The West Bank is a battlefield between Hamas, the PA and Israel
Israeli operations to pursue Hamas cells in the occupied West Bank, including residential areas of Ramallah and Al-Bireh, are ongoing. They take place near the Palestinian Authority headquarters and the home of its President, Mahmoud Abbas. Officials close to the president have said that they would not confront the Israeli army militarily because they do not want to bring chaos to the West Bank. Meanwhile, Israel believes that its pursuit of Palestinians is legitimised by the Oslo Accords and includes entering Palestinian cities; the PA, insist the Israelis, agrees to these raids, despite opposing them publicly.
I want to look at the Israeli army’s “hot pursuit” of Palestinians; the PA’s position on this and why it is afraid to confront the Israelis; the extent of security coordination between the PA and Israel; and whether Hamas is involved in the Israeli raids in the West Bank in order to weaken the PA.
The Gaza Strip continues to attract attention due to the ongoing tension on the nominal border; all of the parties focus on Gaza in their current election campaigns. However, although it does not get into the headlines as much as Gaza, the West Bank still garners both the attention and interest of electioneering politicians.
Tensions revolving around security are rising in the West Bank, albeit slowly. Earlier this month, the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Centre (ITIC) published a lengthy study on the security situation in the West Bank in 2018. It reported that there were at least 55 incidents such as stabbings, hit and run collisions and gunshots involving Palestinians; stone throwing at illegal settlers’ cars and military vehicles are not included. The figure for 2017 was 82. Twelve Israelis were killed in these attacks, compared with 18 the previous year. In 2015, there were 171 such attacks.
These incidents are happening even though Hamas has not succeeded in exporting its operations to the West Bank, despite considerable efforts made in this regard. Nevertheless, the Israeli and Palestinian security agencies have together thwarted more than 480 plans to carry out major attacks and arrested thousands of Palestinians, thus drying up the resources of resistance groups.
The question remains, though, as to why the security coordination between the Israeli and Palestinian intelligence agencies has not been effective in the early detection of these operations, while they are still at the discussion stage. Israel is not expected to find answers to such questions, especially since this wave of recent operations may not be the last if the statements made by the resistance groups are anything to go by. This means we should expect more operations, either closely together or irregular and infrequent, depending on intelligence about military deployments and the general atmosphere.
At the same time, the Israeli army is tracking down Palestinians on the wanted list in Area A of the West Bank. The Palestinian security agencies are asking for intelligence from their Israeli counterparts to arrest the wanted individuals, but Israel is refusing to hand it over and insists on pursuing them itself. The PA is thus afraid of losing what little prestige and sovereignty it retains in the occupied West Bank.
The expansion of the area where Palestinian attacks are taking place is an opportunity for the Israeli army to violate all areas in the West Bank under the pretext of pursuing wanted people, without any regard or distinction between Areas A, B, and C, as designated by the Oslo Accords almost 25 years ago. The West Bank covers 6,000 square kilometres; Area A includes the main Palestinian residential areas. It is under full Palestinian security and administrative control and accounts for 18 per cent of the territory. Area B, meanwhile, consists of villages and towns adjacent to the cities, accounting for 21 per cent of the West Bank. It is under Palestinian civil control and Israeli security control. The largest Area is C, with 61 per cent of the West Bank. It is the only area that is not fragmented and under complete Israeli security and administrative control.
Israel has always emphasised the freedom of the Israeli army to operate in Area A, allowing it to enter all areas of the West Bank without distinction between Areas A, B and C. The army’s control, it claims, is a guarantee of Israel’s security. Hence, Israeli soldiers enter Area A as and when they please. On occasion, the army might inform the PA and ask for intelligence about armed groups, before arresting the wanted individuals and withdrawing. This has happened in Hebron, Nablus, Jenin and Ramallah.
It is no secret that the current environment in the West Bank is not conducive to resistance efforts. The Israelis regard resistance activities as hostile to their own military hegemony, while the PA views the groups involved as inimical to its political leadership. The two collaborate in order to fight against the resistance, regardless of the prevailing stalemate in the “peace process”.
Most armed attacks in the West Bank involve shooting at Israeli occupation forces and bases, as well as on illegal settlers and their transport. Such attacks do not require much effort and planning, unlike bombings, raiding illegal settlements and planting IEDs, which require accuracy and sound planning to ensure their success. Stone throwing is a daily occurrence, as is the use of Molotov cocktails.
These are the types of resistance that all Palestinians are capable of; such activities are not limited to those with specific party or factional affiliations and frameworks. Any Palestinian who wants to resist Israel’s military occupation can obtain a weapon and attack any Israeli target, either military or at an illegal settlement, with fewer complications than coordinated armed operations. Resistance by any means is entirely legitimate under international law.
Successful attacks by armed cells in the West Bank against Israeli soldiers and settlers — all of whom are also heavily armed — deal harsh blows to the army’s self-esteem and are a deterrent to the PA’s own efforts. Indeed, the PA does not hesitate to eradicate any new resistance cells; PA President Mahmoud Abbas mentioned this to Israeli peace activists recently.
Ordinary Palestinians know that the security coordination between their own security services and Israel is supported by both Ramallah and Tel Aviv, and that the Palestinian agencies compete against each other to provide intelligence to the Israelis about the resistance. They also believe that the PA provides Israel with confessions by Palestinian prisoners interrogated in PA-run prisons. There is a joint computer network for this collaboration between the PA and Israel, as revealed by the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem in February 2016.
Despite the tightening of the PA’s measure on the one hand, and Israeli surveillance and incursions on the other, Hamas still uses “local networks” to carry out operations in the streets and alleyways of the occupied West Bank. Recent attacks against army patrols suggest that the resistance movement may continue to do so in the foreseeable future.
Middle East Monitor