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Biden Gives Israel a Pass on West Bank Violence
Far right government has a free hand to use Apache helicopters against Palestinian towns.
In the last episode of Fauda, the Israeli counterterrorism thriller on Netflix, things go terribly wrong for the show’s main characters, all members of an undercover intelligence unit fighting Palestinian militants in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
As the Israelis stealthily close in on a West Bank house where a wanted Palestinian resistance leader is holed up, they come under withering automatic weapons fire from Palestinian militants in surrounding buildings. An Israeli armored car moves in to protect them, but the militants detonate a powerful IED that blows the vehicle to fiery pieces. With most of the unit’s members now either wounded or running out of ammo, the Palestinians inch forward, moving in for the kill. . .
Thrilling television, to be sure. But last week, life imitated art in the West Bank town of Jenin. There, what should have been a routine Israeli operation to arrest two Palestinians terror suspects turned into a bloody, hours-long gunbattle against dozens of well-armed militants—an obvious intelligence failure by Israel’s vaunted counterterrorism force.
As the fighting intensified, Palestinian IEDs destroyed Israeli armored vehicles that tried to extract the soldiers. Eventually, the soldiers called in close air support for the first time since the second Intifada in 2002. A U.S.-built Apache AH-64 attack helicopter soon hovered over the fighting, unleashing Hellfire missiles and torrents of machine gun fire that suppressed the Palestinian fire and enabled the raiding party to exfiltrate Jenin with their captives.
The final casualty count, however, was a sobering reminder of what future clashes will cost: six Palestinians killed, including two 15-year-old bystanders, and nearly 100 others wounded, according to the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Health. Eight Israeli soldiers were wounded, a military spokesman said, adding that the Apache was also hit by gunfire. In addition, seven Israeli military vehicles were either destroyed or heavily damaged by IEDs, military sources said, noting the devices used an unusually large amount of high explosive.
A recently retired Israeli intelligence officer, who asked not to be named, placed the blame for the intelligence failure on the country’s new ultra-nationalist National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, who prefers to conduct such raids in broad daylight, rather than under the cover of darkness, as a way to underscore Israel’s 24-hour security presence in the West Bank.
“Ben-Gvir likes to say Israel must show the Palestinians who is the landlord here,” this person told SpyTalk. The government’s aggressive policies in the West Bank, he added, were undermining morale in army and intelligence units.
Last week’s daylight raid, however, only led to more violence between the West Bank’s rival Jewish and Palestinian communities. Not long afterward, several Palestinian gunmen drove to a nearby Jewish settlement and shot dead four civilian settlers. In response, outraged mobs of settlers, some armed and numbering as many as 200 men and boys, rampaged through five Palestinian villages in the West Bank over the next few days, torching scores of homes, cars and property. In one of those villages, witnesses said, Israeli soldiers didn’t show up until the settlers had left. In other villages, soldiers were present but stood by, doing nothing to stop the marauders. Reports said at least one Israeli soldier took part in the vandalism. Two Palestinian men were shot dead. Meanwhile, an Israeli drone strike targeted a car, killing three Palestinian passengers who had attacked an Israeli village.
Blah, Blah, Blah
In reaction, the Biden administration offered no more than the usual platitudes, Officials said they were “deeply concerned” and “troubled” by the violence, but there were no official protests about the the responsibility of the occupying Israeli army to protect Palestinian civilians from mob violence; no reminders about the illegality under international law of Jewish settlement in the West Bank, no threats to place restrictions on the use of U.S. weapons against an occupied population.
A little-known aspect of the $3.8 billion in military aid the U.S. gives Israel is that Washington places no restrictions on Israel’s use of the weapons it buys. Israel is given the funds in one lump sum, which it then uses to purchase the weapons systems that it wants and Washington has cleared. Other countries face U.S. restrictions on how the weapons are used.
By coincidence, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf was on an official visit to Israel last week when the violence erupted, leading to hopeful speculation among some Middle East watchers that her talks would focus on ways to tamp down the mounting communal violence. But Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, said the West Bank was not on the agenda.
“The clear priority and objectives of the Biden administration when it comes to Israel these days is to find things to rally around in agreement and support.” Friedman told SpyTalk. “So it’s about reassuring Israel on Iran; it’s about working on getting Israel into the U.S. Visa Waiver program; it’s about doubling down on the Abraham Accords and seeking a normalization agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia.”
In past eruptions of Israeli-Palestinian fighting, the United States has acted as a mediator, arranging truces that have cooled tempers between flare-ups. Previous administrations also invested enormous amounts of political capital in trying to broker a broader peace agreement, only to watch their efforts dashed on the immutable demands of both sides. Now, as President Joe Biden seeks re-election to a second term, the White House has come to view any such mediation as both bad policy – since neither side is prepared to talk – and bad politics – since it would only invite Republicans (egged on by Netanyahu) to slam Biden for pressuring Israel.
The result: a perfect storm of factors that are pushing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into fresh cycles of lethal violence, with no adult in the room to prevent it from spinning out of control.
The lion’s share of the blame must belong to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who leads the most far-right nationalist and religious government in the country’s history.
Since taking office just before the new year, his government has made no secret of its determination to annex the occupied West Bank in everything but name. Moreover, it also has taken several meaningful steps to do so, including its controversial declaration of the Jewish people’s “exclusive and inalienable right to all parts of the Land of Israel,” a statement that officially puts the final nail into the coffin of Washington’s two-state formula for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Netanyahu’s government also has placed all Jewish settlements in the West Bank under Israeli civilian law, effectively restricting the military to a security role in the territory. Moreover, Israel has streamlined its approval process for new Jewish West Bank settlements, reducing the number of bureaucratic steps from five to one.
Though Netanyahu sits at the head of the ruling coalition, the real powers behind the throne are Ben-Gvir’s ultranationalist Jewish Power Party and the ultra-Orthodox Religious Zionist Party, two small but critical coalition partners who hold the fate of the government, with its narrow majority in parliament, and of Netanyahu, in their hands.
The source of their power is Netanyahu’s legal troubles. He’s on trial for corruption and breach of trust and faces jail time if convicted. Netanyahu denies the charges, but to avoid the possibility of imprisonment, he’s counting on the support of his extremist coalition partners to ram through anti-democratic legislation that would effectively geld Israel’s independent judiciary and result in the charges against him being dropped.
While massive street protests across Israel have prevented Netanyahu from bringing his so-called “judicial reform” bill to a vote in the Knesset, the political price he’s had to pay to keep his coalition partners in his corner has been enormously destabilizing for the West Bank, with ripple effects that threaten neighboring Jordan, a longtime U.S. ally, as well.
The most glaring example of that price is Netanyahu’s appointment of Ben-Gvir to the newly created national security minister’s post, which now includes expanded powers over the country’s regular police and its special border police units operating in the West Bank.
Ben-Gvir, who was convicted in the past of inciting racism against Arabs and supporting a Jewish terrorist group, has called openly for the annexation of the West Bank, the land Palestinians envision for their future state; the expulsion of Palestinians who don’t accept Israeli rule; and “revenge” against anyone who opposes his party’s platform.
Ben Gvir is what political scientists call an “ethnic entrepreneur,” someone who stokes sectarian hatreds to gain or retain power. Here’s portion of a speech he delivered to Jewish settlers occupying an illegal settler outpost on a West bank hilltop.
“There needs to be full settlement here—not just here but on all the hilltops around us,” Ben-Gvir said. “We have to settle the Land of Israel and at the same time launch a military campaign, blow up buildings and kill terrorists. Not one or two, but dozens, hundreds, or if needed, thousands.”
Once again, not a word from the Biden administration.
Netanyahu also gave Religious Zionism’s leader Bezalel Smotrich two Cabinet portfolios – one as the nation’s finance minister and the other as its deputy defense minister, responsible for overseeing the construction of Jewish settlements and civilian life in the West Bank. Under Smotrich, the government recently approved more than 4,500 new housing units in the occupied territory, ignoring a Biden administration plea not to go ahead with the settlement expansion.
“In order to keep his government together, Netanyahu is paying [Ben Gvir and Smotrich] in annexationist coin,” said Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East adviser to both Republican and Democratic administrations.
The former Israeli intelligence officer is far more blunt.
“Netanyahu will give them anything to stay in power and avoid going to prison,” he said. “The result for Israel is a fascist, racist and apartheid government.”
Meanwhile, the weakness of the Palestinian leadership is also contributing to the West Bank’s deteriorating security situation. The Palestinian Authority, the Fatah-led body with responsibility for civil matters in the heavily Arab-populated areas of the West Bank, is deeply unpopular among ordinary Palestinians. Many regard its 87-year-old President Mahmoud Abbas as an authoritarian, his deputies as corrupt, and his leadership ineffective, especially when it comes to preventing Jewish settlement growth.
Into the Void
Hamas, the militant Iran-backed Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip, has tried to fill the West Bank’s leadership vacuum by providing a new generation of disgruntled young Palestinians with weapons, training and explosives to fight the the Israelis.
For now, Hamas lacks both the capacity and influence in the West Bank to turn their new cadres into a third, broad-based uprising against the Israeli occupation. But as Ben Gvir steps up his West Bank raids; Smotrich expands Jewish settlement; and only five settlers detained so far for their part in the attacks on the Palestinian villages, that could change.
But until then, the United States, the European Union, even the biggest players in the Arab world, appear to have turned their backs on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It has now become a localized struggle, what the late Israeli author Meron Benvenisti called a “Shepherds’ War,” in which the body count mounts inexorably, with few outside the region taking notice.
“What you’re looking at is a bloody strategic cul-de-sac, with no way out,” said Aaron Miller, now a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Even for Fauda fans, that’s too grim a prospect to watch.