Why is Israel launching the biggest raid in 20 years on Jenin?

The background to the latest West Bank flare-up


TOPSHOT - Israeli soldiers fire tear gas canisters from an armoured vehicle during an ongoing military operation in the occupied West Bank city of Jenin on July 4, 2023. Israel pushed on for a second day on July 4 with its biggest military operation in years in the occupied West Bank, which left 10 Palestinians dead and forced thousands to flee their homes. (Photo by Ronaldo SCHEMIDT / AFP) (Photo by RONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP via Getty Images)

This week’s incursion into Jenin has been sadly on the cards for a while. While the basic context of the tension has been present for decades, there are converging factors that led Israel to launch its largest ground force operation in the West Bank in 20 years.

The operation became imminent following two distinct events in the last two weeks: the comprehensive laying of explosive mines (IEDs) that targeted an IDF convoy as they exited Jenin - injuring six soldiers - and a rudimentary rocket that was launched from Jenin toward an Israeli moshav on the other side of the green line.

To compensate for the IEDs Israel began the operation with drones (another recent introduction by the IDF into this theatre) and D-9 bulldozers to clear the path for over 1,000 troops to enter and surround the city. The operation’s top objectives are to destroy the explosives labs and remove stockpiled weapons.

In the medium term - over the last few years - Jenin regained its notoriety as the terror hub of the West Bank. Just in the last 18 months, a third of almost 300 terror attacks have emanated from Jenin, responsible for around half of Israeli fatalities.

Jenin has become an ungoverned space, the Palestinian Authority is unable to exercise its authority, and even though Hamas and Islamic Jihad maintain support and encourage terror attacks, they too are not in total control.

Instead, we have seen the emergence of local cells like the Jenin Brigade – a hybrid of Islamists (and some Palestinian nationalists), but with no organisational structure. Their notoriety has spread with their sophisticated use of Tik Tok videos recording live gunfights to inspire more youngsters from across the West Bank to join in armed attacks. So far, despite a similar pattern in Nablus, the phenomenon has not yet widely influenced viewers from Ramallah, Hebron or Bethlehem.

With a longer-term perspective, we are now encountering a generation of young Palestinian men with no memory of the Second Intifada and the disaster the violence wrought on wider Palestinian society. These young unemployed men – with limited or no prospects and easy access to automatic weapons – are easily radicalised. One explanation I heard in a recent meeting in Ramallah, explained the correlation between poverty and religiosity leading to Islamism. In the latest Palestinian polling, there is growing support for armed conflict, with the West Bank now more supportive of violence and less eager for compromise than residents of the Gaza Strip.

This phenomenon is supported by Iran. Operations like this are designed to thwart the ‘Lebanonisation’ of the West Bank – the Iranian modus operandi to destabilise and through proxies (see Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen) encourage violence against Israelis. Iran has been increasing its funding, and providing technical and ideological support for Palestinian groups to continue their attacks, with a particular focus on Jenin.

The current Israeli government has found its own modus operandi when it comes to the West Bank. The right-wing flank - Smotrich, Ben Gvir, and Struk - have been given unprecedented powers over civilian (settler) affairs, but zero substantive influence over security policy. As such, those with authority have stressed this operation will not target the Palestinian Authority, with some even calling for it to be strengthened as a better longer-term solution.

Richard Pater is the Chief Executive of BICOM, and an analyst based in Jerusalem.

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