While in recent years it has generally been true that Israel’s primary terror threat comes from the territories it fully evacuated–Gaza, southern Lebanon, and the Sinai–there have been growing concerns about the resurgence of militant Islamist groups operating in the West Bank. For the most part, the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority keeps down the Islamist groups in the parts of the West Bank it controls, less as a favor to Israel than as a means of preventing itself from being ousted as in Gaza. Yet, while there is certainly no indication that we are on the cusp of a third intifada, the threat from terror cells in the West Bank is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore.
Most recently, Israelis have been reminded of the ongoing security threat coming from parts of the West Bank by the spate of terror incidents that have targeted Route 443, which skims the West Bank and serves as one of only two highways linking Israel’s commercial center in Tel Aviv with its political capital in Jerusalem. In the past two months Route 443 has witnessed a sharp rise in attacks on vehicles traveling that road, some 20 of which saw the use of Molotov cocktails. The situation on the road has become so precarious that Israel’s security personnel have declared the highway off-limits to Israel’s government officials, and today it was announced that the Shin Bet has uncovered a 15-man Hamas terror cell plotting to carry out roadside bombings along Route 443.
The Shin Bet has also raised concerns in recent weeks about efforts by Hamas to strengthen its links in the Arab sectors of Jerusalem, in addition to revealing a separate Jerusalem-based al-Qaeda cell working on bomb plots to target the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv and the International Convention Center in Jerusalem. Hamas maintains strongholds throughout several West Bank cities, and while these are officially under the authority of Fatah, it has been suggested that without the IDF presence running throughout the rest of the West Bank Fatah’s grip on the Palestinian Authority would not likely last for long. The West Bank’s largest city, Hebron, is commonly thought to be predominately loyal to Hamas, while to the north Nablus has witnessed sizable Hamas rallies in recent years. Indeed, last October the IDF was compelled to carry out an incursion into Nablus to intercept a number of Hamas operatives based in that city. Similarly, last month the IDF was also forced to carry out a raid on Islamic Jihad bases in Jenin where the group remains strong.
It would appear that some of these militant groups are growing in confidence, as demonstrated by an increasing willingness to openly reveal their presence within the West Bank’s PA-controlled areas. In late January an armed member of Hamas’s al-Qassam Brigade was sited at a memorial event in Jenin, alongside members of Islamic Jihad and, most notably of all, the individual in question was also seen sharing a stage with members of Fatah’s military wing, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. More recently, over the weekend, Abu Dis on the outskirts of Jerusalem, hosted large militaristic celebrations to mark the anniversary of the founding of the terror group the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, in the kind of display that had not generally been tolerated in PA-controlled areas in recent years. It should then also be noted that the DFLP is a constituent member of the same PLO that Abbas’s Fatah is part of.
Naturally, this kind of apparent militant upsurge, at such a sensitive time for the U.S.-led peace negotiations, provokes a series of pressing questions. Following the Camp David negotiations in 2000, when Arafat found himself backed into a negotiating corner, he made his escape route, in part, by triggering the Palestinian terror war that became the second intifada. As much as Mahmoud Abbas looks less and less pleased to be part of the negotiating process, it is doubtful that he would resort to directly initiating terror as an exit strategy. Though it should be noted that both during this round of negotiations and all the more so during the brief round of negotiations in 2010, there was a measurable upsurge in terror against Israelis.
Given the way these public displays by terror groups and their affiliates appear to now be tolerated in PA-controlled areas, it is certainly plausible that even if the PA isn’t actively instigating such activities, it may have made a decision to somewhat loosen its measures against such groups. Alternatively, this could simply be an indication of the growing weakness of the Palestinian Authority under Abbas. All of which must be taken into consideration when it comes to the current negotiations. From the start of the resumption of peace talks there have been ongoing concerns that were talks to collapse under particularly unhappy circumstances, this could trigger a new wave of Palestinian terror attacks. Equally, were the talks to lead to Israel making further territorial concessions in the West Bank, this would also be deeply concerning in light of a resurgence of Islamist groups in these areas.
To be clear, the present situation in the West Bank is far more secure and stable than in those territories Israel has withdrawn from. But given the partial control of the PA over the West Bank the situation remains mixed and the current trend does not appear to be in a promising direction.