Israel reins in West Bank military offensive amid fears it could backfire

Since the abduction of three Israeli teens, Israel has arrested about 350 Palestinians, conducted sweeps of 1,800 locales, and raided 64 Islamic charities with suspected links to Hamas. Concerns are growing about resulting Palestinian unrest.

Mohammed Ballas
Israeli soldiers patrolled Sunday in the West Bank village of Kabatyeh during clashes with Palestinians related to the search for three missing Israeli teens.

Israel’s military is starting to rein in its retaliatory offensive against Hamas in the West Bank amid concern that a campaign of arrests and raids following the disappearance of three teenagers may backfire by stirring Palestinian unrest.

The presumed abduction of Israeli teens on their way home from seminary June 12 triggered a massive manhunt around the city of Hebron. But Israel quickly widened the scope of the military operation to include targets allegedly linked to the Palestinian Islamist militant group throughout the West Bank – the largest such assault in more than a decade.

Some 11 days into the operation, Palestinian casualties from clashes are rising – four have been killed – and there’s growing frustration in the West Bank over the return of Israeli soldiers to the heart of cities like Ramallah. The events have stoked criticism of the Palestinian Authority as well as Israel.

That worries Israelis inside and outside of the administration about a potential blow to the very Palestinian government that Israel relies upon to administer the West Bank. This includes all-important security cooperation with Palestinian police forces.

An Israeli defense official says the military plans to scale back raids against some Hamas locations, and to let the Palestinian police handle it instead. It’s a sign that some are recognizing the downside of the operation’s breadth, the official says. The move is part of the lesson learned from turmoil over the past week – particularly clashes in Ramallah during an Israeli raid early Sunday morning that morphed into a demonstration against local police accused of standing down during the Israeli raid.  

“After [the operation] is all over, no doubt that it will be a challenge for Abu Mazen [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas] to restore the confidence of the public,’’ says the Israeli security official, who requested to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the remarks. “We understand that it hurts his image.’’ 

Separately, the Haaretz newspaper reported on its website that the Israeli army started on Tuesday removing barriers around Hebron, and that Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said the offensive against Hamas had run its course. 

Fear of an uprising?

The day after the raid, the sidewalks of downtown Ramallah were virtually empty and one café owner reported a sharp drop in business prompted by fear of Israeli incursions.

Palestinians say there is concern of an uprising, even though many oppose it. One Ramallah resident who saw the aftermath of the Sunday morning protest says the Israeli incursions were an embarrassment for police because they were seen standing behind windows and looking on.  

“People are blaming the police because they did nothing when the Israelis entered Ramallah. And we can’t accept this fact,” says Kamal Bimbashi, an audio engineer at a local radio station. “It’s 2014, and there is no safety in Ramallah…. We are expecting every night that the soldiers will enter.’’

Despite the risk of such criticism, President Abbas last week lashed out at the kidnappers and reiterated support for security cooperation with Israel.  

A military correspondent for Israel Radio said that the broad operation against Hamas is approaching its conclusion; there’s no information about the fate of Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaar, and Eyal Yiftach, who disappeared from a West Bank highway nearly two weeks ago. The correspondent said officers stressed the need for “intelligent” pressure on Hamas, hinting that the scope of the operation needs to be slimmed down.  

'Call for restraint'

An Israeli army spokesperson said on Tuesday it arrested about 350 Palestinians, conducted sweeps of 1,800 locations, and raided 64 Islamic charities with suspected links to Hamas. But the military spokesman’s blog that once offered hourly updates on the offensive, dubbed  “Brother’s Keeper,” hasn’t been updated in days.  

The operation is beginning to take a diplomatic toll on Israel as well, marking a shift from initial statements of understanding and solidarity after the first reports of the alleged kidnapping.

In a report to the Security Council on Monday, UN Under Secretary for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman expressed concern over scope of the offensive and casualties.

“The rising death toll as a result of Israeli security operations is alarming. We condemn all killings of civilians,” Mr. Feltman said in a statement. “As the search for the missing youth continues, we call for restraint in carrying out security operations in strict compliance with international law.”

Ami Ayalon, a former chief of Israel’s Shin Bet security service, was even more blunt in his criticism, saying that the scope of the operation reflects an attempt to strike a political blow at Abbas’s recent unity government with Hamas.

“What Israel is doing is meant to do much more than return the teens home. We are basically, if I understand correctly, trying to dismantle Hamas’s infrastructure also in order to dismantle the Fatah-Hamas unity government,’’ Mr. Ayalon said in an interview with Israel Radio on Tuesday.

That goal “is bringing us to the point, without our perhaps intending, that we are dismantling the Palestinian Authority, we are weakening Abu Mazen completely. Abu Mazen is perceived as a collaborator and is losing power on the ground and will not have the power to do anything.”

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