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SECURING AMERICA, STRENGTHENING ISRAEL

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Is a Third Intifada Imminent?

By Yaakov Lappin
JINSA Visiting Fellow

The past two months have seen a sharp rise in the number of violent disturbances in the West Bank. Flashpoints have included Hebron, and multiple locations in the northern West Bank. The upsurge has included fire-bomb attacks, rock throwing at Israeli vehicles and IDF positions, and sporadic shootings.

The Shin Bet, Israel's domestic security agency, recently released data that points to an unmistakable rise in the number of violent incidents. In December, there were 69 fire-bombings in the West Bank, and 30 in Jerusalem. Three members of the Israeli security forces were injured - two were stabbed in the West Bank, and one was hit by a car Jerusalem in a deliberate attempt to run him over. Additionally, there were six improvised explosive device attacks, and three hand grenades thrown. Palestinian terrorists fired on Israeli targets twice.

In total, there were 111 violent attacks in December. In November, the number of attacks in the West Bank and east Jerusalem was 166, which included two stabbings, three improvised explosive devices, a hand grenade attack, and 156 fire-bombings. November and December represent a steep rise in violence compared to October, in which 70 incidents were recorded.

This has led some commentators to ask whether a "third intifada" has arrived. Intifada means uprising in Arabic, and was first applied in the late 1980s to describe a wave of rioting and violence that rocked the West Bank. It was during that time that Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood members announced the formation of Hamas, and, not wanting to be outdone by their secular nationalist rivals, Fatah joined in the violence.

The first intifada lasted until 1993. The second intifada, launched by Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat in 2000 in response to a far-reaching Israeli peace offer by former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, was marked by organized, lethal terrorism that included suicide bombings and shooting attacks on Israeli civilians in Israel and the West Bank. Between 2000 and 2005, more than 1,100 Israelis were murdered in the second intifada, and more than 100 more lost their lives in subsequent years.

Israel responded by reintroducing security forces into West Bank cities, building up effective intelligence capabilities to preempt attacks, and constructing the security fence. These measures brought the number of suicide bombings down to zero.

Now, talk of a third intifada is in the air. While it is difficult to clearly differentiate between a limited surge in violence, and an all-out intifada, it is possible to make some observations on the new situation in the West Bank. Beginning in November, a number of regional events conspired to create a shift in the atmosphere among West Bank Palestinians. These events included the escalation of Hamas attacks on Israel that culminated in Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's unilateral bid for Palestinian statehood status at the United Nations, and Hamas's 25th anniversary mass celebrations in Gaza.

With Abbas refusing Israel's offer to commence negotiations immediately and without preconditions, and his actual ability to represent the Palestinian people in question, the peace process is stalled, a fact that is further stoking tensions. While Palestinian Authority police are continuing to patrol West Bank cities and are maintaining a degree law and order, there is concern in Israel that this could change should the violence continue to escalate.

Senior IDF sources have been reluctant to label the upsurge in West Bank violence a third intifada, and attribute such descriptions to overhyped press coverage. But the sources are concerned about the possibility of the current situation slipping into a new and major wave of violence.

At this stage, there appears to be some involvement by Fatah-linked paramilitary groups in a number of the incidents, though the majority of them are viewed by the IDF as spontaneous, popular outbursts. And the violence could once again spill into Israel, as occurred in November, when an Israeli student jogging in Beersheba was stabbed and injured. Security forces have since arrested six terror suspects for that attack, including Bedouin-Israeis and Palestinians from Hebron, the latter being members of Fatah's Al-Aqsa Martyr's Brigade.

Last week, the IDF announced the arrest of a member of Fatah's Tanzim terror group for taking part in a rock throwing attack on an Israeli vehicle in the West Bank, which critically injured an Israeli woman. Hamas, for its part, is attempting to resurface in the West Bank. Hamas's goal is to reestablish itself in the West Bank after its terrorist infrastructure was decimated in Israel's Operation Defensive Shield of 2002.

On one track, Hamas is setting up da'wa stations - social aid programs that include Hamas indoctrination messages - in West Bank cities. According to Israeli intelligence it is also preoccupied with a program called Kutla, which entails recruiting university students by spreading jihadi ideology among them. These steps are an attempt to create the building blocks for future terror cells.

Hamas is no longer constraining itself to its traditional West Bank bases of Hebron, Nablus, and Jenin. It is also attempting to spread out to the Palestinian Authority's heartland of Ramallah. Some 30 Hamas activists were arrested recently on suspicion of setting up a Hamas branch in the Ramallah area.

Israel is responding by stepping up operations against da'wa operations, increasing arrests of terror suspects, intercepting cash transfers from Hamas operatives in Gaza to their counterparts in the West Bank, and moving in on emerging terror cells in the West Bank when they are identified.

Israeli security forces are also making more arrests of Palestinian suspected of playing leading roles in large-scale unarmed disturbances. The arrests are made during or after the incidents and are based on observing rioters who stand out in the level of violence they employ.

Only time will tell if the West Bank will slide into another intifada, but warning signs are multiplying that such a development could be approaching.

Yaakov Lappin, JINSA Visiting Fellow, is a journalist for the Jerusalem Post, where he covers military and national security affairs. For more information on the JINSA Visiting Fellows program, click here.

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