The situation in Judea and Samaria is approaching a dangerous tipping point, according to IDF Col. (res.) David Hacham, a senior research associate at the MirYam Institute.
Hacham, a former adviser on Arab affairs to seven Israeli defense ministers, told JNS that several factors could converge to quickly generate an escalation in the security situation in the area.
“We cannot rule out the possibility of a substantial escalation, reaching the point of popular unrest accompanied by a heightened level of terror attacks on Israeli military and civilian targets,” he said.
One of the key factors raising the odds of violence is the growing instability in the Palestinian Authority that stems from the power struggle raging over who will succeed P.A. chairman Mahmoud Abbas, 86, whenever he exits the political scene.
“He is nearing the end of his tenure as P.A. chairman, as Fatah leader and PLO Executive Committee head—positions he has held since he replaced Yasser Arafat after his death in November 2004,” said Hacham.
“Some of the candidates to succeed Abbas are backed by armed militias that carry out their orders. As a result, political strife may flare up and turn into violent eruptions, though the possible successors may also be able to settle their differences without a civil war. The most likely scenario is a limited internal clash,” he said.
If the competition for the succession gets too bloody, Israel, Arab states such as Jordan and Egypt, as well as the United States and the European Union, might intervene, he added.
Faced with these internal divisions, factionalism based on regional and tribal/clan identities will likely intensify within P.A.-ruled territory. The first sparks are already visible, according to Hacham.
“Individual behavior [in these areas] is governed more by traditional tribal/clan rules than by the judicial system or the P.A.’s security forces,” he said. “Tensions in the Palestinian arena are connected to the P.A.’s weakness, with P.A. security personnel fearful of dealing with terrorist gunmen and avoiding decisive action against them on the ground.”
The emergence in northern Samaria of a new generation of terrorists is a response to the power vaccuum resulting from the the P.A.’s weakness, said Hacham, who added that widespread discontent among Palestinians over the freeze in the diplomatic process with Israel adds fuel to the fire.
“This is especially true in Samaria, in Jenin and Nablus, which have become extremist-terrorist cities in Israeli eyes, and nationalist-revolutionary cities in Palestinian eyes. It’s also happening to a certain extent further south, in Judea, in Hebron,” he said.
“Armed attacks have become practically an everyday issue, and they usually target IDF positions, checkpoints and Israeli civilians in the sector,” he said.
“Almost every IDF operation in Jenin and Nablus, as well as in villages in the area, is accompanied by gunfire. This also indicates that terrorists have easy access to automatic rifles,” he added.
“Because this is sporadic, ineffective fire by young terrorists lacking in skill and operational experience, the majority of these shooting incidents result in no casualties among Israeli forces. These terrorists, whose organizational allegiance is unclear, are supported financially and militarily by established Palestinian terror factions,” he added.
However, as the firefights continue, the terrorists will likely gain experience and confidence, making them significantly more dangerous.
“They are heavily influenced by social media networks, which glorify and elevate them to the status of heroes. In effect, these are localized terror operations carried out by inexperienced youths who were not there during the Second Intifada [in 2000-2005]. But we must not underestimate the danger. It is reasonable to expect that as these terrorists gain operational experience, confidence would grow within their ranks, increasing the risk of Israeli casualties,” said Hacham.
As a consequence, it is vital that the IDF increase its operational readiness and seize the initiative through increased security raids, he said. Israel may also have to consider a broader counterterrorism offensive to disrupt the wave of attacks, he added.
Almost every night, soldiers are shot at during arrest operations in Palestinian cities and towns, at levels not seen previously. After entering these hotspots, IDF units are met with small arms fire, stones and firebombs. Some armed terrorists barricade themselves inside buildings, compelling the IDF to employ means such as shoulder-fired missiles to force their surrender.
A minority of the gunmen are members of the Palestinian Authority’s security forces, said Hacham.
Hamas’s double game
On the one hand, Hamas “incites terrorism and attempts to orchestrate, from Gaza, terror attacks in Judea and Samaria, while maintaining a ceasefire in Gaza, where it is sovereign and must consider the needs of over two million Gazan civilians,” said Hacham.
And “if conditions for them improve, Hamas in Judea and Samaria, as well as Palestinian Islamic Jihad, can strengthen their credibility as ‘resistance’ movements, undermine the P.A,’s rule on the ground, and force it to confront Israel, further harming it, just as Abbas’s reign comes to an end,” he continued.
One of the key staples of propaganda for Hamas and other radical Islamist movements is the claim that the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem is threatened by Israeli Jews.
“The Temple Mount in Jerusalem is undoubtedly one of the most sensitive elements in this picture, with any claims of harm to the Al-Aqsa Mosque causing an emotional firestorm among Palestinians. Any future incidents involving the Temple Mount might result in severe, uncontrollable escalation, as well as escalation in organized terror attempts by armed organizations,” said Hacham.
He flagged the Jewish High Holidays, that begin on Sept. 25, as well as regular visits by Jews to the Temple Mount, as flashpoints that require special readiness.
“Clashes near and on the Temple Mount could reignite Palestinian charges of ‘settler provocations,’ as they have in the past. Palestinian media sources and senior religious authorities continue to incite against Israel, using accusatory phrasing that refers to Jewish visits to the site as ‘settlers raids on the Al-Aqsa mosque,’” said Hacham.
“This is part of a planned maneuver to change the historic and legal status of the Temple Mount, which the terror organizations believe is solely under Islamic ownership. The potential of a religious war exists here,” he added.
Three Fatah camps locked in power struggle
The main unknown when it comes to the P.A.’s instability concerns who will succeed Abbas and what will happen in the Palestinian arena once he leaves. The power struggle is growing more and more acute.
According to Hacham, three camps are competing for power within the Fatah movement.
The first is the Abbas loyalist camp, which is led by Palestinian Authority Civilian Affairs Minister Hussein al-Sheikh, whom Abbas recently named as secretary-general of the PLO Executive Committee. This maneuver helped to clarify Abbas’s preference regarding his successor—though he has not said it openly, it is now clear that al-Sheikh is his choice.
The appointment provoked significant opposition among senior Fatah members who also aspire to reach the top of the pyramid. Despite his status as the frontrunner in the succession battle, al-Sheikh does not have widespread support in Fatah or on the Palestinian street, where he is labeled a collaborator with Israel, said Hacham.
The second camp includes figures such as Mahmoud al-Aloul, Abbas’s deputy in Fatah; Jibril Rajoub, secretary-general of the Fatah Central Committee, and P.A. Prime Minister Mohammad Ibrahim Shtayyeh, all of whom have reached agreement on a number of issues, enabling them to coordinate their positions on a range of affairs.
The third group consists of a reformist stream and is led by Muhammad Dahlan, the former head of P.A. security forces in Gaza, , who was expelled from Fatah in 2012 and lives in exile in Abu Dhabi.
Meanwhile, the Islamist forces, led by Hamas, are eyeing the P.A.’s instability and looking for an opening to bolster their power in the West Bank at Fatah’s expense.
Another factor contributing to the lack of stability in the area is Israel’s political paralysis, said Hacham.
“In many ways, Abbas is already a lame duck leader who is unpopular on the Palestinian street. On the other side of the fence, an Israeli caretaker government is in power, and it is unable to make major decisions regarding the restart of the diplomatic process with the Palestinian Authority. Israel is poised to hold its fifth election in three years, the outcome of which will dramatically determine Israeli policy toward the Palestinians,” said Hacham.
“This outlook causes many Palestinians to feel that the diplomatic progress is stymied by an impenetrable roadblock, fueling greater rage on the Palestinian street,” he said.