July 10, 2023

IntelBrief: No Easy Solutions in the West Bank

AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Israel’s recently concluded military operation in a West Bank Palestinian refugee camp is unlikely to end the security threats emanating from Jenin or the West Bank more broadly.
  • The operation, Israel’s largest in decades, was internationally criticized after killing twelve Palestinians, injuring hundreds of civilians, and displacing thousands.
  • The security sweep in the Jenin camp could renew combat between Israel and militants based in Gaza and southern Lebanon.
  • Israeli and Palestinian leaders are, for ideological and internal purposes, unable to undertake the major compromises needed to restore peace and security to both sides.

On July 5, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) concluded a 48-hour military operation in the sprawling 17,000-resident refugee camp abutting the West Bank city of Jenin. Said to be Israel’s largest in two decades, the operation involved hundreds of soldiers and at least ten drone strikes, while armed bulldozers were used to clear explosives and tanks were placed on the outskirts of Jenin. Israeli officials characterized the incursion as a successful effort to root out what Israeli authorities claimed are “terrorist leaders” that hold sway in the camp and use it as a base to conduct attacks on Israelis in Israel and the West Bank. The operation resulted in twelve Palestinian deaths, one Israeli soldier killed, and some 100 Palestinian civilians injured. Thousands more fled from their homes, and the camp’s electricity and water services were severely damaged. Israel claimed all of the Palestinians killed were combatants.

One major target of the sweep, according to Israeli officials, were the leaders, rocket launchers, and weapons caches of the Jenin Brigade. The organization was founded by Palestine Islamic Jihad (PIJ) leaders but has drawn in fighters from other Palestinian factions, including Hamas and the armed wings of Fatah. Fatah is the dominant faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority (PA). Disaffected and previously unaffiliated Palestinian youths – frustrated by the continued lack of progress toward ending Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory, lack of employment opportunities, and the steady expansion of Israeli settlements throughout the West Bank – have clashed with Israelis and supported the militants in Jenin and other West Bank areas over the past few years.

The weakness of PA President Mahmoud Abbas, coupled with far less robust Israel-PA security cooperation in recent years, enabled militants to expand their sway in the camp. Some sources note that, even though Jenin camp militants were not responsible for a June attack claimed by Hamas that killed four Israelis near a Jewish settlement on the West Bank, the incident created domestic pressure on the government of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to act against the Jenin militants. The expansion of Iran-backed groups such as Hamas and PIJ in the West Bank is another major concern to Netanyahu and his right-wing government. Netanyahu has threatened military action and agitated for U.S. military strikes against Iran over its nuclear, ballistic missile, and drone programs and its support for regional armed factions, including Palestinian groups and Lebanese Hezbollah.

PA President Abbas’ office denounced the Israeli operation as a “war crime” and announced a suspension of security coordination with the Israelis. Still, to the extent that PIJ, Hamas, and other Palestinian militant groups represent a threat to his leadership of the PA and the Palestinian people, some experts assessed that Abbas’ interests are well-served by Israeli attacks on Palestinian militants in the West Bank. The IDF action also received widespread regional condemnation from several Arab countries, including Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), as well as non-Arab regional powers such as Türkiye. The United Kingdom, which holds the rotating presidency of the UN Security Council for the month of July, agreed to a request by the UAE, France, China, and Brazil to hold a Security Council meeting on July 7 to discuss the Israeli operation. The Council last held a closed-door session on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict less than three weeks ago, where it discussed accelerated West Bank settlement activity. Despite U.S. disagreements with Netanyahu over his judicial reform proposals and other issues, a U.S. National Security Council spokesperson affirmed that the United States “support[s] Israel’s security and right to defend its people against Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and other terrorist groups.”

While no expert or senior IDF officer expects the operations will permanently end the militant threat emanating from the Jenin camp, the suspension of Israel-PA security cooperation may allow militants to maintain or even increase their strength there, particularly in the short-term. Demonstrations held in the camp against the PA after the IDF operation illustrate that the PA will not regain control of the camp any time soon, if at all. Protestors threw rocks at the PA headquarters, to which Palestinian security personnel responded by firing teargas. The IDF action also could reignite clashes between Israel and Hamas and PIJ militants in Gaza and southern Lebanon. As the IDF withdrew from the camp, a barrage of rocket fire from Gaza was directed at Israel in support of the Palestinians in Jenin, which in turn led to Israeli retaliatory air strikes on targets in Gaza. During the Israeli operation, a Palestinian attacker wounded eight Israelis at a Tel Aviv bus stop in an attack claimed by Hamas. Previously, Israel and PIJ exchanged strikes for several days in early May, which threatened to draw PIJ’s much larger and better-armed ally in Gaza, Hamas, as well as Lebanese Hezbollah into the fray. PIJ, Hamas, and Hezbollah are all factions armed, partially funded, and supported by Tehran as part of the Islamic Republic’s “axis of resistance.”

More broadly, the IDF operation raises questions about the apparent absence of a longer-term solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Pursuit of a final peace settlement has floundered for at least a decade, due in part to the fact that an Israel-Palestinian solution no longer appears to be a U.S. priority. Meanwhile, various Netanyahu-led Israeli governments have not supported the United States’ preferred two-state solution concept, and have instead steadily expanded Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which numerous UN resolutions have affirmed are illegal under international law. In addition, the PA is weak and faces internal and broader Palestinian opposition to the necessary compromises involved in a final settlement with Israel. Furthermore, several Gulf states – most notably the UAE and Bahrain – have abandoned conditioning their normalization of relations with Israel on an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. Saudi Arabia, which earlier championed the Palestinian national cause, has also built ties with Israel and muted its support for the Palestinians. The Gulf states possess the resources to help the PA financially, but they lack the willingness or ability to compel either Israel or the PA to agree to core concessions. The dynamics in both Israel and the Palestinian territories have created conditions for the most hardline views on negotiations with the other side to flourish, with predictable consequences for more frequent and intense Israeli-Palestinian violence.