Assassinations in Gaza? Israel’s desperate response to West Bank resistance

Yousef Fares, The Cradle, September 6, 2023 —

Tel Aviv is desperately trying to contain the expanding influence of the Axis of Resistance in the West Bank via an old, failed policy of assassinating resistance leaders in Gaza. As experience shows, this is unlikely to significantly alter the situation on the ground, and may even exacerbate it.

It has been over two years since the Sayf al-Quds (Sword of Jerusalem) battle in May 2021, the last large-scale confrontation between Palestinian resistance factions and the Israeli occupation army in Gaza.

This relative calm was disrupted by two rounds of conflict: The first, in which Israel targeted the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and assassinated six of its military leaders; the second, was a significant shift in the occupied West Bank, where the PIJ’s military wing Al-Quds Brigades began establishing armed groups in September 2021, starting in the Jenin camp.

Initially, the formation of these groups didn’t suggest a potential for expansion and development. But to the horror of Israeli security institutions – and their vastly incorrect estimates – the resistance groups thrived and proliferated. 

Despite the occupation army’s efforts to eliminate them, such as  Operation Break the Wave in March 2022, which resulted in the arrest and assassination of hundreds of resistance fighters, and a massive invasion of Jenin camp in July, the resistance groups displayed remarkable growth in their tactical capabilities. 

Notably, the Jenin fighters seemed to draw inspiration from Gaza’s resistance fighters, adopting tunnel-building and ambush tactics.

Rise of resistance in West Bank 

While Israel accused Hamas and PIJ in Gaza of supporting, arming, and training resistance cells in the West Bank, its response in 2022 and 2023 was primarily limited to assassinating leaders of the Military Council of the Al-Quds Brigades.

By the end of 2022 and the start of 2023, the Al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s military wing, openly entered the West Bank scene. In 2022, they carried out just five shooting attacks in West Bank cities and occupied Palestinian territories. 

However, since the beginning of this year, they have claimed responsibility for nine attacks, resulting in the deaths of 13 settlers and soldiers. The most recent incidents were the Huwara attack (south of Nablus) and Hebron in August, which claimed the lives of three Israeli soldiers.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatened to once again resort to the policy of assassinations in response to the Qassam operations, and held the deputy head of the political bureau in Hamas, Saleh al-Arouri, and the Secretary-General of PIJ, Ziyad al-Nakhala, responsible for the attacks in the West Bank, with the support and financing of Hezbollah and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC). 

The Kan channel, affiliated with the Israeli Broadcasting Authority, recently reported that the Israeli military establishment is discussing carrying out military action outside the borders of the occupied West Bank in response to the wave of resistance operations in this region.

However, Israeli intelligence efforts have largely focused on the Gaza Strip since these threats emerged. This is because Gaza is believed to be the primary source of support for military cells in the West Bank, as confirmed by military analysts in the Israeli press. 

Carmela Menshe, a military affairs commentator on Hebrew Channel 13, suggested that the Israeli General Security Service, the Shin Bet, has realized that Gaza serves as the main hub for military cells in the West Bank.

Contrasting tactics: Qassam vs. Quds Brigades

The involvement of the Qassam Brigades in military operations in the occupied West Bank has increased pressure on the occupation army in the field, necessitating the deployment of 21 battalions to secure military sites and settler transportation routes from north to south in the occupied territory. 

The Qassam Brigades have adopted a distinct tactical approach compared to the Al-Quds Brigades. The latter operated from semi-safe environments such as Jenin, Nur Shams refugee camp in Tulkarem, Jaba’, and the Tubas governorate, conducting daily attacks against army positions and settler transportation routes.

On the other hand, Hamas’ Qassam opted for a strategy involving sleeper cells composed of a limited number of fighters connected to a local party that supplied them with weapons and plans. They executed highly planned and skillful operations, often resulting in casualties among soldiers.

This effective method stemmed from specific challenges that restricted Hamas’s movement in West Bank cities and camps. Its sharp rivalry with Fatah led to tensions, as Fatah viewed any Hamas presence as a threat to its authority. 

Since Hamas ousted the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) security services from Gaza in 2007, the PA’s apparatus has been more effective than the occupation forces in monitoring and countering any Hamas organizational activity, be it military or political.

Political analyst Ismail Muhammad tells The Cradle:

“Al-Qassam activity in the West Bank contributed to the integration of the resistance action: Islamic Jihad preoccupies the occupation forces, pushes more popular bases to engage in the resistance action, maintains an increasing pace of tension, and increases the points of engagement. As for Al-Qassam, it raises through effective operations, the cost of settlement, and increases the dispersion of the occupation army battalions.”

Recent operations by the Qassam Brigades in the West Bank have prompted the Israeli security establishment to recognize that pre-emptive arrests and accountability alone will not restore calm.

Netanyahu’s dilemma

According to political analyst Ayman al-Rafati, “In Israel, they have become certain that what is happening in the West Bank is proceeding according to a well-studied plan, behind which Hamas and the Islamic Jihad stand, with the full support of Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.” 

Rafati informs The Cradle that:

“The occupation army has no choice but to return to adopting a policy of assassinations in order to raise the cost of work in the West Bank on its supporters in the Gaza Strip, and abroad, such as Lebanon, if it can (..) The Israelis have information that prisoners who were liberated from the West Bank are residing in Gaza, and are behind the restoration of the infrastructure of the resistance cells that were destroyed in Operation Defensive Shield in 2002. They estimate that the assassination of some of these figures will push Hamas to rethink its rush to work in the West Bank.”

Sources within the resistance reveal to The Cradle that last week, Egyptian mediators made intensive efforts to avert a major escalation in the Gaza Strip. They conveyed a message to Hamas that Israel might refrain from resorting to assassinations if Hamas ceased its support and financing of resistance cells in the West Bank. 

However, all resistance factions reportedly responded that they would not halt their activities unless the settlement project was dismantled, and annexation procedures in the West Bank were halted.

Rafati believes that the Israeli prime minister, grappling with an internal crisis, has aligned himself with the far-right on the premise of advancing West Bank annexation. Consequently, opting for military escalation might be an easier choice for him than making concessions demanded by Hamas, which could lead to the dissolution of his alliance with the far-right, the collapse of his government, and the end of his political career. 

The security and political measures adopted by the occupation army to counter resistance cells in the West Bank over the past two years have yielded several important conclusions: 

  1. There appears to be no effective solution that can completely halt attacks in the West Bank, as all attempts and means have thus far failed. The security escalation in the West Bank remains a top concern for decision-makers in the occupying state. 
  2. While authorizing the security services of the PA to dismantle resistance cells has achieved some relative results in areas like the Old City of Nablus, it has proven ineffective in areas such as Jenin and Tulkarem. 
  3.  The PA faces limitations in arresting or assassinating resistance fighters due to the perception among the Palestinian public that it collaborates with the occupation.
  4. Time is not working in favor of the occupation, as each passing day allows resistance cells to enhance their capabilities and expertise, expand horizontally, and accumulate military strength through manufacturing or smuggling. After two years of resistance cell activity, it is evident that the external leadership has gained more control in the field and has taken the initiative in directing strikes at times and places that serve their major objectives.

Iran and Hezbollah’s influence 

The recent focus on senior Hamas official Arouri by Israeli media and experts is noteworthy. They attribute to him the implementation of the “Unity of Squares” plan in partnership with Hezbollah and Iran. 

This plan involves transferring Qassam Brigades into a military arm, aligning tactical actions with effective strategic construction, and introducing Iranian military technologies to Hamas, including the development of suicide drones, cyber systems, and techniques for disabling the Iron Dome system.

Political researcher Majd Dargham believes that this incitement “prepares Israeli public opinion to pay heavy prices that may result from the assassination of Al-Arouri.” However, the Israeli crisis with the deputy head of the Hamas Political Bureau is “much deeper than that,” Dergham tells The Cradle.

“It was repeated in the Israeli report that Al-Arouri is the head of the next Political Bureau after the internal elections scheduled to be held in a year and a half. This means that the Israelis are seeking to interfere roughly in the course of the elections, because Al-Arouri’s success means transferring Hamas completely to the Iranian axis, and this is Israel’s worst nightmare.”

Dergham adds: 

“Israel considers the Hamas leadership that resides in Doha and Turkiye to be less radical and extremist than the one that resides in Gaza and the southern suburbs of Beirut. Residence of the head of Hamas’s political bureau in the southern suburb, that is, in Hezbollah’s stronghold, means unifying viewpoints on the way to manage the conflict, which means taking steps forward on the path to unifying arenas and fronts. In other words, Israel sees that Iran and Hezbollah are operating in the West Bank, directly, but with the hands of Hamas and Jihad, and this harmony cannot be sabotaged under a Hamas leadership that throws all its eggs into the Iranian basket.”

A regional response 

The Axis of Resistance, specifically the Secretary General of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, announced advanced positions to protect the Palestinian leaders in Lebanon, specifically Saleh al-Arouri and Ziyad al-Nakhala. 

Nasrallah announced in more than one speech that Hezbollah would respond forcefully to the assassination of any Lebanese, Palestinian, or Iranian figure on Lebanese soil. On 2 September, Nasrallah met with Al-Nakhalah and Al-Arouri to discuss developments in Palestine and the escalation of events in the West Bank. 

Resistance circles anticipate that Israel may try to avoid a direct confrontation with Hezbollah by targeting secondary leaders in Gaza. However, such an operation is likely to trigger a robust military response, potentially escalating into a comprehensive confrontation. 

Moreover, it is unlikely to undermine resistance cells in the occupied West Bank, which have evolved into a resilient institutional entity unaffected by the assassination of individual leaders or even groups of leaders.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *