Is Israel planning a military operation in the West Bank?

By Geoff Moore

Since October, Israel has been on edge with the frequent occurrence of attacks by Palestinians on civilians and security forces. As of December 11th, at least 19 Israelis and 109 Palestinians have been killed in this string of attacks. Due to these disproportionate numbers and the fact that most attackers have used knives before being shot and killed, Israel has been criticized for “using excessive force.”[1] In October alone, 8,262 Palestinians were injured by tear gas, live ammunition, rubber coated bullets, and “assault by Israeli soldiers.”[2] In a startling poll conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute in October, it was found that 53% of Jewish Israelis agree that “any Palestinian who has perpetrated a terror attack against Jews should be killed on the spot.” It is worth noting that a majority of both Israelis and Palestinians polled were fearful of future violence against them.[3] Some Israeli politicians have suggested that the solution is to initiate Operation Defensive Shield 2, so how did we get here?

Operation Defensive Shield (ODS) was an Israeli military operation conducted in 2002 to confront the Second Intifada (Palestinian uprising, also known as Al-Aqsa Intifada). The Second Intifada left about 1000 Israelis and 3000 Palestinians dead between 2000 and 2006.[4] The purpose of ODS was to enter West Bank Palestinian cities “in order to destroy the terrorist network” and confiscate weapons.[5] This military operation resulted in a reduction of violence, but it also led to sharp criticism of Israel’s actions including a UN Security Council fact-finding mission. Israel arrested between 6,000-9,000 Palestinians, destroyed homes and schools, and caused a food shortage in the West Bank.[6] Ultimately, ODS did not end the intifada, but dulled its intensity.

The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have reportedly been “preparing for this level of unrest” for at least a year.[7] What exactly this means is unclear because the military is also reportedly “not keen” to launch an operation on the scale of 2002’s ODS. This comes as a sharp contrast to the political rhetoric of Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennet. These ministers have both called for increased IDF action since October and began explicitly suggesting an ‘Operation Defensive Shield 2’ in November.[8] This caused friction between the ministers and Prime Minister Netanyahu in October.[9] Interestingly, Deputy Prime Minister Israel Katz also supported the idea of an ODS2 in early October.[10] Around the same time, Jewish settlers began protesting in favor of a military operation.[11]

When the violence of 2002 and 2015 is compared, it becomes difficult to imagine why an operation on the scale of ODS should be initiated in the West Bank. First of all, the style of attacks is significantly different. While the majority of Palestinian attackers have acted alone using knives this year, the second intifada was characterized by the more devastating use of IEDs and suicide bombings.[12] Second, the style of attacks is related to the fact that the second intifada was supported by Palestinian leadership (including Yasser Arafat). The attacks of the past few months have been carried out by individuals, without the support of the Palestinian Authority (though, also without the PA’s condemnation).[13] Third, it is important to acknowledge the success rate of the knife attacks themselves, if they do indeed justify a military response. The Washington Post put it this way: “If the death of an Israeli soldier or Jewish settler is what the Palestinian assailants seek, the attacks are often failures. Most victims survive; many of the soldiers, who wear body armor, are only lightly wounded, if at all.” Ministers Bennet and Shaked have not suggested a clear end goal for ODS2. Is the IDF supposed to make mass arrests for the possession of cutlery? How will they identify lone wolf attackers by reoccupying the West Bank, and would this not give Palestinians reason to rally behind coordination of a violent response?

Although JPost claimed in October that one major terrorist attack could result in ODS2, a more eminent possibility for the IDF is a major operation in Hebron. Haaretz has called this “inevitable.” However, for observers of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this may be a time to wait for domestic political opinion to take shape. Israelis are aware of the uneasy relationship between Netanyahu and President Obama, and the 2014 war in Gaza is likely to inform most peoples’ opinions. A massive operation in the West Bank could seriously damage Israel’s long-term relationship with western allies. Therefore, absent any major attacks, it seems unlikely that the IDF will go as far as ODS2, at least in the near term. It will be important to keep an eye on Hebron as we move into 2016, because what happens there could lead to further operations in Palestinian areas.

[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/netanyahu-wants-palestinian-violence-linked-to-radical-islam/2015/12/10/6a62d522-9d07-11e5-9ad2-568d814bbf3b_story.html?hpid=hp_hp-more-top-stories_netanyahu-125am%3Ahomepage%2Fstory

[2] http://www.juancole.com/2015/11/palestinians-bullets-crescent.html

[3] http://en.idi.org.il/about-idi/news-and-updates/latest-peace-index-israelis-are-tense-but-not-hysterical/#sthash.anODErss.dpuf

[4] http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/war/intifada2.htm

[5] http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/History/defensiveshield.html

[6] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2002/aug/02/israel

[7] http://www.jpost.com/Arab-Israeli-Conflict/Analysis-Israel-is-one-major-terror-attack-away-from-Operation-Defensive-Shield-2-421322

[8] http://www.jpost.com/printarticle.aspx?id=421116 ; http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/11/defense-shield-military-operation-west-bank-bennett-shaked.html

[9] http://www.jpost.com/printarticle.aspx?id=421116

[10] http://www.jewishpress.com/news/breaking-news/likud-minister-well-launch-operation-defensive-shield-2-if-needed/2015/10/04/?fb_comment_id=743382962432473_743837665720336

[11] http://www.timesofisrael.com/with-settler-attacks-on-the-rise-yaalon-said-to-blame-jewish-home/

[12] http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/History/defensiveshield.html

[13] https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/israelis-are-calling-attacks-a-new-kind-of-palestinian-terror/2015/12/24/e162e088-0953-4de5-992e-adb2126f1dcc_story.html

© Photo taken by author in Jerusalem’s Old City (June 2015)

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