A few dozen Palestinian teenagers wielding knives have occupied the Israeli public’s attention for the past three weeks, but security officials are looking beyond them at thousands of militiamen known to be armed with more lethal weapons and awaiting orders.
The Tanzim militia, affiliated with the ruling Fatah Party in the Palestinian Authority (PA), have not engaged in combat since the violent Second Intifada, which began in 2000 and was suppressed by Israel about five years later. But, according to the security officials, Tanzim is organizationally intact and has amassed a sizable arsenal.
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In the Shuafat Refugee Camp, a relatively small enclave inside Jerusalem, Israel estimates that some 3,000 weapons are cached, including assault rifles, grenades, and IEDs (improvised explosive devices).
A small Israeli detachment sent into the camp last week to seal off the home of a terrorist scheduled for demolition found it surrounded by a much larger force of masked militants who made clear their determination to block the move. The Israeli force was ordered to pull back rather then engage in a clash that could set the West Bank aflame, according to Israeli media.
The Tanzim and smaller militant groups are not the only armed Palestinians in the West Bank. The Palestinian Authority itself has extensive security forces. They have been cooperating with Israeli security forces, serving to a significant extent as a buffer between Israel and the Palestinian population.
Since the current unrest began, however, these forces have bowed to the temper of the Palestinian streets, keeping out of the way as rioters confront Israeli troops. If chaos overtakes the West Bank, it is believed likely that the Palestinian security forces would throw in their lot with the militants.
Although Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is the head of the Fatah Party, to which Tanzim ostensibly owes its allegiance, his influence over the militants has sharply diminished. They regard him as too conciliatory towards Israel. According to the Israeli website YNet, the PA’s security forces cannot enter some of the refugee camps because Tanzim militants kick them out. Would-be heirs to Abbas as PA leader have taken increasingly militant positions to win Tanzim support.
The Israeli army command has begun holding war games envisioning the possible outbreak of another intifada, or uprising, the third in three decades. A major scenario being weighed is an outburst in refugee camps, where militancy is greatest, that would ignite the entire West Bank. Taking a long view, the Defense Ministry is to begin sending reserve troops to the West Bank in December to enable the conscript troops normally stationed there to be withdrawn and put back on their regular training schedule.
The chief-of-staff, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, has organized an advisory forum consisting of senior officers who have held command positions on the West Bank as well as officers from the Shin Bet Security Service whose task it is to keep their fingers on the Palestinian pulse. The group meets three times a week. The army chiefs reportedly take a much more moderate attitude towards the Palestinians than do some of the right-wing ministers in Israel’s governing coalition who advocate crackdowns and stern economic steps.
A new intifada is not inevitable. The trauma of the last one is still raw for both sides. Israel lost 1,000 lives. The Palestinians lost three times that number as Israel in effect recaptured the West Bank. It is the memory of that agonizing time that has kept the lid on thus far. But without some political accommodation, analysts find it difficult to see how it will remain on.