% safe. They’ll always shoot in the air in Tulkarem, and the bullets will fall on Bat Hefer.”

‘We’re not holding forces back’

The wave of terror attacks led the IDF to a double effort in northern Samaria: offensively—to detain wanted suspects and to locate illegal weapons, and defensively—to prevent Palestinians from entering Israel illegally, including via the numberless holes in the security barrier. Many reinforcements have been sent to the Jenin area, most of whom have been placed along the fence to physically prevent people from crossing.

“Of course I’m worried that another terror attack will come out of my sector. Today, with all the military means at my disposal, they expect me to accomplish the mission and to prevent terror attacks, and that’s what I expect from my people. Until recently, an average 7,000 Palestinians crossed the fence every day. Most of them had work permits, but they preferred to skip the checks and the lines and crossed via the breaches. On Sunday, only 10 crossed that way. It’s a phenomenal achievement, and it’s still a huge challenge. Each of those who does cross could be a terrorist.”

The fence has become a significant element in the area’s economy. “It’s a complete economy … There are swindlers on both sides. Someone has even set up a parking lot, and they take 10 shekels [about $3] to guard every Palestinian vehicle during the day, until the illegals return home, and 400 vehicles park there every day. These are huge numbers of Palestinians.

“The last time we closed the fence area was when the Palestinian prisoners escaped from [Gilboa] Prison [in September 2021]. Construction contractors in Afula begged us to ease the closure because they needed workers to finish the apartments so they could deliver the keys by the promised date. There were also calls from garage owners in Hadera,” he said.

“The fence is a defensive element. It’s not reasonable that so many people cross it without supervision, and it’s our role to stop this. But we have to find a solution to the economic problem. People need to work, to make a living. This month it’s critical, because of Ramadan—people need money for the festival. They’ll become desperate, and it’s not in our interest to turn everyone here into an enemy. The solution is to supply them with more work permits, and to make sure that they go to work in Israel in an orderly way. We have to offer a military solution, but in my opinion, it’s the economy that will win.”

Moyal is aware that he won’t be judged by the number of attacks he foils, but by those he does not.

“It requires us to maintain a very strong defense, and to continue intensively with missions to foil attacks. I’m prepared to continue at a very high rate of operations in the next few weeks to keep the next terror attack as far away as possible. Regretfully I didn’t succeed in this mission with the terrorist who came from here and attacked Tel Aviv, but we’ll continue to invest every effort required in order to prevent the next attacks,” he said.

His main mission is to stop terrorists, and at the same time, capture illegal weapons. Just like with Arab Israelis, the West Bank is full of all types of weapons. Often, the two areas intersect, when criminals get involved with hostile ethno-nationalist activity. An episode like this was exposed recently by the Shin Bet (in cooperation with the IDF and the police), regarding an attempt to smuggle weapons from Jordan to criminal elements in Umm el-Fahm, via the Palestinian city of Tubas in northern Samaria.

“The transfer of weapons has become a strategic threat,” said Moyal. “What we captured was a drop in the ocean, but if we continue and succeed in foiling more efforts like this, it will be a tie-breaker.”

He has no doubt that the wave will be stopped.

“It’s a matter of time, pressure, and effort,” he says. “We are working every day, every night, and eventually we’ll reach everyone. Nobody here is holding forces back.”

He is aware that some of the cases constitute a significant challenge, such as lone terrorists who aren’t on the Shin Bet’s radar and don’t share their plans with anyone, like the terrorist who carried out the attack in Tel Aviv.

“The more we stop the wave, the more we will reduce the motivations of these individuals to act, because they are mainly motivated by inspiration,” he said.

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in Israel Hayom.

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