Young, tech-savvy Palestinian fighters are the new headache for IDF

Last week's operation in Jenin shows the new foes are often teens adept at operating off the grid


Palestinians gather around parts of an Israeli armored vehicle after clashes between Israeli security forces and Palestinians in the West Bank city of Jenin, on June 19, 2023. Photo by Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90 *** Local Caption *** פלסטינים פלשתיני מעצר כוחות ביטחון פלסטינאים מהומות

June 22, 2023 11:15

The words used this week by one Israeli intelligence analyst — whose job it is to focus on Palestinian affairs in the West Bank — to describe his frustration are unprintable in a family newspaper.

The analyst’s department provides daily, sometimes hourly, reports which are essential to the IDF and Shin Bet, both in sending forces into Palestinian areas to carry out arrests of terror suspects and in preventing attacks.

In nearly all intelligence tasks, success at delivering accurate assessments very rarely gets public recognition. Failure, even if rare, does. And this week provided two failures.

The operation in the Jenin refugee camp early on Monday morning was supposed to be routine, the kind that has been carried out several times a week in recent months. They are usually over before the sun is high in the sky.

Often they develop into a gun-battles. But the outcome of Monday’s arrest raid — a ten-hour effort to extricate half-a-dozen stranded armoured vehicles and the soldiers operating them — was far from routine.

For more than a year, Israel’s security forces have been facing a different type of armed opposition. Not the terror cells of the traditional networks of the main Palestinian organisations, which have largely failed to operate in recent years.

And not the lone wolves who carried out most of the attacks since the end of the Second Intifada in 2005. Today’s armed groups can number anywhere from a dozen to a couple of hundred young men, some still in their teens, who have plenty of arms and funding from the established organisations, but don’t take orders from them.

They are locally based and tech-savvy. Which means they use social media to rally support and glorify their deeds, but are also adept at operating off the grid to avoid detection. And as time goes by, they’re improving their military capabilities.

The fact that in Jenin they had acquired the knowhow to build improvised explosive devices that could immobilise heavy armoured vehicles took the IDF by surprise and led to the lengthy extrication, in which seven Palestinians were killed and 90 wounded.

Seven Israeli soldiers and police officers were wounded, and senior officers were frank that it could have easily been much worse. As it was, they needed the first air strike in the West Bank in nearly two decades to help get them out.

Twenty-eight hours after the last troops left Jenin, two Palestinian gunmen entered a petrol station next to Eli, sprayed the small restaurant there with automatic rifles, killing four Israeli civilians and wounding four others.

The two shooters, one of whom was killed on the scene by other civilians and the second who was tracked down and killed by a counter-terror unit an hour later, were Hamas members, known to the Shin Bet. Less than two years ago they were in an Israeli prison. But they still evaded detection.

That, and the fact they had access to M-16 assault rifles, doesn’t necessarily mean they were acting on Hamas’s orders. Nor is there any clear indication that they were connected to the Jenin group, 50 miles to the north. They were more likely part of a group based in the Nablus area, even though Hamas claimed in a statement that they were acting in retaliation to the previous day’s events in Jenin.

The difficulty of tackling small groups with a light operational footprint is part of a bigger headache.

Settler leaders and far-right cabinet members (in some cases they are one and the same) are demanding Prime Minister Netanyahu order a wide-scale military operation of the type Israel hasn’t launched since Operation Defensive Shield in 2002. That would mean mobilising entire divisions and risking massive casualties, on both sides.

Netanyahu doesn’t have to be told by the generals, but they’re telling him anyway, that the efficacy of such an operation against a much more elusive enemy than the one that was lying in wait 21 years ago, is questionable.

Much better to continue improving intelligence-targeting, despite the occasional failure, and send in special forces.

But even though it’s almost certain that such a strategy will yield better results in the long run, the inevitable casualties in the mean time are eroding support within the government’s shrinking political base.

Bibi's balancing act:

Benjamin Netanyahu did make one major concession to his right-wing base this week, against his better judgment.

After saying multiple times over the past three months that the government would pass constitutional changes only with broad consensus, he announced at the Sunday cabinet meeting that legislation would go ahead to limit the Supreme Court’s powers to intervene in government decisions on grounds of “reasonableness”.

Sources very close to Netanyahu have been saying for months now that he wants to quietly bury the “legal reform” which has caused him so much grief since it was first introduced half a year ago by Justice Minister Yariv Levin.

But he had little political choice but to return to it after last week’s fiasco when the coalition failed to prevent the appointment of an opposition representative to the Judicial Appointments Committee, and opposition leaders Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz announced they were withdrawing from the compromise talks held under the auspices of President Isaac Herzog until the committee is convened.

With the talks on hold indefinitely, Netanyahu had little choice but to bow to pressure within his coalition to go back to unilaterally pushing through the judicial overhaul.

He agreed, however, to push for now just one element of the original plan — and this was toned down, so as not to completely remove the “reasonableness” cause.

It’s a political gamble and a lot can go wrong. The government’s plan, at least as it was presented on Sunday, is to try and pass this piece of legislation by the time the Knesset summer session ends on July 30.

Five weeks is not long to pass a new and controversial law but it’s plenty of time for both the protests to build up again and for the list of demands from the far-right to grow.

Netanyahu is hoping both to assuage the restive parts of the coalition, including a not inconsiderable section of his own Likud Party, while not provoking a renewed outbreak of the protests that brought Israel to the brink of chaos back in March. He risks failing at both.

June 22, 2023 11:15

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