Over the weekend tensions were high in the West Bank, and there were expectations that clashes would take place between Israeli security forces and Palestinian demonstrators. Most of the fears proved unfounded, as demonstrations were dispersed or confined to Palestinian areas where PA security forces fought with local protesters. The reason some of the demonstrations ended with a minimum of violence is due to decades of experience that Israel has gained in managing the conflict.
At the demonstration next to the northern entrance to Ramallah, all of the components of what could be a violence clash with the IDF were present. Demonstrators hurled stones and set fires, and the IDF and Border Police sought to disperse them. Watching from a hill overlooking the clashes provided a perspective on how Israel turns these clashes into an event where injuries are minimized and they do not spiral out of control.
A lot is at stake during these demonstrations. They tend to be predictable because of the way the West Bank is arranged. After the Second Intifada and the building of the security fence and erection of other barriers and checkpoints, the number of places where large Palestinian civilian population comes into contact with Israelis is minimized through a series of checkpoints and barriers that route Palestinian traffic primarily through PA controlled areas. There are exceptions, such as north of Ramallah where one road leads through a checkpoint nicknamed the DCO to a road by Beit El and then onto Route 60 which bisects the West Bank. Traffic from Ramallah can also continue north into other Palestinian villages such as Jalazun. The DCO checkpoint area is always the scene of clashes, primarily on Fridays after heightened tensions. For instance, after the US embassy was moved to Jerusalem, this was a flashpoint. Over the years, many Palestinians have been wounded here. In May 2018, a demonstrator was injured by live fire. In October 2016, a Palestinian police officer fired at soldiers at the DCO and was shot. Two more live fire incidents took place in January and February 2016, according to B'Tselem. On Friday, one teenager was killed in Jalazun, near the DCO, but not as a result of the clashes at the DCO.
The IDF routinely closes the road leading the checkpoint and places armored jeeps astride the road to prepare for clashes. They have also learned to place Border Police with riot control gear in fields near the road and on a hill that overlooks it. This gives Israeli forces command of the height of land to monitor what is happened. This same hill was festooned with concrete trenches during the Second Intifada when Israeli posts used to come under sniper fire. The way in which the conflict with the Palestinians has changed over the years is symbolized by those trenches. Where once Israeli soldiers faced threats of gunmen, today the threat is primarily projectiles such as stones, thrown by youth.
During the clashes Friday, the Palestinians set dumpsters and tires alight along the road. Palestinian medics from the Red Crescent, in well-marked colored vests, came to wait for injuries. Media also came. The potent mix of young male demonstrators with media and medics among them means the IDF must be careful in dealing with the protesters. This is an important issue because in Gaza, for example, Israel has often used live fire over the course of Hamas's nine-month-long Great March of Return. This has resulted in thousands of injuries and more than 200 deaths. But in the West Bank things are different, depending on the situation.
On Friday, the demonstrators hurled stones and shouted for two hours after prayers ended at 1 p.m. By 3 p.m., the IDF and Border Police decided to disperse the rioters. Using drones to monitor the protest, the IDF advanced quickly to clear the road. Border Police used tear gas to push the protesters back. Few were injured and the youth who had gathered ran away. A bulldozer cleared the burning dumpster. Palestinian medics stood and watched, meters from the soldiers, as the street was re-taken.
It appears, from watching this and other past protests, that Israel has learned the lessons of the previous Intifadas. It has learned to reduce the use of live fire, and also to reduce the point of contact between rioters and riot control to a bare minimum of seconds or minutes, so that the number of possible injuries are reduced. This also changes the media war, which is an important part of the modern battlefield. Israel is engaged in an "asymmetric" war between an army that possesses the best technology in the world and an adversary that generally possesses only stones.
This is not to say that Palestinian terrorism is not sometimes deadly. But in the clashes Israel often faces in the West Bank, the IDF, trained for war, does not always face an adversary that is more than a few dozen teenagers rioting. Israel's strategy has become more precise over time, as revealed in reports about the lengths Israel goes to when it warns residents of Gaza about pending air strikes. This precision also appears in the West Bank, through the use of hi-tech to monitor protests. This includes electro-optical devices, drones and other means. It allows security forces to concentrate effectively and deal quickly with serious incidents while allowing less serious riots to play out, so long as they can be contained away from a major thoroughfare or in a Palestinian area.
Seth Frantzman is The Jerusalem Post's op-ed editor, a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.