Jerusalem24 – There may be no official state photographs to show for it, but the Palestinian Authority’s Minister of Civilian Affairs and PLO Executive Committee Secretary-General Hussein Al-Sheikh’s visit to Washington DC last week meant business.
Al-Sheikh, favored by both Israel and Washington to take up the Palestinian presidency (with no prospect of elections on the horizon), met with senior officials from the Biden administration including Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs Jake Sullivan at the White House on 4 October.
The visit’s primary purpose, according to Palestinian and Israeli analysts, was about officializing US support for Al-Sheikh as a successor to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose health and potential retirement has been a forum of speculation for the better part of the year.
But it was also ostensibly about pressuring the PA into curbing activity by armed Palestinian groups in the West Bank, which has been on the rise as Israeli military raids have intensified in nature and frequency over the past several months.
Writing in Middle East Monitor, Motasem A Dalloul quotes sources as saying the US decided to address the PA directly due to the lack of any “effective” Israeli government in the run-up to November’s general elections.
But the US may not have found quite as willing a partner in Al-Sheikh (or rather, the government he has prematurely come to represent) as they might have hoped, according to veteran journalist and political analyst Mohammad Daraghmeh.
The occupied West Bank has been witnessing both an increase in Israeli military raids which have left over 100 Palestinians dead this year, a quarter of them children, and activity from Palestinian armed groups targeting the Israeli military as well as illegal Israeli settlements.
Of particular concern to Israeli authorities is the rise of Palestinian group Areen Al-Asoud (the Lions’ Den, whose four founders including 18-year-old Ibrahim Nabulsi have all been assassinated by Israel) which regroups Palestinians from different armed political factions all fighting together under the new umbrella organization – an unprecedented phenomenon, according to Daraghmeh, who has been covering Palestine since the First Intifada.
As Israeli military sting arrest operations have found themselves devolving into drawn-out, hours-long gunfire battles and sieges, the Israeli government – and, by extension, the US administration – has been exerting more pressure on the PA to curb the attacks and seemingly regain control of the northern West Bank, particularly Jenin and Nablus.
“They want the PA to work as a security agent, without any reluctance,” Daraghmeh tells Jerusalem24, describing Israel and the US as having “no mercy” on the PA.
So far, PA arrest operations in the West Bank carried out at the behest of Israeli authorities have rather had the opposite of the “calming” effect Israel was hoping for.
The PA’s security apparatus, which broadly exists to comply with the “security coordination” with Israel as stipulated in the Oslo Accords, typically limits itself to retreating from areas in the occupied West Bank under its control slated for an imminent Israeli military raid at the prompt of a simple phone call.
When it does carry out arrests on behalf of Israeli authorities, the Palestinian security establishment faces even more backlash from angered Palestinians than the Israeli military would for the same operation.
“To be fair, the PA is not responding to pressures, they are not willing,” says Daraghmeh. “They told [the US], they are not willing to carry out campaigns against those groups.”
As the attacks have been carried out in many instances by armed fighters politically affiliated to Fatah (the ruling party within the PA) or even members of the security establishment, reluctance to act against them may be due to more than simple nationalistic fraternity.
To counter this trend, says Daraghmeh, “they are trying to absorb Fatah activists in the security apparatus, to bring them in.”
Stemming the cash flow
But this is only one of the strategies employed in attempts by the PA to avoid open confrontation with the West Bank’s armed groups.
“They would rather have a different approach,” says Daraghmeh, which is to focus on preventing Hamas from carrying out or facilitating attacks in the West Bank by financing them. “They see it as, ‘Hamas has taken over Gaza, has created chaos in Gaza, and they control Gaza.’ They’re worried about the same happening in the West Bank, that Hamas would be willing to create security chaos in the West Bank in order to control the West Bank.”
Public opinion polls show Hamas consistently hovers just above Fatah in terms of popularity in the West Bank – even if mostly as an alternative to Fatah, with other leaders from other political factions polling ahead of both Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas’ Ismail Haniyeh if an election were to be held today.
While curtailing Hamas’ power in the West Bank may be beneficial to both the PA and Israel, another, relatively more recent challenge has proven a headache for PA officials.
“There’s no denying huge funds are coming from outside the country,” says Daraghmeh. “The PA are trying to cut the funds.”
Writing in Al-Sharq last week, Daraghmeh quoted a senior PA security official who claimed the authority had disrupted a number of external funding channels to the West Bank. One of the persons it arrested in the process, according to the security official, had overseen the transfer of over a million dollars to the armed groups in Jenin and Nablus. The official claimed the source of the funds was, of course, Iran.
While Iranian funding to both Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (both of which are more active in Gaza than the West Bank) is an open secret, earlier this year, Iran declared it would further increase financial support and armaments to the West Bank.
While the exact impact the Islamic Republic is having on the current situation may be difficult to gauge, the boost in available weapons in the West Bank has indisputably led to a steady increase in shooting attacks on Israeli targets in the West Bank – and beyond – since the beginning of the year, with 132 shooting attacks reported from January to March; 164 from April to June; and 192 from July to September.
The third scenario
As Israeli general elections approach and the escalation in the West Bank shows no sign of abating, and the Israeli military establishment finds itself registering (usually rare) casualties, both the US and Israel are asking the PA to “act quickly” in their effort to suppress armed activity.
But apart from difficulties in stemming the flow of cash and weapons to the armed groups, the PA is facing other restrictions in their endeavor, says Daraghmeh, including a lack of meaningful political contact with the Israeli side.
“The PA is asking for political contact. In a meeting with the Israelis, they said basically: ‘If you withdraw your forces from Area A [the 18% of the West Bank under Palestinian civil and security control] then we can go after these groups.’”
To Daraghmeh, the message from the PA to Israel is clear: As long as you are not respecting the sovereignty of Area A, we cannot act as your security agent.
And while Israel and the PA remain at an impasse, the possibility of the so-called “third scenario” becoming reality looms ever nearer.
Haaretz reported on 29 September that Israel was studying three scenarios concerning the escalation in the occupied West Bank, with the first involving “excessive restraint” in Israeli military operations in the West Bank; the second, a continuation of current activity levels with so-called “targeted” operations; and the third, “a broad operation focusing on Jenin and its surroundings, involving a large number of units, [which] may continue without a clear expiry date.”
“If the attacks continue from Nablus and Jenin against Israeli targets, it’s a possible scenario,” says Daraghmeh. “I think they will go for the broad invasion.”
However, Daraghmeh notes – and contrary to speculation in Israeli media – “I don’t think the Israelis want a Palestinian Intifada. No.” Chief among the reasons for this reluctance is cheap Palestinian labor which the Israeli market relies on, especially the construction, agricultural, industrial and service sectors. Palestinian laborers in Israel also contribute around 16% of Palestinian GDP, or just under $4 billion yearly. Any further deterioration in the security situation could lead to restrictions and an eventual lockdown of the West Bank, entailing serious economic disruption on both sides of the Green Line.
Instead, ventures Daraghmeh, the Israelis may have looked to benefit politically from a situation of chaos in the West Bank in order to underscore to the US and Europe that the PA is incapable of preserving security and order and therefore incapable of running their own state.
But two factors could still tip the balance in the favor of an all-out invasion, according to Daraghmeh. The first would be if attacks against Israeli targets continue and take place further and further away from Jenin and Nablus, and cause casualties. The second factor is the upcoming elections.
“Particularly during election time, electoral campaigns, they have no mercy,” says Daraghmeh. “Israeli politicians are building their future on Palestinian blood. This is the historical approach. So Gantz and Lapid won’t mind sending even tanks and helicopters into Jenin for the sake of the elections.”
The ball is as much in the Israelis’ hands as it is in the PA’s at this point – although, it would seem, not so much as it is in the Palestinians’ armed groups.