In the early hours of Sunday, the Israeli army killed five Palestinians in two simultaneous military operations in Occupied Jerusalem and Jenin in the West Bank. It claimed the assaults were intended to foil a major military operation being planned by Palestinian factions.
The Palestinian Health Ministry said three Palestinians were martyred when Israeli soldiers opened fire in Beit Anan, northwest of Jerusalem. Among those killed was Ahmed Zahran, a leading member of the Al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, who had been wanted by the occupation army. Two more were killed in Jenin, including released detainee Osama Sobh who died in a firefight in Barqeen, west of Jenin in the north of the West Bank. The Islamic Jihad claimed him as one of its own.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett claimed the Israeli army, which said two of its special forces troopers were injured during a firefight with two Palestinian groups, foiled an imminent attack being planned by Hamas in the West Bank. Israel’s Channel 20 quoted a source in the army as saying, “Tonight, our forces prevented a major attack like none Israel has seen in a long time. Armed men were planning a major operation to kill Israelis. The assassinations and arrests of the Palestinian cell were based on intelligence that the cell is plotting an attack on Israelis in the near future.”
The channel also reported statements by a spokesperson for the Israeli army to the effect that the military assault targeted a Hamas military cell in the West Bank in four different operations that killed four members of the group while four others were arrested.
Israel believes these operations will dismantle Hamas’ infrastructure in the West Bank. Israeli officials claim that the Palestinians opened fire first and were training to kill and kidnap Israelis. However, the Palestinians assert these claims are pretexts for a new incursion into Palestinian areas in Occupied Jerusalem and the West Bank, intended gradually to undermining the control of the Palestinian Authority (PA) there.
The PA and Palestinian factions believe Israel’s recent crimes are another indicator that the Israeli government is intent on igniting conditions on the ground, and that Israel repeatedly raids areas in the West Bank that are mostly under Palestinian control. The Palestinian presidency issued a statement describing these crimes as a continuation of abuses and summary executions of Palestinians, adding that this policy will lead to an explosive situation, more tensions and instability. It directly blamed the Israeli government for the escalation and its repercussions.
Hamas and the Islamic Jihad vowed to avenge the fallen martyrs, without indicating when or what this might look like. Israel raised its state of alert in anticipation of rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip in response to the slayings. The Palestinian government viewed the military assault as part of Israel’s systematic policy of usurping land and building settlements, and the gradual annexation of Palestinian areas by weakening the PA until it only has superficial presence there.
Despite Israeli claims that the killing of the five Palestinians was operationally motivated based on the information that they were plotting to carry out attacks in Israel, several Israeli circles believe the army was planning to carry out several assaults on various areas in the West Bank, especially Jenin, which Israel has viewed as a power keg and agitated against since Israeli units repeatedly came under fire on its periphery recently, and especially after two of the detainees who escaped from Gilboa high security prison sought refuge there for several days before they were recaptured.
This means Israel could have several scenarios for the West Bank to deal with an alleged threat coming from there, which is reminiscent of Operation Defencive Shield in 2002 when the Israeli army invaded West Bank cities on the pretext of dismantling the infrastructure of armed Palestinian factions there.
A report on Channel 12 said the Israeli army recently completed a military plan for concentrated operations in Jenin, since it is a stronghold of armed groups in the Palestinian territories. The report said PA control there is minimal and Palestinian security forces have no authority on large swathes of the city. The Israeli channel continued that Defence Minister Benny Gantz and Army Chief Aviv Kochavi have approved military plans to invade the city, even though Israel understands that such a broad operation would cause serious losses and can resonate in Gaza, which remains relatively calm for now. Hamas had previously warned that it would respond if Israel invaded the Jenin Refugee Camp.
The news channel quoted army officials as saying that the reality in Jenin is more explosive than at any other time, and this can impact the Palestinian street and conditions in Israel.
Ibrahim Al-Sawwaf, a political analyst, believes Israel is preparing for several possible scenarios to deal with the West Bank, including the collapse of the PA and Israel being forced to directly manage the security portfolio there. Al-Sawwaf warned that such a move would be very risky due to an uptick in Israeli crimes against Palestinians, which has triggered growing feelings of revenge against Israel.
He said Israel’s plot of meddling in the West Bank and escalation on the ground will not serve Israel’s security concerns, but instead will increase operations against Israel, whether attacks planned by Palestinian factions or individuals -- as seen in the past when individual Palestinians randomly stabbed or rammed Israelis without being affiliated to any Palestinian group.
Al-Sawwaf said escalation in the West Bank and repeated raids in Occupied Jerusalem could trigger a response by Palestinian factions in the Gaza Strip, especially since the latter believe Israel is deflecting from honouring its commitments in the ceasefire deal, and is delaying steps to ease the siege on Gaza. He added that the repercussions of escalation in the West Bank will not remain within the West Bank which has started to move against Israel, albeit at a pace that Israel can control for now. Al-Sawwaf cautioned that increased restrictions and harassment at Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank since the Gilboa escape will intensify anger against Israel, which could lead Israel to invade Palestinian cities, especially Jenin, which it views as a serious threat.
Tensions on the ground are further aggravated by accelerated Israeli assaults on Occupied Jerusalem and West Bank cities. Meanwhile, Israel rejects Palestinian requests to return to negotiations based on international frameworks and resolutions. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas even threatened to rescind recognition of Israel if it does not withdraw to the June 1967 border within one year. But Israel brushed off the threat.
According to analysts, this embodies the difficulties facing progress in talks with the incumbent Israeli government and eliminates the possibility of a peaceful resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict -- even if the radical right government of Benjamin Netanyahu is no longer in power. This is yet another reason why escalation on the ground is a real possibility, and could cast a shadow on already complicated political relations between Palestinians and Israel.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 30 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly