Recent days have been marked by an upswing in violent incidents in the West Bank, and the timing raising concerns that the Palestinian Authority (PA) has once again chosen to couple its rejectionism at the negotiating table with a threat of violence.
The incidents included a Bethlehem firebomb thrown at the Tomb of Rachel injuring a guard there. Also according to Palestinian reports an IDF observation tower near Qalqilya was fired upon. The latter incident was reportedly in response to Saturday’s firefight in which a Hamas operative was killed when he fired upon IDF forces.
In addition to coinciding with their increasingly hard-line stance in the peace talks, there is also a concern of Hamas gaining a foothold in the West Bank. Last week, Matthew Levitt noted that along with the small but noticeable spike in violence, Fatah, the party of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, has been shying away from fighting terror groups in the West Bank.
The growth of West Bank violence in recent months raises several concerns. First, while overall Israeli deaths from terrorist attacks declined from 2012 to 2013, none of the fatal 2012 attacks originated from the West Bank. But this flipped in 2013, with five of that year’s six Israeli fatalities stemming from the West Bank. Second, Israeli and Palestinian sources agree that PA security forces have been weak in the face of recent unrest. Residents of West Bank refugee camps in particular are becoming increasingly hostile, and the PA has been pulling back as a result. The Israel Defense Forces have taken up some of the slack — IDF arrests in the West Bank went up by a third from 2012 to 2013. Yet as violent activity intensifies, successful attacks will become ever more likely.
A number of factors have contributed to the deteriorating security situation. The PA suffered a serious blow when Prime Minister Salam Fayyad resigned in April 2013, and the territories are in dire economic straits. Meanwhile, Hamas appears to be expanding its presence in the West Bank from its Gaza stronghold. A spate of recent reports have mentioned the presence of various group members in the West Bank, indicating an intent to take advantage of the PA’s declining capabilities. In January, for example, newspaper reports noted that Israel had arrested sixteen men in Jerusalem over the previous several weeks on suspicion of running a Hamas headquarters in the city. A February story mentioned fifteen West Bank arrests in connection with fire bombings and rock attacks on Israeli vehicles. And last week, a Hamas operative in east Jerusalem was arrested on suspicion of cutting gas pipes in residential buildings as part of a one-man terrorist campaign.
Unsurprisingly, these developments have led some Fatah officials to hedge their bets by either looking the other way when certain incidents occur or publicly warning of greater violence to come.
David Barnett, writing at the Long War Journal, observed “spokesmen for the PA government in the West Bank denounced the killings.” The failure of PA security forces to intervene political leader to pose as defending Palestinians against Israel.
This posturing by the PA underscores the importance of Israel’s maintaining control over its own security — regardless of whether the PA is unable or unwilling to prevent violence. The Tower Magazine’s associate editor, Benjamin Kerstein outlined a number of dilemmas facing Israel in its peace negotiations including an in-depth look at security concerns in Hammered: The Palestinian Peace Paradox, in the March, 2014 issue.
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