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Can Israel halt the stabbings? Hard right and military disagree on how.

Palestinians in the southern West Bank are facing severe travel restrictions, but hard-line members of Israel's government are seeking tougher measures. The military disagrees.

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    Israeli border policemen stand guard near the scene where a Palestinian man stabbed and critically wounded an Israeli before being shot dead by Israeli forces, in the West Bank city of Hebron December 7, 2015.
    Mussa Qawasma/Reuters
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The entrances to Palestinian villages like this one are either blocked by a swinging gate or bottlenecked by Israeli soldiers checking IDs and conducting occasional body searches.

But the clampdown around Hebron, which some are calling the most severe in years, represents only a compromise between Israeli politicians and security chiefs, who are increasingly – and publicly – at odds over how to rein in a wave of stabbing attacks that refuses to die down after more than two months.

While shifting from East Jerusalem to the West Bank, the attacks remain mainly the work of young Palestinians who act independently without links to militant groups – leaving Israel without a clear formula for a response.

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The heightened security in the southern West Bank recalls Israel’s response to the last Palestinian uprising of more than a decade ago. But for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-right coalition partners, the measures are not enough. They want a broader crackdown and even a reoccupation of Palestinian cities as was implemented in 2002 following a year of suicide bombings.

The military’s top brass and some former security chiefs meanwhile have been openly pushing in the opposite direction: They’re trying to avoid an all-out crackdown like 13 years ago and have even advocated steps to strengthen the Palestinian government. At stake for them is whether Israeli moves help douse the flames of the current unrest or add fuel to the fire.

“We are concerned that the political echelon will prefer to use the old toolbox. The context of the second intifada is totally different than the context of the terrorism we face now…. It would be a strategic mistake to use the same tools,” says Kobi Michael, a former Strategic Affairs Ministry official.

'The answer is societal'

Mr. Michael argues that Israel should find ways to strengthen the Palestinian Authority (PA) by helping it improve conditions for everyday Palestinians.

“We need to distinguish between the mass population and the perpetrators of the terrorism. Pressuring the whole population might be something that is counter-productive. It won’t prevent Palestinians teenagers from attacks.... The answer is societal,” he continued.

In a briefing to Israeli military affairs reporters that received wide coverage, the head of Israel’s Central Command suggested a similar approach. Maj. Gen. Roni Numa told reporters that the army had recommended measures to Mr. Netanyahu’s government that would strengthen the Palestinian economy and the PA.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett of the pro-settler Jewish Home party, by contrast, wants IDF troops to reoccupy Hebron – a bastion of both Israeli and Palestinian extremists – as well as the surrounding villages. “We need to go into Hebron with very large forces,” he said in a radio interview. “There is no alternative.”

Different agendas for politicians, officers

To be sure, there have been several recent precedents for clashes between Israeli security chiefs and cabinet ministers: Hardline cabinet members and the military’s top brass clashed over the goals of the 2014 war in the Gaza Strip, and Netanyahu and top security chiefs debated how to confront Iran over its nuclear program.

The arguments reflect the differing agendas of career military commanders and politicians. However, they also point to diverging approaches to Israel’s relations with the Palestinian Authority.

Mr. Bennett, former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and many in Netanyahu’s Likud party are hostile toward the PA and see it as a main force inciting violence. Israeli security chiefs see the PA – especially its security forces – as a critical stabilizing factor in the West Bank that is fighting militants.

“The military is more supportive of the PA because it helps provide security for Israel,” says Udi Eiran, a political science professor at Haifa University.

“The Naftali Bennetts are very critical of the PA: He thinks Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is weak, his statements are negative, and support the violence.” Prime Minister Netanyahu, says Mr. Eiran, seems to be siding with the military for now.

Army checkpoint 'makes problems'

On the outskirts of Sa’er one day last week, lines of cars, taxis, and trucks were backed up in both directions at the improvised checkpoint. Pointing assault rifles in the direction of motorists, soldiers briefly interrogate passengers before checking for weapons. In a recent report, the Israeli non-profit group Machsom (Checkpoint) Watch said movement restrictions in the Hebron region were the worst in 11 years.  

“Every day I wait two hours at the checkpoint. In the morning it’s three hours,” says Amer Halaikeh, 33, a delivery driver, after passing through an inspection point with an 18-year-old passenger who was body searched. The passenger “didn’t do anything,” Mr. Halaikeh says. “All of the people are afraid. It makes problems.”

Yet the blockades in and around Hebron – from which a large percentage of the Palestinian attacks originate – appear to be an attempt by the Israeli military to adopt a middle ground, boosting security measures while limiting the impact on the larger population.

For example, the army has resisted calls from some politicians to revoke work permits for Palestinians employed in Israel, and there’s less of a clampdown in the Bethlehem region because fewer attackers have come from those villages.

But to deter attackers at a frequently targeted traffic intersection where an American gap year student was killed two weeks ago, small groups of soldiers are posted at bus stops and turn away Palestinian motorists from the parking lot of a shopping center.

“We realized we had to create a mechanism that would help us find a person who plans to carry out an attack: We decided that we are putting blockades in the area of Hebron,” says a senior Israeli army officer in the West Bank, who spoke about the blockades on the condition of anonymity. “Some of the measures create traffic and delays. Though it’s not foolproof, we don’t have another way.”

For the Israeli residents of the West Bank who are a core constituency of the Netanyahu government, the measures are superficial. Many settler leaders are calling on the government to boost Israeli building in the West Bank and go deeper into Palestinian towns. At road junctions patrolled by soldiers, Hebrew posters shout “sovereignty” – a call for annexation of the settlements.

“Right wing politicians are attacking [the government] for not doing something more visible to fight the terrorism,” says Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University. “That’s an emotional response, not a strategic response.”

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