Israeli security experts lament strategic vacuum in Jenin operation

Thomas Helm

The National  /  July 4, 2023

Use of deadly military force in the occupied West Bank fails to address underlying issues, they say.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lauded the Israeli military’s operation in the West Bank, the largest in decades, saying on Monday that the raid in the northern city of Jenin hit “the most legitimate target on the planet”.

He went on to praise Israeli forces, who “[battled] the terrorists with unyielding resolve and fortitude”.

In a show of military strength, around 1,000 troops were deployed and more than 20 air strikes were launched, making it by far the most significant operation of its kind since the Second Intifada.

The Palestinian Health Ministry says at least 11 people have been killed in the raid and more than 100 have been injured.

By Tuesday afternoon, Israeli forces said they had detained 120 terror suspects [sic] in Jenin, which has long been a centre of Palestinian militancy and in recent years, an area that has fallen under the increasing influence of Israel’s archenemy Iran and the proxies that it sponsors.

The Israeli military said troops had seized hundreds of explosive devices, scores of weapons and destroyed command and control centres.

Netanyahu’s bullishness comes in contrast to warnings by security experts in Israel, who say the operation’s apparent tactical success does nothing to address a strategic vacuum in the government’s approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Former head of Israel’s National Security Council Maj Gen Giora Eiland said on Monday that “everybody knew that such an operation would take place someday”, but that “there were some surprises, especially at the type of unmanned aerial vehicles used at the beginning of the operation with very precise weapons”.

He added, however, that “the time has come for Israelis to ask ourselves the really important question: what are our interests vis-à-vis the Palestinian Authority”.

“Usually what happens in Israel is that the government of the day tries to avoid important political strategic decisions, instead preferring to tell the military what to do. The Israeli military does not need the advice of ministers on the tactical level; they know very well what to do,” he said.

Kobi Michael, a senior researcher at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, is more stark in his call for a longer-term political approach to managing violence [sic] in the West Bank, in order to end what he describes as Israel’s “strategic limbo”.

“Although we achieved significant tactical and operational achievements […] we still didn’t succeed in creating a strategic impact,” Michael told The National.

“The gap between the tactical and strategic level has become much deeper. There has been a linear increase in the number of terror attacks [sic] and casualties on both sides, not just between the military and Palestinian terrorists [sic], but between Palestinians and [Jewish] settlers, too,” he said.

Michael stressed that the situation in the West Bank remained dangerous and without a political horizon to drag the conflict out of its current stalemate, more severe Israeli operations in the West Bank are inevitable.

He pointed to four factors that make the region as eruptive as it is today.

The first is a weak Palestinian Authority, long a concern of Israel and the international community. After decades of corruption in its ranks, there is a cumulative lack of faith on the part of Palestinians in the organization’s ability to improve their lives.

On the Palestinian side, Michael also cites a stronger Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza, which continues to strengthen ties with Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, both of whom advocate the destruction of Israel [sic].

Domestically, political division within Israel, in the wake of the election of the most right-wing government in its history, is creating an increasingly “fragile public consensus” on how to guarantee security.

Finally, Israel is conducting West Bank operations with increasingly limited international legitimacy, particularly in the eyes of its most important ally, the US, which is growing frustrated at the far-right agenda of Netanyahu’s government.

The unresolved situation leaves Israel with dangerously few avenues as tensions escalate in the West Bank.

“We might well be able to contain [this week’s Jenin operation] with no spillover in the rest of the West Bank. But what then? If we want to keep the area clean of terrorism, we have to remain there, which means almost going back to military governance,” Michael said.

“That is why the achievements of this operation will be pretty limited and effective only for a short time. We will be forced to enter there again not very long from now.

“This is why we are in a strategic stalemate. We are captured by Palestinian terrorism [sic] on the one hand, and politicians who are not able to make a decision on the other.”

Thomas Helm is Jerusalem Correspondent at The National