A new bout of killings in the West Bank and Gaza Strip has raised fears of an escalation in Israeli-Palestinian violence, at the end of a year which — since the end of the Operation Cast Lead — has seen the lowest casualty rates for over two decades.
While there have been sporadic shooting attacks against Israeli citizens in the West Bank over recent months, few have caused casualties. The murder of Rabbi Meir Chai in an ambush on a road near Nablus last Thursday evening was the first time an Israeli had been killed in a terror attack since April.
It took the General Security Service (GSS) less than 24 hours to track down the alleged killers. Three senior members of the Fatah apparatus in Nablus are believed to have been in the white VW Golf that overtook Rabbi Chai’s car, one driving, two others doing the shooting. IDF units were sent to the homes of the three that night and, after calling for them to come out, and shooting warning shots, they shot and killed them.
One of the bodies was found in a room with at least four weapons and a great deal of ammunition, while the other two were unarmed.
The fact that the three had not fired back gave Palestinian leaders grounds to accuse Israel of carrying out “executions”, a claim denied by Colonel Itzik Bar, who commanded the operation.
Col Bar said that “there were clear rules of engagement in this operation and the soldiers were working on the assumption that these were all experienced terrorists who had participated in a murder, and who had access to weapons.”
In another incident on the same night, this time in the northern sector of the Gaza Strip, an IDF patrol observed three suspicious figures crawling towards the border fence. They continued crawling to the fence after warning shots were fired and were then shot and killed by an Israeli aircraft and an unmanned machine gun positioned near the border.
Though there were no arms found near the bodies, Israeli intelligence believes that in this case as well, Fatah members intending to carry out a terror attack were involved.
The fact that some elements in Fatah seem to be returning to terror activity is a sign that not everyone in the largest Palestinian movement supports the Palestinian Authority’s plans to stabilise the situation in the West Bank and work with Israeli forces on security matters.
Some of the Fatah members who oppose the security co-operation are doing so for financial reasons. They have not received jobs in the Authority’s framework and are trying to revive the fiefdom system of armed gangs that used to rule the Palestinian cities.
Others believe that only a return to armed struggle can help Fatah regain its standing following Hamas’s success in grasping control of the Gaza Strip.
From the end of Operation Cast Lead in mid-January, this year has been the quietest in terms of terror. Missiles fired from Gaza to Israel have reduced by over 90 per cent compared to last year and only one Israeli, an IDF Bedouin tracker, has been killed in terror attacks launched from Gaza.
In the West Bank, including the latest round of violence, four Israelis were killed in 2009 and 19 Palestinians were killed by the IDF, the lowest numbers since the beginning of the First Intifada in December 1987.
The lower figures were achieved through improvements in military and intelligence tactics but also through the tighter co-operation between the IDF and the Palestinian Authority’s security organisations, who are chiefly worried about a Hamas takeover in the West Bank.
In Gaza, Hamas also ceased attacking Israeli targets as part of an unofficial ceasefire following Cast Lead.
A senior Israeli officer said this week that “no one can say whether the events of recent days will spark a new period of violence but we are under no illusions that the current calm will last for very long”.