Earlier this month, Israel attempted to turn the playing field and begin ending waves of terror from the West Bank with a massive two-day IDF operation in Jenin.
It is still too early to assess the real impact of the operation, and it certainly hasn’t completely ended the waves of terror, but two weeks later, some early trends can be detected.
Discussions with a number of Israeli sources familiar with the Palestinian situation reveal that there are still some fundamental disagreements about the impact of the operation.
One of the biggest questions is whether the operation has strengthened or weakened the PA’s hand in Jenin and across the West Bank.
Did the operation strengthen the hand of power in Jenin, west it, or weaken it?
Those who believe the process has strengthened the Palestinian Authority say that the authority and its president, Mahmoud Abbas, have fallen asleep behind the wheel and lost control of Jenin sometime in 2022, if not sooner.
They say that when Abbas visited Jenin last weekend, he was surprised at how out of control the situation was for the Palestinian Authority, even if he knew about it from afar. After that visit, they said, he decided to respond in a way he hadn’t in some time.
The protests by Hamas and Islamic Jihad over his arrest of their activists testify that something has changed in Jenin, with the Palestinian Authority taking over at least somewhat more in control since the operation.
It seems that Abbas finally understood from the actions of the Israeli army and his visit that if he did not act soon, the rebellion against the authority of the Palestinian Authority could spread on a larger scale.
But others disagree and say that Abbas is still taking limited and symbolic measures without real force.
They say he no longer has the internal strength, the capacity within his security forces, or the legitimacy among the broader populace in Jenin and the surrounding villages to maintain complete control.
The Palestinian Authority is at one of its weakest points
If, a few years ago, the Palestinian Authority could take strict measures in a number of cities in the West Bank several times to maintain its rule, they say that the Palestinian Authority is in one of its weakest points ever, and that it is not clear that it has the will or the strength to change the situation in more than calculated ways.
Regardless of Abbas’ intent, there is also a debate about whether – at this very moment after the IDF’s operation – the PA’s crackdown will increase or diminish the PA’s legitimacy.
Some say it’s just a matter of strength. If the PA cracks down, it will show that it still can, while some of its competitors may have thought it had lost that ability altogether.
In the Palestinian/Arab world, simply the power of oppression can create a kind of legitimacy, although the word means something closer to respect than the Western meaning, which associates legitimacy with human rights.
On this side of the debate, they also say that Hamas in the West Bank is much weaker than some people think.
They say that when some experts predict a Hamas takeover of the West Bank like the terrorist group withdrew in Gaza, these experts don’t quite realize how hostile most Palestinians in the West Bank are to Hamas’ religiosity, compared to Gaza, which has always been more religiously inclined.
Although the Lions’ Den has a large social media presence and appears to be very popular from the millions of hits some of its leaders have, they are seen as a vulnerable group playing games on behalf of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Iran, or other groups that give individuals small amounts of money to post on social media.
It can be said that this, in fact, exposes the weakness of the power rivals who cannot confront it directly in the West Bank. Even in Jenin, Hamas and Islamic Jihad were never specifically in control, insofar as there was a broad mix of unaffiliated groups and fighters.
Moreover, they say, the PA is still operating in several key sectors: whether financial, transportation or medical.
Others say the timing of the campaign would hurt the PA, that the wider population of Jenin would turn even more against the PA, and that this could really lead to an eventual Hamas takeover.
There are also questions about whether the IDF will continue to operate in Jenin, which the PA may associate with as “traitors,” or whether the IDF will take some new risk to the Israeli public by trusting the PA to suppress terror there.
The Israeli military has given mixed signals on the issue and may change its view daily, depending on how seriously it feels the Palestinian Authority is acting.
There are also ongoing debates about whether Israel and the IDF can use the “stick” it just used in Jenin with a large-scale “carrot” to show the Palestinian public that reducing terror can improve their lives.
There are already 210,000-220,000 Palestinians working inside the Green Line or for Jews in the West Bank, along with about 18,000 Palestinians from Gaza. However, there is a general cut-off point, which is that Palestinians could not obtain Israeli work permits until they were over the age of twenty-seven. At that point, the dangers of terrorism and the prospect of wanting to provide for a family and achieve stability had already begun to shift.
There is discussion within the defense establishment about whether to lower the minimum age to 25, which could dramatically increase the number of Palestinian workers in Israel.
Neither the Israeli army nor the Shin Bet (Israeli security agency) has announced its position on this issue.
But senior officials of both agencies have previously pushed for an increase in the number of Palestinian workers from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and have argued that the rate of terrorist attacks from these people is close to zero, and that such a policy directly links economic interests and stability between Israelis and Palestinians.
In parallel, in late 2021 the Israeli government began pushing for 500 Palestinians to be employed in Israeli high-tech companies, and not just in the construction and service industries. The number of job vacancies for Palestinians in high-tech industries may have now grown to a few thousand, but only a handful of jobs have been filled, due to logistical, cultural and political barriers.
If the government takes a more active role in trying to resolve these hurdles, it might also reap some serious stabilizing benefits from the Palestinians, who will see some of their brethren access the elite sides of the internet state.
According to a UN report, about 66% of Palestinians are under the age of 29. This means that an enormous and growing number of Palestinians between the ages of 17 and 29 may be unemployed, which puts them at greater risk of turning to terrorism, if only because they have nothing else to do. It has a population of about three million Palestinians in the West Bank.
Another area in which Israel can use the “carrot” is reducing the number of checkpoints and waiting times at checkpoints.
Numerous studies have reported that Palestinians may wait hours per day, or hours when combining traffic before the barrier along with commuting through the barrier itself, to pass.
Some have hypothesized that the Palestinians’ anger and frustration with the checkpoint experience is more serious than their anger with Israel over issues of a broader political dispute on the ground, or even their anger over specific disputes between them and nearby settlers.
But any time Israel removes a barrier and a terrorist attack occurs, the government is attacked because it removed the barrier. This is regardless of whether this type of terrorist attack can be prevented by the specific checkpoint involved.
The Palestinian Authority is also experiencing a severe economic crisis, exacerbated by a protracted dispute with Israel over the terms for receiving customs revenues.
Aside from resolving this dispute to help stabilize the Palestinian Authority, a large part of the debt, about 1 billion shekels, is in favor of the Israel Electric Corporation.
In the past, Israeli governments have used this debt to alternately put pressure on the PA, or even cut off power, or pile on debt, to help stabilize the PA and achieve broader goals.
All this without even getting into the talking – Israel’s move to return to full-scale diplomatic negotiations with the Palestinians. It is true that many of the security issues with the Palestinians can only be resolved by the Palestinian Authority and its rivals.
Moreover, defense officials are more concerned than ever about the impact of the “day after Abbas,” 88-year-old and terminally ill, with even the most senior PA officials talking about it more openly than ever. With no clear successor, not only is the future unstable, but future uncertainty can destabilize the present.
However, with negotiations still unlikely given the current coalition mix, and the Palestinian Authority outside of Israel’s control, there are still quite a few measures that Israel could take, according to defense officials, to try to solidify a more positive outcome after the massive Jenin operation.