Sunday’s shooting attack south of Nablus in which two brothers from the West Bank settlement of Har Bracha were murdered and the subsequent riots by dozens of settlers in the Palestinian town of Hawara have brought the West Bank to the boiling point.
On Sunday evening it seemed the IDF and the police had lost control of events in Hawara for several hours, and were unable to stop the rioters’ pogrom. One Palestinian was reported dead and dozens were wounded.
The incidents around Nablus could incite the widespread clashes in the West Bank that the defense establishment has been warning of for a long time now.
The terror attack and the subsequent violence coincided with an international meeting in Aqaba, Jordan organized by the U.S. administration. And they once again demonstrated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s lack of control over the political and diplomatic situation.
His office tried to downplay the agreements reached at the meeting, at which Israeli officials promised to freeze construction in the settlements. But leaders of the government’s radical right wing – Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir – assailed the very fact that Israel attended the meeting and declared that the agreements reached there don’t bind them.
The conference in Aqaba was initiated as an American effort, with Jordanian and Egyptian aid, to help calm tensions in the territories, ahead of the start of Ramadan on March 22. But shortly after the meeting began, a shooting attack took place in the village of Hawara, on the main road to Nablus. Brothers Hillel Yaniv, 22, and Yagel Yaniv, 20, were murdered by gunfire, and the terrorist fled.
The terror attack was preceded by a deadly incident in Nablus last week. Last Wednesday, large IDF and Border Police forces entered the Nablus casbah, attempting to apprehend members of the Lions‘ Den organization. A heavy firefight ensued, and 11 Palestinians were killed, among them three civilians. Since the incident, intelligence warnings have piled up regarding Palestinian attempts to avenge the death of these 11.
The Lions’ Den, which the security establishment thought it had overcome some four months ago, is still alive and kicking. The operatives killed and arrested were replaced by new ones, inspired by the local myth. What was once described derisively by Israeli sources as “a bunch of punks” now has real stature in Nablus, and even pretensions to a political party line.
In the flood of condemnations of the Palestinian Authority, for agreeing to send a delegations to the Aqaba summit at the Americans’ request, the Lions’ Den’s statement also stood out.
The summit’s summary statement discussed strengthening the security coordination between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Currently, despite the mediation efforts, it’ll be challenging to quickly extinguish the flames in the northern West Bank.
On Sunday, dozens of settlers rampaged in Hawara, torching a Palestinian home and causing significant property damage. Even though it was clear to all to expect the violent rampage by Jews in response to the Palestinian terror attack, it appears that the IDF and the Israel Police did not send enough forces to the area and did not manage to take control of the situation. The Palestinian Health Ministry reported that one Palestinian had been killed by gunfire and dozens others were injured from causes including smoke inhalation, assault and gunfire. This is exactly how things could lose control.
On Sunday, Netanyahu called on citizens “not to take the law into their hands.” After bloody attacks that took place under the previous government, it was castigated by the opposition – now members of the current government – who promised that things would look different once they were in charge.
Some two months after the inauguration of Netanyahu’s government, it’s clear that Palestinian terrorism isn’t particularly impressed by political changes in Israel. The tough rhetoric, such as the revival of efforts to advance the death penalty for terrorists, will surely not help matters.
The convening of the conference in Aqaba on Sunday reflects an American attempt to restore a bit of stability to a region that’s been neglected while Washington is preoccupied by troubling moves from Russia and China.
The Biden administration is interested in strengthening the conservative Sunni axis in the Middle East, to block the influence of Iran, but in practice this axis is floundering. Some of its problems stem from current events in the Palestinian territories, and fear that tensions will worsen once the month of Ramadan begins in late March.
The situation in the West Bank is too sensitive, and the Palestinian Authority is too weak, for the tide of violence to be stemmed with a bit of external pressure and promises of American gestures toward the administration in Ramallah.
The weakness of the Palestinian leadership hinders its security apparatus from making good on promises made to American officials. If the PA police sergeants or petty officers fear that the Authority might collapse in a matter of months, they have zero incentive to take on the Lions’ Den militants.
In the background, there’s growing concern in the West and in Israel regarding Iran’s progress toward a nuclear weapon. CIA Director William Burns told CBS on Saturday night that “to the best of our knowledge, the Supreme Leader of Iran has made no decision to continue the weapons program [to fit a nuclear bomb to a missile’s warhead], which we believe was halted in 2003.”
But he added that “in the other two components, enrichment of uranium and the ability to launch a nuclear missile when they develop one, they have made progress.” Burns said it would take the Iranians no more than a few weeks, from the moment they decide to do so, to enrich uranium to 90 percent, as required for weapons purposes, in the amount sufficient for one bomb.
Fire sale of the old pretense
The American fear of escalation in the Palestinian territories also has to do with the regime coup that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to carry out in Israel, and its implications upon the division of powers in the West Bank. Israel has slid another significant step in this dangerous direction, with the agreement dividing authority between ministers Yoav Gallant and Bezalel Smotrich, signed last week.
In practice, this is a fire sale of the old order under which the territories were run. Gallant, under heavy pressure from Netanyahu, was forced to accept most of Smotrich’s demands.
The minister in the Defense Ministry will now hold most of the powers, allowing him to shape the map of construction in the West Bank almost at will, further entrenching the two separate legal systems, for Israelis and Palestinians. This will put an end to the pretense behind which Israel has hid for years – but it also will deepen the understanding in the international community that Israel’s headed toward annexation of the territories.
The move with Smotrich was put together as part of a deal that also included the approval of the new security budget, passed hastily after a rushed, superficial debate. With a budget of 68 billion shekels ($18.5 billion) for the current year, it seems Gallant and new Chief of Staff Herzl Halevi will be able to carry out most of their plans.
But at this point, no one knows how much money will be diverted to prepare the IDF for a possible confrontation with Iran, and how much the ongoing tensions with the Palestinians will cost.
Objection in the air
The escalation of protests against the government’s plans also can be seen in the escalating possibility of reservists choosing to become conscientious objectors. Several senior officers in the Air Force have informed their commanding officers that they’ll no longer be reporting for duty, and intense discussions are taking place within squadrons, among reserve pilots and navigators, on whether to stop volunteering for service, and when.
Some of the concern of Air Force personnel involves the possibility that should the justice system be weakened, it’ll increase their exposure to prosecution for war crimes before international courts, as Israel would be hard-pressed to credibly claim that it operates an effective justice system of its own to investigate such claims, and therefore there is no need for external intervention.
Particularly concerned are El Al pilots, many of whom are still in the active reserve, as they fly abroad regularly and their identity is exposed beyond Israel’s borders.
On Friday a petition was published, signed by over 100 reserve soldiers and officers of the Military Intelligence Directorate’s special forces unit, announcing that they’ll stop serving should the regime coup become law. The most senior signatory, a reserve major general, withdrew his signature at Halevi’s request.
Also, an initiative for a petition of all past intelligence Unit 8200 commanders was put on hold. In this case disagreements arose among the commanders, with some feeling that the time had not yet come for drastic measures, and that it was important to avoid putting too much public pressure on Halevi, who must continue to steer the IDF ship. On the other hand, a new petition was published, this one by reservists from the Military Intelligence research division.
A large intelligence unit, belonging to one of the regional commands, the research division warned its commanders that the unit may not be able to function properly at a planned exercise this summer, as a large number of reservists have announced that they don’t intend to report for duty.
Discussions on objection and “grey” objection by reservists take up considerable time and effort in various IDF units, and awareness of the depth of the crisis sharpens by the hour. Not a day goes by without the Halevi’s bureau receiving news of a similarly based petition or two.