New Weapons, Tactics Further Entangle U.S. in Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

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The White House is pictured in Washington D.C., on October 31, 2004.

TEL AVIV – In a week that saw U.S.-made attack helicopters strafing a Palestinian city and Israeli settlers rampaging through a village filled with American citizens, the Biden administration finds itself caught up in a rapidly escalating conflict.

Both sides are also introducing new and more powerful weapons and tactics that hark back to the all-out war of the second intifada more than 20 years ago, when Israel reoccupied much of the West Bank.

For months the White House, which is mired in a prolonged diplomatic chill with Israel’s far-right government, has expressed concern over the spiraling violence in the West Bank, where Israel is being confronted by increasingly effective Palestinian militants, with whom its forces fought in lengthy street battles this week.

On Monday, a pre-dawn Israeli raid in Jenin quickly devolved into an extremely unusual eight-hour gunfight, during which Israel had to deploy Apache helicopters to extricate its soldiers under fire after roadside bombs trapped them in the city. The cycle then spiraled further when the next day, two Hamas gunmen killed four Israelis in the West Bank in retaliation.

On Wednesday, 400 armed settlers rampaged through Turmus Ayya, a West Bank town that is 85 percent Palestinian American dual citizens, according to its mayor. The settlers torched dozens of homes, cars and orchards while shooting at civilians. One Palestinian was killed by Israeli police when clashes broke out.

Later that night, Israel, in another rare move, announced it had used drones for the first time since 2006 to kill three members of a Palestinian “terrorist cell.” Settlers from the hard-line settlement of Yitzhar also cut electricity lines leading to the Palestinian village of Ourif, the hometown of the two Hamas gunmen.

“In the near future, all hell will break loose,” said Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli consul in New York, adding that an Israeli-Palestinian escalation was “the last thing that the Biden administration wants to deal with.”

The last time that the United States meaningfully engaged with the region was in 2014, when then-Secretary of State John F. Kerry oversaw the collapse of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. At the 2016 Saban Forum, an annual gathering of senior Israeli and American policymakers, Kerry said he found the views of some right-wing Israelis leaders “disturbing,” and said they had deliberately sabotaged efforts to broker a deal.

But with the violence across the West Bank escalating in both ferocity and sophistication – and increasing numbers of U.S. citizens on both sides of the divide – the United States may be forced to assume some measure of involvement once more.

Israel, under the most far-right, pro-settler government in the country’s history, appears to be seeking the annexation of the West Bank, home to 3 million Palestinians, in a challenge to U.S.-Israeli bilateral relations, based for decades on the stated goal of a two-state solution.

“We continue to work directly with our Israeli partners, with the Palestinian Authority, to promote steps to advance de-escalation,” said U.S. State Department spokesman Vedant Patel in a news conference Wednesday when asked about the presence of U.S.-supplied weapons in recent battles that killed militants as well as civilians.

On Thursday, U.S. Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides took a tougher line in a meeting with young Israelis and Palestinians in Tel Aviv, saying that the United States does “not stand and watch settler violence. . . . And we’re pushing the Israelis to take whatever action they need to take to stop those people.”

Former Israeli consul Pinkas, however, said the United States may soon need to abandon these platitudes as Israeli far-right politicians, who have openly called for collective punishment of civilians as part of a deterrence strategy, gain greater influence over military and civilian policies in the West Bank.

On Monday, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who also occupies a special position in the Defense Ministry, called for Israel to launch a broad counterterrorism operation, involving the Israeli air force, to “eradicate the nests of terrorism” in the northern West Bank and its densely populated towns.

When asked in an interview with the Kan public broadcaster if he and his fellow politicians had pushed for the Wednesday night drone attack, Yitzhak Kroizer, a member of the far-right Jewish Power party, said, “We are pleased to see our demands are being met.”

Hundreds of Palestinian Americans living in the West Bank, many in clusters near the city of Ramallah, say that the United States is obligated to do more to protect its people as they face off against both the Israeli army and growing numbers of armed Israeli settlers aiming to intimidate them from their land.

“Why should my tax money fund the Israeli government that kills American citizens?” said Tamer Naser Jbaraha, a resident of Dallas whose cousin, Omar Ketin, a U.S. green-card holder, was killed by Israeli forces Wednesday in Turmus Ayya.

“As an American citizen, it is my duty and obligation to defend my country, so my country is obliged to protect me, wherever I go,” said Jbaraha, who is married to a U.S. citizen. He said that he and his family are on summer break in Turmus Ayya, but that his four children are traumatized by the experience of the settlers torching their house and, feeling unsafe, are planning to return home as soon as possible.

“We need more pressure from the U.S. government, which can tell Israel to stop building settlements, and it can stop sending weapons,” said Wasef Erekat, a Palestinian military analyst in Ramallah.

He said the ongoing Israeli military raids, focusing in Jenin, had helped militant groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, as well as smaller local battalions, to recruit in unprecedented numbers and encouraged them to develop new weapons and tactics, like preparing homemade bombs and explosives. They are also learning from the older combatants of the second intifada period about the techniques for creating ambushes ahead of Israeli military raids, and traveling individually to avoid detection.

“The fighters now believe that the only way to face Israelis is to fight them, and they are being encouraged by Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, who say that there is no chance for Palestinians to live here,” Erekat said, referring to Israel’s two most well-known hard-line ministers – also zealous settler activists.

A senior Israeli military official said that over the past year and a half, as a result of increasing Palestinian sophistication, the raids have become “longer, more complicated,” making some kind of large-scale operation more likely, which analysts say could take the form of the reoccupation of Jenin.

Miri Eisin, a former senior Israeli intelligence officer, said that possibility should not be underestimated, and that if it did happen, it would probably be a prolonged affair carrying a high death toll.

“Occupying Jenin, this low-tech but fortified arena, will have a ripple effect into West Bank, Gaza, Israel and even outside,” she said, adding that it could also leave an opening for Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed group in Lebanon, to get involved.

“There will be no end,” she warned.