(June 28, 2018 / JNS) In its mission to keep the northern West Bank as quiet as possible and disconnected from the unstable Gaza Strip, the Israel Defense Forces employs a unique combination of dialogue, economic development and persistent security operations, a senior officer told JNS.
Lt.-Col. Idan Wernick is the deputy commander of the Menashe territorial brigade in charge of securing the northern West Bank—an area that includes Jenin, Tulkarm, multiple Palestinian villages and Israeli settlements.
Wernick’s jeep drove through pastoral, steep green hills and winding roads, scenery that creates a deceptively calm picture of this area. In March, a deadly Palestinian vehicle attack took place when a lone attacker from the local village of Barta rammed his vehicle into IDF soldiers guarding a road, killing two and injuring another two personnel.
“That was a very difficult incident,” said Wernick. “The terrorist made a spur-of-the-moment decision after dropping off his brother and turned the wheel towards the soldiers, hitting them.”
Yet such incidents have become the exception, rather than the rule, in this area, which is significantly calmer today than it has been in the past. In previous years, gun attacks, large-scale rioting and even roadside bombs occurred in varying intensities. Jenin was a hornet’s nest of suicide-bombers that ravaged Israeli cities during the dark days of the Second Intifada.
“This is a complex reality. Part of what we do here is police work and part military work to enforce sovereignty,” said Wernick.
His jeep drove past an industrial area that provides work for 500 Palestinian workers, as well as Israelis. Creating viable jobs and income is something the IDF views as a proven factor to reduce violence.
“The population here receives a lot of economic opportunities,” the deputy commander said.
“The situation of Palestinians in Judea and Samaria is incomparable to that of Gaza. Here, I think, people have hope. They have something to lose if an escalation occurs. It would harm their income and make their lives harder. We safeguard this situation; we understand its importance,” he affirmed.
But the IDF also employs a range of security measures in place around the clock to prevent terrorist factions from turning this area into a launch pad for suicide-bombers and gunmen once again.
An electronic fence separates the area from Israeli territory within the Green Line; the barrier issues alerts to control rooms when suspects make contact with it. That allows the Menashe Brigade to dispatch forces in vehicles and capture intruders before they cause trouble.
In addition, the brigade has access to a wealth of intelligence alerts that allows it to conduct counter-terrorist raids every single night. Wernick said units have seized terrorist financing funds, firearms, bomb-making material and suspects involved in organizing plots—most of them from the Hamas terror organization that rules the Gaza Strip.
“We get to the homes of suspects and take them into custody before they can launch an attack,” said Wernick. “The money we seize means they cannot purchases weapons and bombs.”
The officer stressed that such raids occur only after receiving several approvals from military command, and that the army does not take such operations, which see soldiers entering private homes in the middle of the night, lightly.
“We have very meticulous procedures on doing this,” he said. “We foil the activities of a range of organizations—foremost among them Hamas—although this area is not their stronghold.”
Firearms seized include improvised semi-automatic guns, like the locally produced Carl Gustav guns, and standard M-16s.
The Menashe Brigade’s core mission, according to Wernick, is to secure Israeli communities on both sides of the Green Line. Mavo Dotan is located in the heart of the northern West Bank, while the coastal city of Hadera and its power station are visible from the mountain tops in Samaria.
But the brigade is also obligated to protect Palestinian civilians, and ensure their economic and agricultural activities. It seeks to strike a delicate balance in the area to help keep the peace.
“I’d say we are in a kind of status quo,” explained Wernick. “My perception is that to deal with this kind of threat, you have to be present in the territory. The fact that we are here every night—patrolling, inquiring, warning—creates a situation in which things cannot develop to a level in which terror cells can obtain and fire mortars” at Israeli cities across the Green Line.
“Unequivocally, our presence prevents this from happening,” he stated.
At the same time, the deputy brigade commander repeatedly stressed the need to promote economic development as a necessary condition for security. Asked if economic improvements for Palestinians lower terrorism and violence, he replied, “unequivocally so.”
‘Room for dialogue to solve problems’
Due to this understanding, the IDF has opened a new crossing allowing Palestinian residents of Tulkarm with work permits to enter Israel much more quickly. Israeli Arabs also travel in the opposite direction, towards Tulkarm, using the same crossing for business journeys.
The military is engaged in regular contact with the head of local Palestinian councils, urging them to discourage youths from attacking the security fence or from hurling stones at Israeli traffic in the area, so that the fabric of routine life can continue.
The IDF and the Palestinian Authority’s own security forces also maintain regular coordination and communication channels, something the army uses to sometimes let the P.A. deal with local unrest by itself, thereby reducing friction.
“Through joint dialogue, we found ways to reach quiet, and the Palestinians have access to a better way of life,” said Wernick. “The dialogue works. The sense is that there is room for dialogue to solve problems. We try as much as we can to move in that direction. Where necessary, however, we have full freedom of operation. We do not limit ourselves in dealing with problems and can reach any location.”
Asked whether area will remain stable, Wernick pointed out that all major recent conflicts involving Israel have had one thing in common, and that was that “no one knew” the morning before they began what was in store.
“I can’t predict what will happen, especially in the Middle East. There is no guarantee here of anything. On a personal level, I very much hope the quiet will remain—that the routine will be kept up as much as possible in this reality with a minimum level of friction. As the military, we prepare for the worst; we can deal with major changes.
“The sense is that there is hope here and a possibility to move forward,” he said, “and that there is a clear separation between Gaza, and Judea and Samaria. To know whether things will stay this way? That is very hard to estimate.”