The Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) have further intensified and expanded the scope of their operations against Palestinians in the West Bank. They were previously focused primarily on Jenin and Nablus, where Israel claims that Palestinian militia cells are active and that the Palestinian Authority (PA) is unable to restrain them.
In the few days after the beginning of December, the IOF killed eight Palestinians, three from Ramallah, of whom two were brothers, and the others from Bethlehem and Khalil (Hebron). In addition, two commanders of the Al-Quds Brigade (AQB), the armed wing of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), were assassinated in Jenin.
But the execution of a Palestinian youth at pointblank range in Nablus on 2 December was of a different order. Video footage of the incident, which circulated on social media and stirred widespread outrage, shows a brief scuffle between an Israeli soldier and Ammar Mefleh, 22, at the Huwwara military checkpoint in Nablus.
The soldier kicked and hit the young man and then reached for his pistol and shot him.
UN Mideast Coordinator Tor Wennesland wrote in a tweet that he was “horrified” by the killing of the young man in the Occupied West Bank, adding that “such incidents must be fully and promptly investigated and those responsible held accountable.”
However, Israeli officials not only rejected calls for an investigation, but praised the behaviour of the soldier. The candidate as the next Israeli national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, hailed the soldier as a “hero” and praised his “swift and vigorous” action.
According to Israeli news outlets, the Israeli Foreign Ministry rebuked Wennesland for his statement deploring the killing of Mefleh. Foreign Ministry Spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon was quoted as describing the UN Coordinator’s statement as a “total distortion of reality.”
The Israeli soldier’s behaviour is in line with the extremist views and spirit of what is likely to become the next Israeli government under prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Ben-Gvir has vowed to relax restrictions on the IOF’s use of live ammunition against Palestinians, including civilians who pose no genuine threat to Israeli soldiers.
Palestinians are not the only people concerned by the right-wing and ultra-conservative nature of the government Netanyahu is forming. The deals that he is making to win the far-right religious parties have stirred heated debate in Israel.
According to one such agreement, Bezalel Smotrich, leader of Religious Zionist Party, will be appointed to a newly created position in the Defence Ministry in charge of Jewish settlements. He will have the authority to appoint the powerful Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), who is responsible for applying Israeli occupation policy in the West Bank and Gaza and coordinating with the PA.
He will also have the power to appoint the head of the Civil Administration, the part of COGAT in charge of planning and construction in the Occupied Territories that authorises Israeli settlement construction.
Acting Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lipid lashed out at the deal with the head of the Religious Zionist Party. “Netanyahu has sold the IDF [Israeli Defence Force] to the hardalim,” he tweeted on Monday, using a term denoting far-right, ultra-religious Israelis.
The PA has begun to gird itself for the bleak eventualities that the forthcoming Netanyahu government holds in store for Palestinians. On Sunday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas convened a meeting of the Fatah Revolutionary Council in Ramallah, during which he outlined a “roadmap” for action in response to narrowing political horizons, according to the Palestinian news agency Wafa.
The plan calls for a unified stance to rally Arab and international support for the Palestinian cause in the face of the current challenges and taking the necessary decisions to safeguard the rights of the Palestinian people.
During the meeting, Abbas said that he anticipated “more violations, aggression, and crimes” from the Netanyahu government and that “we must all work to confront, expose, and thwart them.” He added that the PA would continue its efforts to join international organisations as it worked to obtain full UN membership and secure recognition for the Palestinian state from UN members that have not already done so.
Some Palestinian analysts fear that such steps will not be sufficient to prevent or respond to Israeli actions on the ground in Palestine. They also underscore the central Palestinian weakness: the ongoing rift between the Fatah movement in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza.
“The PA and Hamas do not have many options for contending with the Israeli escalation, especially while the rest of the world is preoccupied with the war in Ukraine and its political and economic repercussions,” said Palestinian political analyst Ahmed Awad in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly.
“The PA hopes that Washington will check the extremist frenzy of the forthcoming Israeli government, but even the Biden administration has more pressing priorities, what with the next elections in the US and the fear that the Republicans will return to power, not to mention the economic challenges in the country,” Awad said.
In a meeting with a left-leaning pro-Israeli lobby group in the US, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said that the US would work to preserve a “horizon of hope” for the creation of a Palestinian state. “We will also continue to unequivocally oppose any acts that undermine the prospects of a two-state solution, including but not limited to settlement expansion, moves towards annexation of the West Bank, disruption to the historic status quo of holy sites, demolitions and evictions, and incitement to violence,” he said.
He added that everything that leads away from the two-state solution would jeopardise Israeli security and identity in the long run.
The PA noted that it has been disappointed many times by Washington’s unfulfilled promises regarding the Palestinian cause. According to Israeli news outlets reporting on Netanyahu’s meetings with the leaders of the parties that will take part in his coalition government, he will bend to the force of US criticisms of the policies of his extremist ministers until the next presidential elections in 2024.
“Expressions of concern are no longer commensurate with the scale of the crimes the Israeli occupation perpetrates against the defenceless Palestinian people and its trail of destruction that affects every facet of life on our land,” said Palestinian Prime Minister Mohamed Shtayyeh at a PA cabinet meeting on Monday.
Palestinian analysts warn that the Israeli military escalation is likely to expand from the West Bank to Gaza, where Palestinian factions that possess arms and missiles will find themselves in an awkward position if they continue to remain silent in the face of Israeli aggression in the West Bank, especially when the IOF targets their members.
On 1 December, the IOF killed two members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s Jenin Brigade, Mohamed Al-Saadi and Naeem Al-Zubeid, during a raid on the Jenin Refugee Camp. Israel claims that they were involved in the kidnapping of the corpse of an Israeli citizen who had died in a car accident in the northern West Bank.
After the killings, Israel declared a state of alert for fear of retaliation from the PIJ in Gaza. Hamas, which applies a more complicated calculus to any military action because it is responsible for the lives of more than two million Palestinians in Gaza, may have relaxed its constraints on the PIJ for last Saturday, as the Israeli army announced that a missile and other projectiles were fired at Israeli settlements near Gaza.
None of the Palestinian factions claimed responsibility for the attack, but Israeli reports suggest that the PIJ was responsible. Israel retaliated, striking what it claimed were military targets belonging to Hamas in Gaza. Israel holds Hamas responsible for any missiles fired into Israel from Gaza.
During the Israeli barrage, more missiles were fired from Gaza at nearby Israeli settlements. This time, the Al-Qassam Brigade, Hamas’ military wing, announced that it had fired a Sam-7, a shoulder-launched surface-to-air missile, at Israeli fighter planes, corroborating this with a video posted on social media.
This type of missile is ineffective against the types of military aircraft Israel uses in its attacks against Gaza, lending weight to the conjecture that the purpose in attempting to down an Israeli warplane was to save face and refute charges that Hamas has abandoned the resistance and left the PIJ to fend for itself during the Israeli strikes in August.
Although Hamas has lauded resistance operations targeting Israelis in the West Bank, the movement has not officially acknowledged the existence of any of its armed formations in the West Bank. The PIJ, by contrast, boasts of such groups, and these have begun to worry Israel.
Among them is the Jenin Brigade, which has carried out a number of operations against the IOF. It was responsible for the kidnapping on 23 November of the body of an Israeli man who had died in a car accident in Jenin. The incident could have set the entire West Bank aflame, as Israel had warned that if the body of the young man, a member of the Israeli Druze community, was not returned to his family, the army would carry out a plan to invade the city.
PA-led mediation succeeded in getting the body released and returned to his family. The incident was a reminder of the abduction, murder, and concealment of the bodies of three Israelis in 2014. Israel mounted an intensive search to find the bodies, and 18 days later it launched a full-scale assault against Gaza after learning that Hamas was behind the attack.
Israel accuses Iran of funding the militia groups in the West Bank, claiming that this is part of Tehran’s strategy to distract Israel with a nearby danger to draw its attention away from the long-term danger, namely Iran’s eventual possession of a nuclear weapon.
The danger that the Palestinians face is closer to hand. With the most far-right government ever about to assume power in Israel, the Palestinians are looking at a potentially dismal winter with mounting Israeli violence wrought with ever-greater impunity.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 December, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.