Recent events in the West Bank have served as a reminder of the fact that there are certain places where the Palestinian Authority cannot move around freely, and that without IDF counter-terrorist operations, Hamas would soon begin threatening the PA's stability and very ability to rule.
The IDF disrupted a large, heavily-armed Hamas cell in late September, arresting some 20 members in a series of security raids that included shooting attacks.
Five Palestinians – at least four of them Hamas members – were killed in IDF pre-dawn raids in the village of Biddu, outside of Jerusalem, as well as near Jenin, on Sept. 26.
Days later, a Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) gunman was killed in Burqin, near Jenin, after opening fire on IDF units conducting an anti-Hamas operation in the area. Two IDF soldiers sustained serious injuries in that incident.
Israeli security sources said the Hamas cell was planning a massive terror attack against Israelis in Jerusalem, which was reminiscent of the kinds of attacks common during the Second Intifada between 2000 and 2005.
Jenin's refugee camp is an example of an area that has become off limits to the PA's security forces.
In recent weeks, gunmen in Jenin marched the streets, firing their automatic rifles the air, and pledging to repel IDF attempts to enter the city or its refugee camp.
The gunmen said they have formed a "joint operations room" consisting of representatives of various Palestinian factions to repel a possible "invasion" by the IDF, as Israel was pursuing a group of terrorists who escaped a nearby Israeli prison, most of whom are members of Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
In the end, the IDF was able to recapture the last remaining fugitives, two PIJ members hiding out in Jenin, without incident, due to Israel's deep intelligence control of the area, and its operational sophistication. The IDF sent forces to one section of Jenin and conducted a "loud operation" to attract attention, while a separate "quiet" force went to the locations in which the Shin Bet knew the two escaped prisoners were hiding.
Yet the lawless nature of parts of Jenin and other areas of the West Bank continue to pose a threat to regional stability. Warning signs regarding Jenin's transformation into a terrorist hornet's nest have been mounting. Last year, unidentified gunmen carried out a shooting attack on PA headquarters in the city, which resulted in damage but no injuries.
"We have seen this many times in the past – extraterritorial areas where PA President Mahmoud Abbas and his people will not dare enter," Col. (res.) Moshe Elad, one of the founders of the security coordination between the IDF and the PA, told the Investigative Project on Terrorism.
Elad, today a lecturer at the Western Galilee College in northern Israel, said there have been no changes in the PA's security coordination with Israeli security forces. But he said recent events, such as the escape of the PIJ prisoners, underlined that "the PA is weak, and if it finds itself unable to pay salaries to its tens of thousands of personnel, it would fall apart."
The extraterritorial areas that Elad described are dominated by Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and militias affiliated with Fatah, but not with the PA's president, Abbas. The Tanzim militia, for example, is loyal to imprisoned Fatah terrorist Marwan Barghouti, said Elad. "Abbas and his forces do not dare enter Tanzim-controlled areas."
"Hence, in terms of the PA's control, it is clear that the PA has Ramallah and a number of other areas that they can operate freely in, but not beyond," Elad added.
'Hamas never vanished in the West Bank'
The threat posed by a Hamas foothold in the West Bank "has never left the agenda," Elad said, adding that this is where the interests of Israel and the PA meet.
"This is the raison d'etre of the security coordination between Israel and the PA," he stated.
Gen. Majed Faraj, the head of the PA's General Intelligence Service, has been accused "more than once of repressing Hamas more than Israel does, by dismantling Hamas institutions and 'handling' its personnel," said Elad. "Repressing Hamas is of supreme interest to both sides of the security coordination. If something works well in this sphere, it is the cooperation in the repression of Hamas."
The PA remains traumatized by its violent ouster from the Gaza Strip in the 2007 coup, which saw Hamas storm Fatah's positions, and hurl Fatah members off multistory building rooftops.
"The PA's interest is not to lose the West Bank like it lost Gaza. This is Israel's clear interest too. As a result, one does not hear about major Hamas successes in the West Bank," said Elad.
On the other hand, he said, tribal family affiliations are growing among the Palestinian public in the West Bank, a factor that further challenges the PA's authority.
He described a long-standing pattern among West Bank Palestinians leading society to be "organized internally according to families," with national identification "coming second."
"Nablus is a prominent example of this. When Nablus Mayor Zafer Al-Masri was assassinated by the PFLP in 1986, his funeral was attended by many mourners, even though he was accused of being a collaborator with Israel. People didn't understand why so many mourners came – it was because Al-Masri is from one of the major Nablus families. Family belonging is dominant," said Elad.
"The family identification runs very deep, even though this is not often acknowledged, since it is seen as anachronistic, especially among [Palestinian] elites," he added.
As a result, deep-seated rivalries among the families of Hebron, Ramallah, Nablus, and other areas remain in effect.
"The PA's ability to band together is enabled by its ability to pay salaries. If this stops, we would see its dismantling, and an increase in militia and family identifications," Elad argued.
Abbas's eventual departure from the scene could accelerate such trends. "Hamas would see an opportunity in that to expand its footprint," he cautioned.
Hamas "can mobilize people from mosques. This is what it plans to do," Elad said. "The only thing stopping it are the ongoing efforts of Israel and the PA. The IDF is not going to leave the area any time soon, due its need to protect the presence of settlers and Israeli roads."
Ultimately, Elad said, Israel and PA have found the mechanism to keep Hamas under control in the West Bank, and prevent it from amassing the forces it needs to take over.
One day though, "this could change," and Hamas could surprise the entire area.
IPT Senior Fellow Yaakov Lappin is a military and strategic affairs correspondent. He also conducts research and analysis for defense think tanks, and is the military correspondent for JNS. His book, The Virtual Caliphate, explores the online jihadist presence.
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