Stability in the West Bank: A strategic Israeli asset that must be strengthened
By Dr. Michael Milshtein | September, 2021
|Photo: Israeli Police | CCBY-SA.3.0|
Operation "Guardian of the Walls" has undermined many basic assumptions, both Israel's and Hamas' • The relative stability in the West Bank is perceived by Hamas as one of its strategic failures • Israel needs some steps that will improve civil conditions in the West Bank
Hamas has been actively seeking to set the West Bank ablaze for the past one and a half decades – but with very little success. It is striving to initiate a "third Intifada" there, and encourage the sort of terror wave that swept over it during the Second Intifada, thereby undermining the status of the Palestinian Authority. However, in reality, this area has remained relatively stable despite acute crises in Israeli-Palestinian relations, including four fierce campaigns in Gaza, the relocation of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem (2018), the announcement of President Trump's Deal of the Century, and an ongoing lack of communication between Jerusalem and Ramallah.
The stability formula in the West Bank has "four legs" to stand on: The local Palestinian public's traumatic collective memory of the Second Intifada; a relatively comfortable civil-financial reality that demonstrates the essential difference between their situation and that of Gazans to local Palestinian inhabitants; the PA's fundamental avoidance of use of violence and ongoing constraining of Hamas due to the understanding that it poses a risk to the current regime in the West Bank; and Israel's wise conduct that preserves, and even nurtures, the civil fabric of life in the West Bank.
Operation "Guardian of the Walls" (May 10 to May 21) formed a "lab" of sorts for the validation of Israeli basic assumptions on Palestinians. some of assumptions on the Gaza Strip and Hamas were subsequently undermined, primarily the one on understandings, which assumed that Hamas is not interested in escalation, and prioritizes governance considerations over the ideological ones associated with the determined fight against Israel, and that, furthermore, it enjoys the civil steps that Israel has been promoting in the Gaza Strip in recent years, which reduce its motivation to advance violent measures.
The basic assumptions about the Palestinian Authority's and public's underlying interests in the West Bank, however, were validated. Despite the harsh campaign waged in Gaza, the public in the West Bank did not riot, and a second armed front against Israel was not formed. Across the West Bank, several tension hubs had developed, engaging a mere several thousand Palestinians. on the tensest day – May 15th – 11 Palestinians had indeed been killed; however, ties between Israel and the Palestinian Authority were not severed, the PA did not ease its hold on Hamas, or aim its security apparatus' weapons at Israel.
The relative stability in the West Bank is perceived by Hamas as one of its strategic failures during Operation "Guardian of the Walls". The state of affairs there strongly contrasts with the events that took place among the Israeli Arab population, where the atmosphere was unprecedentedly ignited following the developments in Gaza and Jerusalem, forcing Israel to cope with another tense front – this one domestic – alongside the campaign in Gaza.
The relative stability in the West Bank must not lead to Israeli complacency. Reality in the region is as fragile as ever, and could easily deteriorate due to two main reasons: the destabilization of the economic situation – a top priority on the public agenda – and blatant disregard of sacred sites, namely Temple Mount. The relative stability in the West Bank should not be taken for granted either, and Israel must actively strengthen it, particularly in light of Operation "Guardian of the Walls", during which Hamas' status as a bold national leader was bolstered, whereas Abu Mazen was viewed as being constrained by the "sacred coordination", curbing his ability to advance heroic resistance.
Israel should therefore take some immediate dramatic steps to improve the civil situation in the West Bank (primarily by encouraging foreign investing, developing civil infrastructure, and expanding permits issued to workers and merchants). It must thereby ensure that Hamas will not "rear its ugly head" in these areas, tighten the coordination with the Palestinian Authority on all levels, and promote the understanding among West Bank inhabitants that their situation greatly differs from that of their Gazan brothers, reminding them of the price they would pay, and all they stand to lose, if they were to engage in the sort of conflict that erupted back in late 2000.
All of the above may help to establish security and calm in the foreseeable future, but do not form the long-term strategic solution that can only be achieved through political action – yet another key objective that the incoming government must set for itself.
Authored by Dr. Michael Milshtein, a senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.
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