Situation Assessment: The Palestinian Israeli Conflict in 2016
The beginning of 2016 has been relatively calm in the country, in comparison with incidents in late 2015, as shown below. The security threat level decreased as the number of lone wolf attacks and clashes fell. Despite this, ISF military operations, including search and arrest, remained at a high level. However, relative tranquility turned into a more aggressive period of unrest at the beginning of June 2016 (June 8th) after two Palestinians from Yatta (Hebron) conducted an armed attack in Tel -Aviv using Carl Gustav-style weapons, resulting in the death of 4 Israelis and injuries to six others. Two attacks followed this incident; a stabbing attack and a shooting attack were reported in Efrat (7.67 km SW of Bethlehem) and at Jaba’ CP (11.87 km NE Jerusalem) on June 10th, and June 12th, respectively. June’s incidents suggest that a new organized and prearranged wave of attacks may lead to further dramatic incidents in the near future.
Increasing fear within Israeli society, caused by the phenomenon of stabbing attacks, has pushed the Israeli government into conducting a growing number of extraordinary military operations in East-Jerusalem and the West Bank, increasing house demolitions, and further restricting the freedom of movement of Palestinians. In several cases, reported and documented by international and Palestinian media, Israeli soldiers opened ﬁre and killed Palestinians.
Frustration among ISF soldiers has increased, leading to the excessive use of force in dealing with Palestinians suspected of attacks, and on occasion this has led to extrajudicial executions. According to the United Nations Ofﬁce for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), ﬁfty Palestinian deaths have resulted from such operations. The veracity of this contention has been proved. For example, a 15 year old Palestinian boy, Mahmoud Badran, was shot dead on the 21st of June, near Beit Ur Al-tahta West of Ramallah, when ISF opened ﬁre on Palestinians travelling on route 443. An ISF spokesperson claimed the Palestinians had participated in a stone-throwing attack on Israeli settlers’ vehicles. The ISF spokesperson's ofﬁce later admitted that the boy had been killed by mistake. During the same incident, six other Palestinians were seriously injured, and three Israelis were also wounded. A further example of the use of excessive force can be found in the shooting with live ammunition, by Israeli forces, of a mentally disabled Palestinian man at Awarta CP (Nablus), for an alleged stabbing attempt. No Israeli soldiers were injured but the Palestinian was seriously injured.
Punitive action against families of individuals who have been suspected of taking part in actions against ISF or Israeli citizens
From the beginning of 2016, Israeli Civil Administration (ICA) has demolished 555 Palestinian-owned properties in Area C, and 79 properties in East Jerusalem, including the Al-Araqib village in the Negev region, demolished on June 29th for the 100th time since 2010, on the basis that it is one of 35 unrecognized villages in the Israeli controlled area of the Negev region.
As Figures 1 and 2 portray, semi-annual property demolition numbers for 2016 have already exceeded the total demolitions throughout the whole of 2015. It is important to note that the majority of demolitions are carried out for punitive practices against “alleged perpetrators” families.
( United Nations Ofﬁce for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs, Protection of Civilians Weekly Report\ 07- 13 June 2016. [Retrieved: 10/07/16]. https://www.ochaopt.org/content/protection-civilians-weekly-report-7-13-june-2016)
Military operations carried out by ISF have continued in 2016 in the same way as in 2015. An average of 88/89 weekly military operations were carried out in the West Bank in 2015 and 2016, reﬂecting a general stability in the level of security tension within that area during the last year. Higher levels of Israeli security activities in the West Bank usually result as a reaction to Palestinian preparations for confrontations.
While military operations remain constant, signiﬁcant military maneuvers and increased ISF combat training have been carried out in all border regions. Army training has included terrestrial, naval, and aerial exercises, begun in 2016, and affecting all Israeli borders. It is not unreasonable to conclude that such exercises are part of an annual program, implemented by the Israeli army, which is aimed at testing the army’s capabilities and keeping it ready to react to any given situation. However, this year’s maneuvers seem to have been somewhat more complex and more intense, involving, as they did, fronts, ministries, local authorities, and rescue teams. Land based training was located mainly in the northern area around the Golan Heights, aerial training occurred on both the southern and northern fronts and naval training was centered on Eilat, in the southern area.
The training of rescue teams and internal front training was focused on evacuating settlements, especially in the northern region in the event of any deterioration in the military situation. Israeli combat training involves preparations for a potential war that might take place on multiple fronts. Settlement evacuation training reﬂects concerns related to the possibility missile launches from Hezbollah-held northern areas, or from southern regions held by Hamas. A further potential threat has also been identiﬁed from the Syrian borders.
In a special exercise, the eighth of its kind since 2001, Israeli armed forces joined with the American Armed forces for a simulated blocking of ballistic missiles. 1700 soldiers participated in this drill. As stated by ISF this simulation was intended to strengthen the military alliance and increase the effectiveness of co-operation on security issues between each side.
Concerns with countering ballistic missiles, suggest that war with Iran is also a genuine potential threat from both their perspectives. One of the most identiﬁable ballistic missiles in Iran’s arsenal is the “Shahab 3”, which has a range of 2100 kilometers, therefore capable of reaching Tel-Aviv.
War on all fronts
In a meeting of the Israeli cabinet held in June, these concerns were discussed with regard to how the Israeli military, political and civil bodies would cope in the event of a war on all fronts.
“The worst case scenario” was presented in a meeting listing all possible threats in the near future; Hezbollah, from the northern border, including the Syrian front in any potential confrontation; Iran’s participation by missile attack; and further missile attacks launched by Hamas and Salaﬁst groups in Sinai from the southern border. It has been estimated that these groups combined possess approxi- mately 220,000 missiles in total.
The meeting concluded that Hezbollah poses the greatest threat; half of the estimated missiles are in Hezbollah’s possession. Hezbollah’s military capabilities have developed enormously since the war in 2006, resulting in a shift away from being, and working as, a militant group, to becoming a fully equipped army, with 20,000 regular soldiers and 25,000 reservists. In 2006, Hezbollah launched over 4000 rockets throughout the 33-day war. Today, it has the ability to launch the same number of rockets and missiles in the ﬁrst few days of any confrontation.
The Awrad Research Institute showed that only 42% favor a new uprising (West Bank: 57% are opposed, and in Gaza, 48% are against). Moreover, half believe that an uprising would have a negative effect on achieving Palestinian statehood (50% overall: 51% in the West Bank and 49% in the Gaza Strip). By contrast, polls conducted in times of violence and frustration, speciﬁcally in mid-December, showed a majority of Palestinians supporting lone wolf operations targeting Israelis, and a larger armed uprising. This shift in numbers reﬂects how fast public opinion on an uprising can change based on the current political situation. Based on the ﬁndings above, it would seem that the Palestinian public is focused on ending the occupation. A survey conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey shows that Islamist leanings are currently of less importance than previously. Only 13% of Palestinians believe that the goal for Palestinians must be to build an Islamic community. This refutes theories that claim support by the Palestinians for the new Jihadi-Salaﬁst ideology is on the rise.
Figure 3: Palestinian’s opinion on how the current unrest will come to an end. The chart reveals no consensus between Palestinians concerning this issue: 29.3% answered “once goals are reached”, 29.2% answered that the unrest “will end without achieving its goals”, and 35.3% believe that the unrest “will not end but will develop”. (Jerusalem Media and Communication Centre, Youth Poll - April 2016 - Politics, Social Media and Conservatism. [ Retrieved: 10/07/16] http://www.jmcc.org/documentsandmaps.aspx?id=871 )
A future third Intifada might be ignited by an unforeseen catalyst or symbolic spark that might galvanize anger into a new uprising. However, since June 2014 several potential catalysts or sparks have failed to trigger any such event. These episodes all had as a consequence the exacerbation of Palestinian rage and frustration, and sparked protests all over the West Bank and the Gaza strip but, signiﬁcantly, they did not lead to a Third Palestinian Intifada. Those events, and the constant deterioration of the situation on the ground, have certainly created fertile ground for an uprising and one might yet result from any of a number of potential situations. The Israeli public understands that this fertile ground may lead to a Third Intifada and it senses the risk it is facing. According to a survey conducted by the Smith Polling Institute, 51 percent of Israelis consider this recent unrest as more serious and risky than the second Intifada. 53% of respondents identiﬁed a decline in their personal security since the beginning of the wave of unrest in October 2015.
By the end of 2015, 70% of sophisticated attacks were conducted by attackers believed to be afﬁliated with Palestinian political movements in one way or the other. Nevertheless, it is believed that no organizational decisions were behind the attacks that were carried out. Another study found that 60% of the total attacks reported resulted in no Israeli casualties.
During 2016, several armed attacks were described as relatively sophisticated, such as in the case of the Tel-Aviv shooting. On June 8th, an armed attack was executed by two Palestinians from Yatta in Tel-Aviv, four Israelis were killed and six Israelis were injured. According to Israeli sources, the two Palestinians’ original plan was a shooting attack in the train connecting Tel-Aviv and Haifa. They changed their plan once they realized that there was a security check and inspection in place at the train station. They then turned to the Sarona shopping mall for the attack:
- Prior to the attack, the attackers disappeared for two days and were able to disguise themselves throughout their journey in Heredem as “Religious Jews” and then as businessmen in suits while equipped with machine guns, all without being detected.
- Even though the attackers accessed Israeli controlled areas from Negev, and had the chance to target nearby locations, nonetheless they travelled for almost two hours north to reach their predetermined target.
- Accessing the Israeli controlled areas from the West Bank and then travelling for such a long time between cities without holding Israeli permits, and targeting highly secured venues such as the train station, or the second target near the Ministry of War, requires reconnaissance prior to the day of the attack.
- The attackers targeted a train connecting Tel-Aviv and Haifa, when reaching their target they faced high security measures. Therefore, they applied a contingency plan targeting a new location.
On January the 31st, a Palestinian sergeant in the PA security forces shot and wounded three Israeli soldier on DCO CP. This attack was considered a dangerous development in the conduct of
Palestinian attacks. This attack raised concerns regarding the effectiveness of security coordination between the PA and ISF, especially given that the second Intifada was led by many security ofﬁcers from within the PA. Consequently, such indicators raise alerts among Israelis concerning the future involvement of the PA security forces in any potential confrontations.
Previously mentioned attacks reﬂect elements of pre-planning and logistical capabilities, in addition to perseverance in hitting more sensitive targets. This indicator refutes the assumption that pre-planned armed attacks are disappearing as a result of a lack of involvement of Palestinian movements in confrontations.
It is worth mentioning that since the beginning of 2016, 13 lathes used for manufacturing ﬁrearms were allocated by Israeli forces. Moreover, 161 ﬁrearms were conﬁscated, 62 of which were locally manufac- tured. This indicates the high demand for affordable ﬁrearms that can be bought for almost 2000 NIS when manufactured locally. Such weapons have been used in recent attacks i.e. the recent Tel-Aviv attack.
Despite the relatively calm 2016, there are indications that there is increasing unrest among Palestinians fueled by what appears to be heavy handed over-reaction to attacks by some Palestinian on Israeli targets. The targeting of the families of those carrying out attacks is particularly resented. The careful planning and co-ordination involved in these attacks has, in its turn, led to heightened unease on the part of Israeli citizens about the threats to their personal security. The net result has been that Israeli Security forces have taken what might be termed “Draconian” action, in some cases, where a more restrained approach might have yielded more positive results. Israeli fears for their security have been compounded by their increasing awareness of the fact that their potential enemies in an all-out war are becoming better equipped and pose a far greater potential threat to Israel itself than previously. Tensions on both sides, inevitably, have risen yet despite the severity of a number of incidents a third Intifada has not broken out. This may be because there seems to be a developing trend away from militant Islam among the Palestinian community and towards working for Palestinian statehood, as the primary goal. Nonetheless, the possibility of a further Intifada is very real and there are still considerable numbers of Palestinians who support, for example, lone wolf attacks. In such a febrile atmosphere there is certainly the potential for an event to act as a catalyst to a further period of violence between the two sides.