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Where will Israel’s West Bank crackdown leave the occupation?

Analysis: The kidnapping and ensuing search underlines development of normalized occupation

“Is Israel’s Operation Brother’s Keeper a return to the pre-Oslo occupation of the West Bank?” asked Palestinian commentator Hani Habib in the pro-Palestinian Authority daily Al-Ayyam’s Wednesday edition. Israel’s military reaction to the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers who were hitchhiking near the Gush Etzion settlement bloc is indeed impressive: 10 divisions from the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) plus special operation forces were mobilized in Palestinian cities and refugee camps of the West Bank; 280 Palestinians — of whom 200 are from Hamas — were arrested; the movement’s offices were raided; a radio station was closed.

The stated goals of what Israel has called Operation Brother’s Keeper are twofold: to free the three kidnapped teenagers and to uproot Hamas’ infrastructure. The latter objective resembles Israel’s stated goal in the 2006 war in Lebanon, when the target was Hezbollah and the trigger was also a kidnapping of Israeli nationals — but in this case Hamas’ response is feeble. As in the Lebanon case, it is hard to say whether a massive military operation is the most effective way to secure the release of those kidnapped, and it is even harder to say whether it will achieve the political objective of “uprooting” a political organization with widespread support. Yet, from Israel’s point of view, Operation Brother’s Keeper may still be worthy even if neither of the two goals is achieved in the short term.

In the wake of the second Palestinian intifada, which began in 2000, and of Israel’s 2005 unilateral withdrawal of soldiers and settlers from Gaza, the Israeli occupation has relied on recurrent “maintenance” operations in which the IDF clobbers Palestinian armed groups enough to keep them relatively quiet for some time. The Gaza Strip is usually the focus of these operations, and Hamas is normally the main target — regardless of whether it has been proved to be responsible for the attack that triggered the operation. These maintenance actions serve to demonstrate that Israel has the capability to smash Hamas militarily, and to reassure Israel’s citizens that their government will respond to any act of violence against them.

The collateral damage of these operations usually includes the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority (and particularly of its security cooperation with Israel) in Palestinian eyes. And the Israelis have left no doubt in the current operation that their objectives include undermining the international legitimacy of the current technocratic Cabinet of the PA, appointed in line with the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement.

But the events of the past week are not just about the Palestinians. The crime that triggered Operation Brother’s Keeper is particularly worrying for Israelis for two reasons: first, because the targets are minors; second and more important, because the kidnapping attacks the idea that the occupation has become so normalized in Israeli political life that the Hebrew word for it (kibush) has almost disappeared from the dictionary of mainstream conversation. For Israelis, little or no separation exists between the two sides of the Green Line that separates Israel from the territories it occupied in 1967, which use the same transportation networks, the same banks, the same supermarkets and so on.

The two-decade peace process has been premised on a two-state concept that would end the occupation, but economically and practically Israelis on both sides of the line live a one-state reality — throughout which hitchhiking is a crucial means of transportation. This week, soldiers are protecting popular hitchhiking places in the West Bank the same way that European or American security forces would guard transportation hubs after a major terrorist attack: as something that needs to be secured but cannot for any reason be shut down.

The normalcy of the occupation rests on the understanding that the vast majority of Palestinians live in West Bank territory designated by the Oslo accords as Areas A and B, in which Israeli civilians are not allowed, and security is guaranteed by a combination of unilateral incursions by the IDF and cooperation between Israel’s and the PA’s intelligence and police forces. PA President Mahmoud Abbas has defined such cooperation as “sacrosanct,” although keeping it going may prove more politically costly in light of Brother’s Keeper. It takes only one PA policeman breaking ranks to cause significant political consequences, although that remains unlikely because so many Palestinian livelihoods depend on the functioning of the PA and rocking the boat could have dire economic effects.

Israeli decision-makers will probably also be cautious to avoid destroying the current security structures on the Palestinian side. In different ways, both the Fatah-controlled PA in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza protect the safety of Israeli civilians: the former through direct cooperation with Israeli security forces, the latter by largely restraining rival groups from firing missiles into southern Israel — a Hamas-Israel deal brokered by then–Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi in late 2012 led to a dramatic drop in attacks from Gaza.

In Israel, the kidnapping of the three teenage settlers is seen as a result of the reconciliation agreement that relegitimized Hamas, considered a terrorist group by Israel, the EU and the U.S. But the kidnapping took place in Area C, the 61 percent of the West Bank that remains under full Israeli civil and military control — and the annexation of which has been openly advocated by some in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling coalition.

The kidnapping of the Israeli teenagers may, in fact, offer a glimpse of how the current one-state reality might develop: a normalized occupation, occasionally disrupted by security challenges.

The discourse in the Israeli mainstream is increasingly reverting to a pre-Oslo situation that offered no prospect of a political road to ending the occupation and approached the West Bank largely as a question of fending off security threats to the normality of that occupation. Entrenching the status quo requires generalizing the Israeli view to the world community, closing off all international channels for Palestinians to seek recognition and redress. But whether consolidating the current one-state reality is making Israelis safer remains to be seen.

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