June 12, 2012
By Evelyn Gordon
On May 10, the official Israel Defense Forces blog posted an article titled “The 2012 Terror Attacks Against Israel You Never Heard About.” The title is somewhat misleading, since in fact, none of these attacks actually took place: They were thwarted by the IDF’s unsung but daily counterterrorism operations in the West Bank.
While one or two items on the list seem questionable, most could undoubtedly have been deadly attacks. There are no innocent reasons for carting bombs around.
On April 11, for instance, soldiers caught a Palestinian at a checkpoint near Nablus “carrying improvised explosive devices, three knives and 50 bullets.” On April 21, two Palestinian teens were caught near Tapuach Junction with five pipe bombs, a gun and ammunition. On April 24, soldiers found four improvised bombs in the bags of two Palestinians crossing a checkpoint near Jericho. On April 28, two Palestinians were caught trying to smuggle four pipe bombs through yet another West Bank checkpoint. On May 7, soldiers caught a Palestinian teen with three pipe bombs near Tapuach Junction. On May 10, two other Palestinians were caught near Tapuach Junction “carrying 2 explosive devices and 3 prepped firebombs.”
It’s not surprising that this activity goes largely unreported; soldiers doing their job shouldn’t be unusual enough to be newsworthy. But this low profile could become a real security hazard for Israel in light of Egypt’s presidential elections, whose final round is scheduled for mid-June.
Why? Because front-runner Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood party has threatened to rethink the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, as have most other Egyptian parties. And their main excuse for so doing is the claim that Israel has violated the treaty by not resolving its conflict with the Palestinians.
Thus, once the elections are over Israel is liable to face heavy international pressure to “support Egypt’s new democracy” and shore up the treaty by making further concessions to the Palestinians. And one of the concessions the Palestinian Authority (PA) has consistently demanded is to restore the West Bank security situation to what it was before the second intifada erupted in September 2000. Specifically, it wants the IDF to withdraw completely from Area A, the part of the West Bank assigned to full Palestinian control by the Oslo Accords, and thereafter desist from any incursions into it.
Precisely because the IDF’s operations have been kept so low-profile, much of the world deems this demand risk-free for Israel: It has become accepted wisdom that the relative rarity of deadly terror in recent years is thanks entirely to the PA’s own counterterrorism efforts. Yet in reality, despite the genuine improvement in the PA security forces under PA President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, the bulk of the work is still done by the IDF itself.
While parts of Area A (which Israel reoccupied in response to the intifada) have been restored to PA security control, most of it is still controlled by the IDF. Moreover, even in cities the IDF has vacated, it still conducts frequent night raids to thwart planned attacks. That’s an ongoing sore point for the PA, but the IDF insists these raids are vital: In March, for instance, Israeli soldiers arrested a nine-man terrorist cell from Ramallah that had tried repeatedly to kidnap Israeli civilians. Thus restoring the status quo ante, which would require the IDF both to quit Area A entirely and to end these raids, would pose significant risk.
Amplifying the risk is the fact that despite the West’s glowing image of the new PA security forces, even Palestinian officials now admit that they remain riddled with corruption and violence. For years, as a senior PA officer acknowledged to reporter Khaled Abu Toameh, the PA turned a blind eye to these problems. But since May 1, when a Palestinian governor died of heart failure after an attempted assassination, Palestinian security forces have arrested dozens of police officers for “various crimes – including murder, extortion, abductions, sexual harassment and armed robberies.”
Nor is this situation surprising: As Abu Toameh noted, PA officials openly acknowledge that the “new” PA security forces were formed in large part by recruiting former terrorists and gangsters. And terrorists and gangsters rarely make ideal policemen.
Moreover, there’s a real concern that these terrorists might revert to their former profession should the IDF abandon Area A. They originally turned in their guns (under a PA amnesty program approved by Israel) only to halt a relentless IDF pursuit that made them unwelcome everywhere, from taxis to cafes, and especially as prospective husbands. But no such pursuit would be possible if Israel pledged to keep its troops out of Area A.
Finally, the myth of the PA’s counterterrorism successes ignores the fact that Israel didn’t return any territory to Palestinian control until the terrorist infrastructure had been decimated by the IDF’s own efforts, which reduced Israel’s total terror-related fatalities from 450 in 2002 to 13 in 2007. The first city, Jenin, was restored to PA control only in May 2008. In the 12 preceding months, exactly eight Israelis had been killed by West Bank terror, and the fatality level stayed roughly constant in subsequent years: five in 2009, eight in 2010, nine in 2011.
In short, the PA stepped in only after the hardest work had already been done, and has since merely preserved the relative quiet it inherited – and even that, only with a hefty assist from the IDF. Hence, its ability to cope with any upsurge in terrorism once the IDF leaves remains an open question.
For all these reasons, even Israelis who favor unilaterally evacuating settlements don’t support unilaterally evacuating Israeli troops: The IDF’s presence is vital to Israel’s security. The horrors of the second intifada, when Area A served as a safe haven for suicide bombers, and the nonstop rocket fire from evacuated Gaza have together made this crystal clear to Israelis.
Unfortunately, what is obvious to most Israelis is largely unknown to the rest of the world. Thus, unless Israel begins explaining this truth, it may end up being pressured into concessions that would threaten the hard-won security of the last few years.