The Intensification of the West Bank’s Perpetual Catch-22
In response to the spate of terrorist attacks inside of Israel last spring, the Israel Defense Forces took two steps designed to make Israelis safer.
The first was to repair breaches in the security barrier and to station soldiers at the various gaps in an effort to prevent Palestinians from circumventing checkpoints and illegally crossing into Israel from the West Bank. The second was to massively increase the number of nightly IDF incursions into Palestinian cities and towns in order to arrest Palestinians wanted for terrorism or suspected of terrorism. This second component has been dubbed Operation Breakwater, and on Monday, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi announced that the operation has led to the arrests of 1,500 wanted suspects and has, in the IDF’s estimation, prevented hundreds of terrorist attacks.
Given that the stark uptick in terrorist attacks inside Israel from March, April, and May has subsided, Operation Breakwater appears to be successfully accomplishing its intended objective.
The catch, however, is that in other ways, Operation Breakwater is making the problem worse. Killings of Palestinians by the IDF in the West Bank are up, with 88 so far this year as compared to 79 in all of 2021, and it coincides with an increase in attacks and shootings at Israelis in the West Bank. Attacks such as last weekend’s firebombing of a bus carrying IDF soldiers to a base in the Jordan Valley no longer seem out of the ordinary, and there are daily firefights between the IDF and gunmen in Jenin and Nablus. Shireen Abu Akleh was killed in Jenin in May during one such firefight—likely by an IDF bullet, as multiple outside investigations concluded and as the IDF itself affirmed on Monday—demonstrating the way in which this type of operation can reverberate in unexpected ways that are harmful to Palestinian lives and to Israel’s reputation.
Perhaps most saliently for the purposes of evaluating whether Operation Breakwater is successful, the Shin Bet is warning about a threat of increased violence and popular uprisings in the West Bank at levels not experienced since the Second Intifada, and by all accounts, the Palestinian Authority is losing control of swathes of its territory. This points to the dilemma that while the situation in Israel has improved in the short term, in the long term Operation Breakwater risks making the situation markedly worse.
The stability of the West Bank is directly connected to Israeli security. If the West Bank devolves into lawless anarchy or if the Palestinian Authority falls and Hamas takes control of the territory, the chaos inside the West Bank will easily spill over into Israel. The logic behind Operation Breakwater is that Israeli security will be improved by removing known threats through IDF operations to kill or arrest them, but it entirely glosses over the larger milieu of West Bank stability.
There are clear benefits to putting Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and rogue Fatah gunmen in Israeli prisons, but there are costs to these operations as well. Not only does a heavy Israeli presence in Palestinian cities day after day and night after night put Palestinian governmental impotence front and center, it creates resentment among Palestinians who would not otherwise be radicalized but respond to Israeli operations with violence and anger. It is not a coincidence that the current wave of violence has been driven by independent individuals and self-organized bands rather than being led or directed by terrorist groups. A heavy Israeli security presence is effective at disrupting known entities, but the heavier the presence, the greater the risk of driving otherwise unaffiliated people to take up arms.
The tautological logic of the dynamic now being played out can be seen in Kochavi’s comments about the Palestinian Authority Security Forces, which he derided as helpless and then connected their helplessness to a lack of PA governance and an increase in terrorism. Kochavi views the PA’s weakness and inability to crack down on—or unwillingness to challenge—militants and gunmen in Jenin and Nablus as creating a need for the IDF to intervene directly, which it has on the order of about 500 incursions per month into Area A since Operation Breakwater began, as compared to an average of 35 per week a few years ago.
And every time the IDF intervenes with incursions into Area A— where the PA has sole responsibility for security and there is supposed to be no IDF presence—and the PA security forces and police are confined to their barracks so as to avoid any clashes or interference with the IDF, it humiliates the PA over its impotence in the face of direct challenges to its sovereignty and leads to even more PASF absenteeism, which in turn weakens the PA even more. And the IDF then points to PA weakness as the reason to launch incursions into Area A…wash, rinse, repeat.
There is absolutely no question that Area A incursions are the largest factor contributing to current PA weakness, as well as its inability and/or lack of desire to tackle the mushrooming militancy in Jenin, Nablus, and refugee camps around the West Bank. It is a subject that comes up in every conversation with Palestinian officials and U.S. government experts on the ground, and a fair number of Israeli security officials as well. A larger number of incursions are taking place during the day, which adds fuel to the fire by making them observable to a greater number of Palestinian bystanders. The daytime incursions are also not prearranged with the PASF, who then get no notification that they are about to occur until IDF troops show up and are then forced to make themselves scarce.
If there is one thing that differentiates a functioning government from a failed one, it is a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Every IDF raid into a Palestinian city, especially in broad daylight, makes it more and more apparent to Palestinians that their ostensible governing authority has no actual authority. This may be an effective Israeli counterterrorism tactic in the face of a specific problem, but it is sowing the seeds of a future disaster. For all of the talk about the need to strengthen the PA, Israel is right now contributing to weakening it to the point of no return.
This Catch-22 of having to step up military activity in the West Bank to compensate for a weakened PA, and further weakening the PA by stepping up military activity, is not new. But as the PA now effectively pulls out of Nablus and Jenin while militias from Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Fatah all coordinate their activities in both places, and as various Palestinian political heavyweights position themselves for the post-Abu Mazen period while Abu Mazen himself seems like a hollow shell, it is a particularly dangerous time to ignore the larger political winds and to focus only on the narrow security problem that needs to be solved.
There is no permanent security solution to the West Bank that ignores the overall politics, much as there is no permanent peace that focuses only on economics rather than nationalism and sovereignty. The Israeli government and the IDF’s upper echelons need to balance Operation Breakwater’s tactical successes against the strategic challenges it is creating. There is no level of terrorism against Israelis that should be approached with complacency, but the shootings that were carried out in Israeli cities in the spring will pale in comparison to what Israelis will have to guard against if Israeli policies designed to reduce terrorism lead to the PA’s complete loss of control.
This article was originally posted in Ottomans and Zionists.