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What Israel is fighting against

The Islamists in Jenin pose an existential threat to Israelis – and to Palestinian nationhood.

Daniel Ben-Ami

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Israel’s large-scale military incursion into Jenin on the northern West Bank has drawn widespread international condemnation. Starting on Monday morning, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) deployed over 1,000 troops with armoured vehicles, military bulldozers, drones and helicopter gunships to move into a refugee camp. The military operation is expected to last for a few more days. It is Israel’s largest operation in the West Bank in over 20 years.

The Palestinian Authority (PA), the organisation that officially controls the Palestinian population centres in the West Bank, set the tone for the criticism. A spokesman for Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas called the operation ‘a new war crime against our defenceless people’.

According to this narrative, the massively powerful IDF is engaged in yet another brutal and senseless attack against the Palestinians. At the time of writing, the Israeli military has killed at least 10 Palestinians in Jenin and wounded over 100, with 20 people in critical condition. Another Palestinian was killed yesterday, in an Israeli military raid on the West Bank town of Ramallah. About 3,000 Palestinian civilians have fled Jenin in the face of the onslaught.

Israel, in contrast, argues that its operation, unofficially named Bayit Vagan (Home and Garden), is focussed on what it calls ‘terrorist infrastructure’. According to the Israeli Foreign Ministry: ‘Over the past two years, Jenin has become a major hub of terrorism and an Iranian stronghold close to Israeli population centres. Most of the terror attacks against Israelis originated from Jenin.’ The IDF’s goals include targeting armed men, arresting wanted men, as well as destroying weapons labs and command-and-control centres. Israel says it is trying its best to minimise civilian casualties.

Israel’s latest incursion marks an uptick in a conflict that has been escalating for a while. This year so far, about 29 people on the Israeli side (including foreigners) have been killed and 270 have been wounded by Palestinian military groups. Israel claims the figure would have been much higher had it not been for its pre-emptive military raids on Islamist terror organisations. It also points to its Iron Dome anti-missile system, which protects its population against rocket attacks.

The Palestinian casualty figure is much higher – at about 200 people so far this year. However, a substantial proportion of them, although by no means all, were members of Palestinian armed groups. Palestinian friendly fire has also accounted for a significant number of these deaths, as rockets aimed at Israel have fallen short, hitting Palestinian civilian areas.

Palestinians have also suffered as a result of so-called settler violence. Recently, many armed Jewish settlers have been rampaging through Palestinian areas on the West Bank. Settlers claim they are looking for terrorists.
Homes, cars and fields are routinely destroyed in such vigilante raids. Officially, Israel is opposed to settlers taking the law into their own hands. But, in practice, the Israeli military often lets them act with impunity.

To properly understand what is going on, it is necessary to go beyond the casualty figures, terrible as they are, and to examine recent developments more closely.

Critics of Israel have tended to blame the Jenin incursion on the influence of far-right figures in the Israeli government. The most notable of these Israeli hardliners are Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel’s national-security minister, and Bezalel Smotrich, the finance minister.

However, the influence of these figures is being overstated. Indeed, the recent escalation of Israel’s military incursions into the West Bank actually began well before the last election in November 2022, when these far-right ministers were elected into government.

This week’s Jenin incursion is part of a growing conflict that has been underway for well over a year. Israel’s military launched what it called Operation Breaking the Wave as far back as March 2022, in order to counter the growing threat of Islamist terrorism. Since then, it has frequently raided Jenin, which it sees as a base for terrorists, albeit on a smaller scale than now.

To understand the dynamics of the current conflict, it is necessary to recognise that there are three sets of actors involved, not just two. The battle is not a straightforward one of Israel vs the Palestinians. Instead, there is Israel, the declining force of Palestinian nationalism and the rising force of Islamism.

The backdrop to the past two years of escalated conflict is the partial collapse of the Palestinian Authority. The PA is controlled by Palestinian nationalist groups. Once popular among Palestinians, these are now largely discredited. The PA’s decline has left a vacuum allowing Islamist groups to take control of northern West Bank towns, such as Jenin and Nablus.

There are good reasons why the PA has lost its grip. In a recent opinion poll of West Bank Palestinians, 86 per cent said the PA is corrupt. Its 87-year-old leader, Mahmoud Abbas (also known as Abu Mazen), was elected for a four-year term back in 2005 and has not been legitimately re-elected since. It has long been expected that his death will precipitate a total collapse of the PA and an Islamist takeover of the area. In truth, this process is already well underway.

This leaves both Israel and the Palestinians in an invidious position.

For Israel, this situation means that defending its citizens will now often mean coming into direct conflict with Islamist gunmen located in Palestinian population centres, where there is no longer a PA force to maintain law and order.

For the Palestinians, this situation not only means coming into direct conflict with Israel – it also means that no one is fighting for their national cause anymore. As I have previously argued on spiked, the goal of Islamist groups is not national self-determination for the Palestinians. On the contrary, their outlook is hostile to all nation states. Their goal is an international Islamic order which transcends states. For Islamists, the struggle against Israel – or the fight against the cosmic Satanic evil of the Jews, as they see it – is just one step towards achieving that new world order.

Tragically, the current impasse leaves armed Islamist groups, such as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, in a strong position. They can pose as defending Palestinians and gain legitimacy from their struggle against Israel.

Unfortunately, international commentary about the West Bank conflict routinely fails to understand, or in some cases consciously downplays, the malevolent character of these groups. Israel’s claim that it is fighting terrorists is dismissed as hyperbole. But the dangers of these groups are very real.

Palestinian Islamist groups are part of a heavily armed network of Islamist fighters from around the region. They also enjoy substantial backing from, among other places, Iran. Their stated goal is the mass murder of Jews or at least their expulsion from Israel.

We know this not from Israeli propaganda, but because this is what the groups say themselves. In the English language media, they typically present themselves as heroic freedom fighters. But in the Arab media, the presentation is totally different.

Western journalists are circulating misleading claims about this conflict. Take the claim from Mahmoud Abbas, quoted above, that Jenin is ‘defenceless’. It is of course true that Palestinian civilians are unarmed. But the Islamist groups there are well supplied with weapons. The funeral of Islamist fighters in Jenin in December 2022 provided a graphic example. A TV broadcast from the Alray News Agency showed scores of Palestinian fighters armed with assault rifles.

Nor is that the limit of their weaponry. Two weeks ago, several Israeli soldiers in a heavily armoured vehicle were wounded by an improvised explosive device (IED) in Jenin. This was not the first use of an IED by Islamist forces, but they are getting more powerful. It is dishonest in the extreme to claim that these Islamist groups represent unarmed, defenceless Palestinians.

Indeed, these groups are part of a formidable international military network. These include sizable Hamas forces in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon and also Islamist forces in Syria. All have substantial backing from Iran, which is, by its own account, dedicated to destroying Israel.

The true aims of these groups are all too explicit. Ziyad al-Nakhalah, the leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, has explicitly called for the expulsion of Jews from the entire region. In an interview in June with Al-Alam TV, an Arabic news channel broadcasting from Iran, he said his organisation intended to ‘drive the Jews out of Palestine, the Galilee, everywhere’.

Then there are the countless threats to murder Jews that are openly made in Arabic broadcasts by Islamist groups. In 2021, Fathi Hammad, a senior Hamas official, called on Palestinians in Jerusalem to decapitate Jews.

Israel’s military incursion into Jenin is no doubt a tragedy for the Palestinian civilians caught in the crossfire. But it would be wrong to view this as a straightforward battle between Palestinian good and Israeli evil. Instead, it reflects an awful impasse – in which Israel is defending itself against a mortal Islamist threat and Palestinians have no one fighting for their cause. What’s going on is a tragedy, but a tragedy that is not nearly as simplistic as we in the West are being led to believe.

Daniel Ben-Ami is an author and journalist. He runs the website Radicalism of Fools, dedicated to rethinking anti-Semitism. Follow him on Twitter: @danielbenami

Picture by: YouTube / The Guardian.

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