Annexation poses a grave threat to Jerusalem, defense officials say

15-19 minutes

They warn there is not enough time to get ready for possible repercussions

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US Ambassador David Friedman touring the West Bank settlement of Ariel on February 24, 2020 (photo credit: COURTSEY OF ARIEL SPOKESPERSON'S OFFICE)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US Ambassador David Friedman touring the West Bank settlement of Ariel on February 24, 2020


From senior defense and security officials to diplomats and allies, everyone is issuing the same warning: annexation poses a grave threat to Jerusalem.

July 1 is the date given by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, when he intends to apply Israeli law to West Bank settlements and the Jordan Valley. That’s only one month away.

But with all the controversy surrounding annexation, what exactly will happen in July is anyone’s guess.

It could be that Netanyahu announces a unilateral annexation of large swaths of territory, or smaller areas in Area C or just Israeli settlements. He could also just make a declaration without doing anything on the ground.

“Nobody knows what’s going to happen,” Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Gilad, former director of Policy and Political-Military Affairs at the Ministry of Defense told The Jerusalem Post.

But, “unlike previous cases, like moving the American Embassy where no one cared, the Palestinians and Jordanians cannot tolerate” any unilateral moves like annexation, Gilead said.

The uncertainty surrounding the situation has only fed and antagonized the Palestinian street, which Israel’s defense establishment is concerned could get out of control.

Last week, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas declared that the PA had been “absolved” of all security agreements and understandings between Israel and the PLO, in addition to agreements with the US.

Abbas has made similar statements in the past. But this time, Israeli security officials confirmed that he was making good on his threat, to a certain extent.

Cooperation and coordination between Israel and the Palestinian Authority began with the Oslo Accords signed on September 13, 1993.

Both the PA and IDF see the security cooperation, which includes counterterrorism operations, deconfliction and free movement for Palestinian security forces as key to maintaining stability in the West Bank for over a decade.

With that cooperation at risk and with such a short period given to the defense establishment to prepare for violence, officials have warned it’s not enough time to get ready.

Even Israel’s top military officer, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi, has issued an alert to commanders regarding a possible escalation of violence in the West Bank.

Kochavi is reportedly preparing to implement a battle plan which will see the army deploy thousands of troops as reinforcements to the area should violence erupt.

Dozens of scenarios have been discussed with senior officers. The military will likely go into overdrive in the coming weeks to ready itself.

But even before the move, violence against IDF troops had been on the rise in the West Bank. Over a dozen attacks have taken place, injuring several soldiers and killing one, Sergeant First Class Amit Ben Yigal.

Numerous Palestinians have also been injured by IDF forces dispersing riots. One teenager, 15-year-old Zaid Fadl Al-Qaysieh, was killed during clashes when he was shot in the head.

It’s just the beginning.

On Tuesday morning, the Coordinator for Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) Maj.-Gen. Kamil Abu Rukun warned Defense Minister and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz and Kochavi that should the government unilaterally annex portions of the West Bank and Jordan Valley, there will be clashes.

Speaking to Army Radio, Abu Rukun said that annexation could lead to a “shattering of security coordination and a wave of violence and terrorist attacks,” and raised concerns that Palestinian security officers may turn their weapons on Israel.
Gilead and Abu Rukun aren’t the only ones warning against annexation.

Two Israeli military experts, including Abu Rukun’s predecessor Maj.-Gen. (ret.) Yoav “Poly” Mordechai, and Col. (ret.) Michael Milstein, head of the Forum for Palestinian Studies at the Moshe Dayan Center, warned that while most Palestinians in the West Bank have experienced relative stability in recent years, escalation is inevitable since youth are facing increasing unemployment and didn’t live through the Second Intifada like their parents did.

Writing in the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the two said that “the drastic new declaration by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas abrogating PA commitments to its political agreements with Israel, including security cooperation, has aroused great concern among both Israelis and Palestinians.”

“We now maybe face a more explosive reality than in the past, one liable to yield a wider escalation that both sides will find hard to control,” Mordechai and Milstein warned.

Israeli media has reported that while the PA has severed ties with Israel, it has also relayed messages to Israel saying that it would prevent widespread chaos and not allow for violence against Israelis.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has called security coordination with Israel “sacred,” but due to a combination of factors, Mordechai and Milstein said that Abbas’ latest threat “is more concrete than ever, reflecting his dire strategic straits.”

Those dire straits include a grave economic crisis in the West Bank compounded by the coronavirus crisis as well as political instability triggered by the Trump Administration’s “Deal of the Century.

According to Milstein, Abbas is trying to threaten Israel and is get the international community to block any future annexation.

While Abbas doesn’t want to take any violent steps, the moves he made may “open the door for many miscalculations” for PA forces of lower ranks “who hear what Abbas says but don’t fully understand the complex strategy and may think there is a green light to promote violence against Israel,” Milstein told the Post.

The cooperation between the two sides has broken down before, such as during the Second Intifada, when suicide bombings, IEDs, shootings, stonings, stabbings, lynchings and rocket attacks were commonplace, with 1,137 Israelis and 4,281 Palestinians killed.

While Israel and the PA have many shared interests in continuing the security coordination, none are as important as the threat of Hamas wresting power from the PA in the West Bank.

Hamas, has repeatedly slammed the PA for its cooperation with Israel, accusing its security services of collaborating with Israel to perpetuate the occupation.

The two Palestinian groups have vied for power since the first intifada in 1987, and the animosity between them has only increased in recent years.

The annulment of security coordination raises the chance of Hamas cells operating in the West Bank, and attacking Israelis in an attempt to delegitimize the PA.

Gilead, who had a long career in the defense establishment, serving as the head of the Analysis Division at the IDF Intelligence Directorate and COGAT and is now the head of the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS) at IDC Herzilya, explained that there is a “unique security environment” in the West Bank and with Jordan.

Gilaed said the annexation plans “lack any strategic logic and runs counterproductive to our national security. Why do we need it? We are enjoying the best era of security in Israel. The level of terror has never been lower. Why do we need to destabilize our security?”
He added that “The level of terror, unlike 20 years ago, is very low. So low that Israeli citizens don’t feel it.” In addition to the “unique performance of the Shin Bet and IDF, if there are terror groups planning attacks, there is coordination [with the PA] to prevent the attacks.”

It is Hamas’s “strategic plan and wish to take over the West Bank,” Gilead told the Post.

“They try every day to carry out terror attacks in Israel using the West Bank as a base. The reason we don’t hear about it is because they keep failing.”

“It is in the PA’s own interest to prevent Hamas,” from attacking Israel, he said. But, Gilead warned, “cooperation will fade away and that is worrying. If Palestinian security forces don’t get clear instructions from their superiors, then the street will overwhelm them. And that will be a game changer.”

Defense officials have also told the Post that Iran continues to eye the Palestinian arena as another front that can be opened against Israel. Not just from the Gaza Strip – but from the West Bank.

Jordan, a key Israeli ally which provides strategic depth and security by serving as a bulwark position against Iranian efforts to infiltrate into the West Bank, has also warned Jerusalem against its annexation plans.

In an interview with Der Spiegel, Jordan’s King Abdullah, whose father King Hussein signed the historic peace treaty with Yitzhak Rabin in 1994, warned that Israel annexing settlement blocs could not only cause an increase in regional extremism but lead to war with the kingdom.

“Leaders who advocate a one-state solution do not understand what that would mean. What would happen if the Palestinian National Authority collapsed? There would be more chaos and extremism in the region. If Israel really annexes the West Bank in July, it would lead to a massive conflict with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan,” he said.

Both Jordan and Israel understand that should security ties fail, not only will King Abdullah face instability at home, but the violence could spill over the border to Israel, a border that for the past 25 years has been the quietest and safest one.

In his first in-depth interview since he finished his term as chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkot said that while he does not think Abdullah would cancel the peace agreement, he was against any unilateral steps being taken.

“The Israeli interest is to safeguard the peace agreement, to strengthen it, and avoid unilateral steps that could endanger it. As opposed to others, I don’t think the king will cancel this agreement if there is annexation, but I don’t think that should be tested. The relations with Jordan should be strengthened,” he said. “We have excellent security relations with the Jordanians, who contribute a serious strategic contribution to the State of Israel, much more than what the public sees. It is a high priority to keep good relations and stability with Jordan, against the common enemies we have to the east.”

Israel’s defense establishment understands the need to prevent a collapse of such ties, as the two countries not only have robust security coordination and intelligence sharing mechanisms regarding the common threats.

According to foreign reports, Jordan has allowed Israeli jets to use its airspace for its war-between-wars campaign in Syria.

According to Milstein, Abdullah is “trapped” in a very tight place and would have to respond no matter what is announced on July 1.
“The Jordanian street, with the Palestinians, is very radical, and if you ask them they would want to cut all relations with Israel right now,” Milstein said.

“If the annexation includes the Jordan Valley and northern part of the Dead Sea then Abdullah will likely recall the ambassador and change the diplomatic status with Israel. But if it will be only a declaration or limited, maybe, and I’m being cautious, the response will be less dramatic with only condemnations.”

Milstein also told the Post that Abdullah “might try to separate between the public response and what he needs to do in front of his people and Palestinians and what he keeps behind closed doors.”

“The really important aspects – military and political – will be kept,” Millstein added. “But the image shown to the public will be quite different.”

Gilead questioned Netanyahu’s plans to annex the Jordan Valley, stating that such a move would open the door for terror groups and enemy states like Iran gaining a foothold along Israel’s eastern border.

According to Gilead, the cooperation with Jordan gives Israel dramatic advantages, especially since the national security border is not the one drawn between the two countries but rather between Jordan and Iraq.

“Everyone wants to use Jordan to attack Israel – Iran, the Islamic State – but why aren’t they successful? Because of our unique security cooperation, with the pillar being the peace treaty. But the moment that the government declares the annexation of the Jordan Valley, it’s a fundamental and substantial violation of the peace treaty and that will be a threat to the national security of Jordan,” he told the Post.

And while Abdullah might not cancel the peace treaty, the relations between the two countries will be tense and will make it harder for the security establishment to work as they had in the past.

Writing for Ynet News, Gilead said that “such a move would undermine the Jordanian government in the eyes of its population, opening the door for Iran and their proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah, to finally get their foot into the strategic area. Why would Israel risk its national security with such brash and irrational political decisions?”

Speaking to the Post, he said that with the security cooperation with Amman, “we are saving huge numbers of human lives right now. Can you imagine the terror attacks that we might be exposed to from Jordan? Why do we need to lose our resources? For what? We need to focus our resources on our main threats, Hezbollah, Iran and more.”

But, it is unlikely that Abdullah will follow through on his threats, choosing instead to maintain stability in his kingdom as well as close military ties with Israel and the United States. Nevertheless, the situation on the ground, with a large majority of his population being of Palestinian descent, may make it hard for him in the short term to appease all parties.

While it is unlikely that a war will break out between Jordan and Israel, with no cooperation between the two militaries, Israel’s eastern border can easily heat up and terrorists and Iranian proxies may take advantage to attack troops and civilians.

Add to that, the Palestinian street could erupt into another popular uprising.

The IDF will have to quickly regain control over the situation while at the same time remaining focused on its northern border, which remains tense along with the Gaza Strip, where Hamas may drive Gazans back to the border fence and resume Great Return March riots.

Though Hamas has insisted it is not interested in a military confrontation with Israel, other terror groups in the blockaded enclave, such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad, may take advantage of the situation and resume sniper attacks against IDF troops deployed on the border as well as rockets attacks towards Israeli cities.

Milstein says that the response out of Gaza will likely “be independent” from the West Bank but will depend on what occurs on July 1.

“If it will be a full-scale annexation of large amounts of territory in the West Bank, then there will be a violent response from Gaza, even by Hamas, who will view this step as a brutal move against Palestinians. But, if it’s a limited annexation of Area C or of Israeli settlements then Hamas might not want violence and there may be a way to contain what happens in Gaza,” he said.

According to Milstein, the Palestinians “still hope in a very modest manner that the external pressure, especially the American one, will shift Bibi’s stance.”

The problem is no one knows what is going to happen, not the Palestinians, not the Jordanians and not the IDF. It’s a confusing situation for all involved, and one month is too short a period of time to prepare.

And while Abbas, Abdullah, Sinwar and the others might be waiting to see what actually transpires on the ground on July 1, all parties know that while one may know how it all begins, one never knows how it might end.

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