In a series of policy conferences held on Jan. 30, several heads of Israel’s security bodies identified global jihadism on the country’s borders as a new threat that might unseat the Iranian nuclear issue from the top of the country’s security threats.
Aviv Kochavi, head of Israeli military intelligence, said that global jihadism “may be the most disturbing phenomenon” with which Israel will have to grapple in the near future. In January, Israel revealed that it had arrested three Palestinians in December 2013, two of them residents of occupied Jerusalem, who were recruited by a group with ties to an Al-Qaeda branch in the Sinai. This came after Israeli forces killed three Palestinians in the town of Yatta, south of Hebron. Security sources say the three were part of a local Salafist-jihadist group that planned to carry out attacks against Israeli targets in the West Bank.
These were not the first instances of independent jihadist militant initiatives in the West Bank. In the past two years, Israel had reported targeting militant cells bearing some connection to Al-Qaeda in the north of the West Bank and even within Israel.
The growing references by Israeli security spokespersons to global jihadism and some Al-Qaeda influence in the West Bank may serve Israel’s interests in its negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. Such threats could lend credibility to Israel’s charge that the PA cannot provide security guarantees if Israel were to withdraw from the West Bank. Yet if current political and economic conditions in the West Bank continue, the Salafist-jihadist bogeyman may grow to pose a real challenge. This will happen less through infiltration of militants from Syria or the Sinai to the West Bank, or their establishment of effective and coordinated networks there, than through the spread of localized individual initiatives fueled by growing frustrations. Under the current political stagnation and fragmentation in the West Bank, disgruntled residents may try to vent frustrations through local militant organizing or by linking up with jihadist groups operating in neighboring countries.
The Yatta group attack was the first instance of these links. A Gaza- and Sinai-based jihadist organization called the Mujahedeen Shura Council in the Environs of Jerusalem (Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen fi Aknaf Bayt al-Maqdas) claimed responsibility for the attack in the West Bank carried out by the local Yatta group. The statement, issued on Nov. 28, announced a new stage of jihad in the West Bank that would target both Israel and the PA, which it has accused of treason. The Mujahedeen Shura Council was established in June 2012 and is a coalition of several small jihadist organizations that have appeared since Hamas’ takeover of Gaza in 2007 and have spread to the Sinai. Participating organizations include the Army of Islam, the Army of the Umma, Jamaat al-Tawhid, Islamic Jihad and Ansar Allah.
The council’s public statements and online rhetoric claim that it is linked to Al-Qaeda and that its main goals are the liberation of Palestine and retaliation for Israeli attacks on Palestinians. It is considered to be the second largest jihadist group in the Sinai. The organization’s activities are normally confined to the northern Sinai and Gaza; they include rocket launching and operations along the Egyptian-Israeli border. In August and September 2012, the organization claimed to have launched 36 rockets aimed at Israeli towns in reaction to the cease-fire between Palestinian factions in Gaza and Israel facilitated by Egypt in June 2012.
The announcement that the council seeks to expand to the West Bank does not mean it will be able to send operatives or establish extensive networks in that region, given that Israel and the PA largely maintain tight security control. However, as with the Yatta group, local West Bank sympathizers may link up with such organizations to carry out independent and isolated small scale attacks.
Several factors may have fueled individual support for localized jihadist initiatives in the West Bank. Among these factors was Hamas participating in national elections in 2006. With that decision, the movement lost members who objected to political participation and the democratic process as the main avenue for change. Interviews with Hamas leaders in the West Bank in 2008 revealed that significant segments of the movement, particularly within the Ezzeddine al-Qassam Brigades, were frustrated that Hamas participated in the PA institutions. This has led to the freezing of membership and even expulsion of several individuals.
Beyond competing in elections, Hamas also largely ceased military operations inside Israel and agreed in principle to the establishment of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. This change in strategy angered a significant sector of Hamas’s leadership, which remained committed to violent resistance. Not surprisingly Mohammad Nirukh, one of those killed in the Yatta encounter, was a former member of the Qassam Brigades, suspended due to his objection to Hamas’ new democratic outlook – which he said was in violation of Shariah.
Fatah’s targeting of Hamas in the West Bank has also created an organizational vacuum for Palestinian opposition. After the Fatah- Hamas conflict of 2007 led to the suspension of the democratic process and Hamas’ takeover of Gaza, the PA adopted severe security measures to curtail Hamas’ political and military presence in the West Bank. The PA has outlawed most of the movement’s social, political and military activities within its territory. This absence of Hamas left its members in the West Bank to seek like-minded religious activists through other channels in order to continue their military organizing. After the Yatta episode, the PA arrested 20 Salafists for their alleged involvement in jihadist organizing; most arrested were former Hamas members.
Though the PA was relatively successful in dissolving Hamas’s military infrastructure in the West Bank, it failed to offer a compelling governance model or a political alternative. Social and economic conditions have deteriorated, a factor further contributing to an environment conducive to extremism.
In addition, the peace negotiations that Fatah has hailed as the proper strategic choice have not lent the PA further legitimacy among the Palestinian public. While a majority still supports negotiation, a December 2013 survey showed that 69 percent of Palestinians were pessimistic about its prospects. Moreover, Israel’s unbridled security operations in the West Bank, numerous arrests, land confiscation and its “Judaizing” projects in Jerusalem constitute yet another factor contributing to the rise in jihadist proclivities in the West Bank.
It is difficult to assess the extent to which new forms of violent opposition to the PA and to Israeli occupation in the West Bank, molded along new Salafist-jihadist lines, will become widespread. While the PA has faced governance failures before, its security apparatus, alongside the Israeli occupation, has meant that the kind of fragility and chaos present in places such as Syria and Sinai has not been replicated in the West Bank. However, the absence of viable democratic opposition channels in the West Bank, which could facilitate nonviolent dissent, is fueling a rise in frustrations and a turn to extremism among some individuals and local groups.
Lihi Ben Shitrit is an assistant professor at the School of Public and International Affairs, University of Georgia, Athens. Mahmoud Jaraba is a researcher at Erlangen Center for Islam and Law in Europe, Germany. He is the author of “Hamas: Tentative March toward Peace.” This commentary first appeared at Sada, an online journal published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (www.carnegieendowment.org/sada).