The Politics Behind Targeted West Bank Assassinations

12:00 Sep 30 2022 Occupied Palestinian Territories (oPT) الأراضي الفلسطينية West Bank

The Politics Behind Targeted West Bank Assassinations
Prime Minister Yair Lapid and military chief Aviv Kochavi, this month. Credit: Rami Shllush Published by Haaretz

by Amos Harel for Haaretz
Sept 30, 2022

Shortly before evening newscasts on Wednesday, the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit released a video clip of a situation assessment conducted that day by Israel Defense Forces chief of staff Aviv Kochavi with ranking officers at the conclusion of a visit to Central Command headquarters. Kochavi is seen telling his officers he is ready to invest all it takes to halt the wave of terrorism in the West Bank. If necessary, he will send in both additional regular and reserve battalions, and training in the ground forces units will be reduced. Whatever the price.

The IDF has indeed invested enormous effort, with considerable success, in preventing attacks on West Bank roads and inside Israel. But the release of the clip is part of an increasingly popular practice that first began in the political arena and caught on in the army. The cameramen, in this case military in character, are ushered into a room to record the top-ranking person, who delivers a short speech for their benefit. Behind them, the lower-ranking individuals serve as a backdrop. The message to the viewers is simple: Even in a period of turbulent security, a steady hand is at the helm. The public can rely on us. In this sense, Kochavi’s clips are no different from those produced for Lapid, Netanyahu or Defense Minister Benny Gantz.

To complement the clip, the television reporters were briefed. The chief of staff, it was reported, has given the officers of Central Command “a green light to carry out targeted assassinations” in the West Bank. In case of operational need, Kochavi is for the first time allowing the use of drones to kill wanted Palestinians by long-range fire. The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit says this briefing didn’t come from its personnel, and that in any case the information isn’t accurate; rather, drones can be used only if there’s an immediate need “to eliminate a threat” – that is, to neutralize a source of weapons fire. This is not a policy of resuming assassinations, it says.

The use of drones has become a relatively hot political issue lately, following two incidents in which an IDF officer and a Border Police fighter were killed in exchanges of fire with Palestinian squads. The right wing saw this as fertile ground for a populist campaign enabling an effective strike against two easy targets: the government, which is supposedly abandoning the troops’ security; and the army High Command, which is ostensibly not holding its ground against the dictates of the politicians.

In fact, the IDF stopped conducting aerial attacks in the West Bank as far back as the second intifada. Here and there attack helicopters and even warplanes were sent into action in attempts to assassinate wanted individuals. Until attack drones entered the West Bank arsenal, they were used primarily in the Gaza Strip.

The operational logic behind this policy was simple: Arrest is preferable to assassination because a suspect can be interrogated and become a source of intelligence on future attacks. A long-distance assassination operation is relevant only where the IDF cannot act freely and where it would be compelled to place large forces in sure danger to take suspects into custody.

In 2005, as the second intifada petered out, Gadi Eisenkot concluded his tour of duty as commander of the Judea and Samaria Division. In his summation paper, he described the matter succinctly: An M-16 is preferable to an F-16. It’s precisely the ability of the IDF and the Shin Bet security service to take a wanted individual by surprise in his home, be it in the Jenin refugee camp or the casbah in Nablus, that entrenches Israeli deterrence against terrorism. From the moment that Israel has restored practical security control on the ground, there is no longer a need for airborne assassinations. They can be opted for as a last resort, in the absence of any other course of action.

What has changed of late, it seems, more so than the situation on the ground, relates to the perspective of the chief of staff. Kochavi will end his tour of duty in three months, on January 1, 2023. He is now acting to define his legacy, and in these circumstances also making moves that have a political element, like his recent visits to Poland and France, where he emphasized the need to fight Iran and Hezbollah. These leaks, whose source isn’t clear, can be seen as outflanking the government from the right. Reporters don’t say so explicitly, but viewers and readers will grasp the subtext on their own – the chief of staff is aggressive, the politicians less so.

Something similar happened a few months ago when Channel 13 television reported that during the tenure of the last Netanyahu government, Kochavi requested budgets to reinforce the military option against Iran, but got a negative response. Factually, he’s right, but only partially so. What the chief of staff asked of the ex-prime minister was an “external box,” referring to a singular increment worth a few billion shekels, beyond the defense budget. Netanyahu refused, and indeed did not act to preserve the attack possibilities (contrary to his public statements); but he had other problems to deal with at the time, notably the economic crisis wrought by the coronavirus pandemic.

Resuming the use of drones in the West Bank is controversial within the IDF. Some officers don’t see any need for airstrikes there. A few are apprehensive that the opposite result will be achieved, namely that Israel will gradually hesitate to send troops deep into the West Bank, and every entry into a refugee camp will become a special intelligence operation. Which is to say that paradoxically, the Palestinian organizations will thereby acquire greater freedom of action.

And there is of course the question of authority. It’s doubtful whether the chief of staff is even entitled to make a decision individually about the use of drones in the West Bank. This is a policy issue, and as such is in the hands of the government. If the Defense Ministry were headed by a less affable person than Gantz, and one less fond and respectful of Kochavi, it’s likely that the chief of staff would have heard from him already yesterday.

I don’t know where this information came from, but the report on the drones, at least the way it aired on television, looked like a declaration made without authority and with nothing to back it up. At the beginning of his term as chief of staff, Kochavi promised to refine what he considers the IDF’s lethality – here it looks mostly like lethal public relations.

The politics of escalation

The chief of staff’s remarks were made against the backdrop of seething tension in the West Bank, which culminated Wednesday morning in the killing of four armed Palestinians by IDF and Border Police troops in the Jenin refugee camp. The IDF is continuing to pursue an aggressive policy in the northern West Bank, with the entry into cities and refugee camps frequently evolving into extensive exchanges of fire.

Clearly, the government is not looking to launch a large-scale military operation in the Jenin area before the November 1 election, but the continuation of the incidents could drag the army into just such a move. In the background, it’s worth keeping an eye on the rising tension in Jerusalem, around the Jewish holidays and visits by Jews to the Temple Mount. Hamas in Gaza is constantly pouring oil on the flames to cause them to erupt into a firestorm engulfing Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Any such development could also have political implications in Israel. It’s clear that a more intensive military confrontation in the West Bank, with a rising Palestinian death toll, is liable to bring down the voting rate among the Arabs in Israel. That’s a fact known to everyone who follows the developments in Israel and the territories – from Hamas and the PA to Likud, Yesh Atid and the National Unity Party.
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