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Outgoing IDF West Bank commander says security coordination with PA working, for now

[Haaretz: 1 October 2019] - Every 19 years, the Jewish and the Gregorian calendar dates coincide. So it is that Sunday, September 29, Erev Rosh Hashanah, is also the 19th anniversary of the start of the second intifada, which broke out on September 29, 2000, on the eve of the Jewish New Year.

The events began in the morning, one day after Ariel Sharon, then a Likud Knesset member and the head of the opposition, made a visit to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. A Border Police officer, Chief Inspector Yosef Tabeja, was the first Israeli fatality, shot dead by a Palestinian police officer during a joint patrol in Qalqilyah. Over the next five years, more than 1,100 Israelis and more than 3,200 Palestinians died. The enormous mutual suspicion, the complete diplomatic paralysis and the Israeli right’s electoral predominance that are the legacy of the second intifada are still with us.

The West Bank today is calm by comparison, and in Israel the future of the territories has been relegated to the back burner. Terror attacks are still carried out, sometimes a few times a month, but with far fewer casualties and almost no political effect. And while West Bank Palestinians surely want to be free of Israeli rule, the memory of the high price they paid in the second intifada has deterred them from another prolonged confrontation.

Last week Brig. Gen. Eran Niv ended his assignment as commander of the Judea and Samaria Division of the Israel Defense Forces. Niv, 49, has served as a commanding officer in the West Bank since the start of the second intifada, in a series of positions. He became known to the public in 2002 when, as a battalion commander, he led an assault on an Islamic Jihad cell that had killed 12 Israeli service members, including Hebron Brigade commander Col. Dror Weinberg.

When asked in an interview with Haaretz about the most important thing he learned in the past two years in the West Bank, Niv pulls out a graph that he distributed to the units under his command as a parting gift. He estimates that only around 1 percent of the Palestinians in the area are involved in violence against Israeli targets.

A few times that number would like to be involved, but are deterred by the potentially high personal cost. “The rest are outside of the cycle of terror. Our goal is to keep that 99 percent outside the circle. When people who are usually deterred take part in violence, the tension rises. When it filters down to the rest of the population, we get widespread escalation.”

He is cautious, almost evasive, when answering questions about the coordination with Palestinian security forces. The reason is obvious: Overt Israeli praise would paint the Palestinian Authority’s senior officials as collaborators, further jeopardizing their standing with the Palestinian public in the West Bank. In fact, the coordination is close and it aids in preventing terror against Israelis. Niv believes the relative calm is the result of the PA’s stability, the relative sense of personal security felt by Palestinian residents and their satisfactory economic situation.

The latter factor has been shaken recently. A few years of economic growth was followed by cuts in U.S. aid, including the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, followed by the crisis with Israel, which withheld tax revenue from the PA to punish it for its payments to Palestinians in Israeli prisons.

Shortly before the Israeli election on September 17, a compromise was reached, and 2 billion shekels ($574.4 million) that had been withheld for several months were delivered to the PA. The IDF hopes the arrangement will guarantee some stability in the West Bank, at least to the end of the year.

Niv says the promise of aid figures into some terrorists’ decision to carry out attacks. “We’ve had situations where people took part in an attack that they knew would result in a sentence exceeding five years, because it would increase the amount of aid their family would get from the PA,” he says. “For people in dire economic straits, it’s definitely a factor.”

The perceived violation of religious symbols is a particularly potent accelerant for violence, Niv says, recalling the outburst of violence that erupted after Israel installed metal detectors at the Temple Mount in the summer of 2017, following the deaths of two Border Police officers, as well as the brief outburst that followed visits by Jews to the Temple Mount in August on Tisha B’Av, which coincided with the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha.

Niv drilled into his subordinates the importance of “distinction and precision” – that is using force only against perpetrators, avoiding collective punishment and not beating detainees. “It’s not a political agenda. The more Palestinians are outside the cycle of violence, the fewer the number of terror attacks. That’s my agenda.” He stresses that the military is not involved in solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “My considerations are moral and ethical and my role is to allow the decision makers to deal with what’s happening in the north and the south, and not with me.”

Two Israelis were killed in the West Bank in August. Dvir Sorek, a yeshiva student, was stabbed to death in Gush Etzion, and Rina Shnerb was killed by a bomb at a spring west of Ramallah. Nevertheless, there were fewer casualties than in the parallel period in 2018. Niv credits improvements in the performance of the troops in the field, in part due to better preparation for patrol and checkpoint duties. “After suffering serious attacks at hitchhiking stations in Ofra and Givat Assaf, we underwent a long improvement process. But no bereaved family takes comfort in that. I’ve had people die here. It happened on my watch.

“In 2018, according to figures from the Shin Bet security service, more than 200 terror attacks were foiled. We arrest 3,000 people a year here, on suspicion of involvement in terror and violence,” Niv said.

Niv doesn’t ignore the incitement to terrorism in Palestinian media outlets and West Bank schools, but he believes that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas “decided to fight Israel a different way, not through terror and violence. We don’t see the encouragement of violence from the PA leadership or from [Abbas]. That doesn’t mean there isn’t any. [Abbas] works to suppress whoever threatens him and his continued rule. He acts against Hamas and other organizations that threaten him. It must be said that to us, too, it’s very important to maintain the security coordination. Without a doubt, without it we would be in a very different place. We would be vulnerable to a significant increase in attacks in the West Bank. I have to take into consideration that this could change. There isn’t a day when we don’t prepare for the possibility that the Tanzim could take up arms against us again,” Niv said, referring to a military faction of Abbas’ Fatah movement.

Amos Harel
Haaretz correspondence