February 24, 2023 | Washington Examiner
Why the West Bank is in chaos
Senior Vice President for Research
Research Analyst at FDD's Long War Journal
February 24, 2023 | Washington Examiner
Why the West Bank is in chaos
Palestinian terrorism in Israel is on the rise. Daily headlines convey a steady stream of stabbings, vehicular attacks, and other forms of violence.
Few expect the media to be fair, much less balanced. A recent and much-maligned New York Times headline blared: “At Least 2 Dead as Driver Rams Bus Stop in East Jerusalem.” No mention of the driver’s motivation (Palestinian nationalism). No mention of who was targeted or why (Israelis, just for being Israeli).
Some observers falsely assert cause and effect. Notably, a December op-ed by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman implied that the newly elected right-wing Israeli government, which had yet to take office, was driving up attacks.
Equally cringeworthy are reports describing recent bloodshed as a “fresh” surge of violence. That’s flat wrong.
Although it is tempting to look at Mideast violence as all part of the same perpetual “cycle of violence,” different waves are often clearly distinct from one another. The ability to delineate such trendlines makes it possible to determine the intent behind the waves of violence and better anticipate future ones. Such closer inspection reveals, as well, the foreign direction and funding for some of the attacks, widening the scope of responsibility beyond Israel and local Palestinian leaders.
There was a time when sustained West Bank violence was common. The intifada of 2000-2005 was an asymmetric war waged by Palestinian groups. But since then, thanks in part to the efficacy of Israel’s security barrier, not to mention careful and complex coordination between Palestinians and Israelis, the West Bank has been largely quiet.
By the end of 2021, however, armed clashes between Israeli forces and gunmen had become routine. So it behooves us to look for the turning point. We find it in May 2021 during an 11-day war between Israel and Hamas. Israeli security officials now say that Hamas made a strategic decision after that clash to abandon battles in Gaza because it is a territory the terrorist group already controls. Rather, it elected to export unrest and chaos to the West Bank, with assistance from Iran and some of its proxy groups, with the goal of taking it over. Stoking violence there has the benefit of threatening Israel and destabilizing the rival Palestinian Authority.
The effect was immediate. On June 10, 2021, Israeli security forces entered Jenin to search for two men who shot at Israeli soldiers. The Israelis were met with armed gunmen and members of the Palestinian Authority security services. Two Palestinian Authority security officers were killed in the ensuing gunfight, as well as the founder of Islamic Jihad’s Jenin branch. Two months later, amid an uptick in militant activity, Israeli forces killed another member of the Iran-backed Islamic Jihad in Jenin. In September, Israeli forces killed four members of Hamas, which also happens to be backed by Iran, during operations near Jenin and Jerusalem.
Violence continued into 2022. The first major attack took place on March 22, after an Islamic State sympathizer rammed a cyclist with his car and stabbed others in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba. That episode left four dead.
Five days later, two other ISIS sympathizers, Ayman and Khaled Ighbariya, carried out a shooting attack in the northern Israeli city of Hadera, murdering two Israeli Border Police officers. The two previously recorded a video swearing allegiance to ISIS and its leader at the time, Abu al Hassan al Hashimi al Qurayshi.
Then, on March 30, five people were shot and killed in the Tel Aviv suburb of Bnei Brak by Dia Hamarsheh, a Palestinian from the northern West Bank with connections to Islamic Jihad.
Jarred by the wave of violence, the Israel Defense Forces launched “Operation Wave Breaker” on March 31. Twenty-five battalions deployed to the West Bank.
There is little doubt that Israeli soldiers operating in the territory that the Palestinians seek for their national project has agitated some West Bankers. But the Israelis saw little choice, given the surge in violence. The terrorist attacks in the spring and summer of 2022 were clearly coordinated by Hamas, Islamic Jihad, al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades (a faction aligned with the ruling Palestinian Fatah party), and others.
Wave Breaker resulted in numerous injured and dead jihadis. However, the Palestinian fighters were not deterred. A subsequent increase in attacks targeting Israeli settlers in the West Bank was particularly notable.
By the spring of last year, Israeli defense officials observed that pockets of the West Bank were utterly lawless. Hamas’s strategic pivot in the summer of 2021 was paying dividends. The Palestinian Authority was either unwilling or unable to contain the chaos in towns such as Nablus and Jenin. After sustained Israeli political pressure, coupled with continued IDF operations, in September 2022, the Palestinian Authority arrested Musab Shtayyeh, a wanted member of Hamas. Israel lauded the arrest, which demonstrated the Palestinian Authority had the ability to act.
But it was too little and too late. The West Bank had become home to established terrorist organizations that previously lacked a foothold in the territory, such as the Gaza-based Mujahideen Movement and the Popular Resistance Movement. Worse, a new terrorist organization emerged: the Lions’ Den.
On Sept. 4, 2022, Palestinian media published footage of a memorial for gunmen killed by Israel associated with the Lions’ Den. The group appeared well armed, well financed, and surprisingly organized for a new actor on the scene. Reports suggest Iran helped to fund the group, which has enticed fighters to join its ranks from across the spectrum of Palestinian militant factions, with the promise of engaging in more aggressive battles with Israeli forces.
The Lions’ Den subsequently carried out dozens of attacks against IDF troops and settlers in the West Bank. But the group attacked inside Israel’s green line, too. On Sept. 8, 2022, Israeli police thwarted a large-scale terrorist attack in Jaffa, apprehending a 19-year-old resident of Nablus carrying a bandana of the Lions’ Den, a makeshift machine gun, and pipe bombs. Israeli Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai claimed to have prevented “a massacre.” Haaretz later confirmed that Lions’ Den was responsible.
The chaos continues. Attacks are mounted nearly every day, inside Israel and in the West Bank. An interactive map created by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and updated daily clearly demonstrates the arc of this campaign. No less than 1,120 violent incidents have occurred since March.
Sadly, in today’s media environment, when reporters say something is “new,” it’s often merely new to them. Especially when Israel is involved, such narratives are reinforced by completely unrelated actions taken by the government that reporters find objectionable (judicial reform or settlement expansion, for example). U.S. officials weigh in, which then adds momentum to the coverage. And so these completely unrelated actions become post hoc justifications for Palestinian violence, even though the actual motivations are no mystery.
Crucially, documenting the campaign led by Palestinian terrorist groups is not rocket science. One of this article’s authors, Joe Truzman, has been keeping a running Twitter thread, in English, of the incidents and their genesis, and he is not alone in providing a reliable and easily accessible record of events. Yet this is scarcely reflected in most media coverage. The good news: This gap can be filled somewhat easily, enabling more accurate coverage of the conflict, so long as journalists want to correct their blind spots.
It might be tempting to place blame on an Israeli coalition of right-wing parties whose leaders continue to utter statements that Palestinians find offensive. But it’s also lazy. Such statements may exacerbate the problem, but they don’t alter the fact that this round of Palestinian terrorism began long before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu entered office. Indeed, the bulk of those 1,120 violent incidents occurred during the brief premiership of Naftali Bennett and caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid. It would be wrong to blame them, as well.
While the Israeli government continues to sustain a barrage of criticism (much of it unrelated, focusing on controversial judicial reforms), there is remarkably little analysis of the Palestinian Authority’s inability to counter the rise of Palestinian terrorist organizations in its territory. Towns including Jenin and Nablus, even Tulkarem, are still no-go zones. The Palestinian Authority appears more interested in referring Israel to the International Criminal Court on dubious charges than tackling the terrorist threat.
The violence in the West Bank and Israel is not new. Nor is it the result of Israel’s recent elections. The current narrative misses the real story. Israel is actively working to counter the surge in terrorism, instigated by Iran-backed groups seeking to destabilize Palestinian Authority territory, with a persistently erroneous media narrative that only makes the job that much harder.
Joe Truzman is a research analyst for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’s Long War Journal. Jonathan Schanzer is senior vice president for research at FDD and author of the book Gaza Conflict 2021: Hamas, Israel and Eleven Days of War (FDD Press, 2021). Follow on Twitter @JoeTruzman and @JSchanzer. FDD is a nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.