Tapuach Junction, West Bank — Just two days after a spike in Israeli-Palestinian violence, the bipolar mood at this crossroads was startling.
On the southbound side of the road, soldiers at a checkpoint were pulling over more Palestinian motorists than usual for spot checks — a sign of heightened security.
On the northbound side, a group of teens and 20-somethings scanned for cars that could give them a ride to the settlement of Yitzhar. When asked if they had taken any special precautions in response to Palestinian calls for revenge for the killing of three militants in Nablus over the weekend by the Israeli army, they responded with blank expressions.
Settler leaders, however, are not as blasé about the fallout from the killing of Rabbi Meir Chai, who was shot dead by Palestinians while driving home in the settlement of Shavei Shomron.
They are accusing the government of complicity in the attack because the gunmen, according to the army, took advantage of a roadblock removed as part of Israeli gestures to the Palestinians.
Moshe Goldshmidt, a spokesman for the settlement of Itamar, said that settler leaders have appealed to the government to have roadblocks reinstated.
“Since the uprising we’ve never learned the lesson. Israel has done everything to appease the other side,” said Goldshmidt. “We’re not getting anything from lifting of roadblocks. Instead, we’re getting attacks in return.”
Settlement security officers have been reminded to carry weapons at all times, and youth are being asked to travel by bus rather than hitchhiking.
(Settler leaders were dealt another potential security blow Tuesday when the Israeli Supreme Court, in a 2-to-1 ruling, declared that the Israeli military could no longer keep Palestinian cars from a major artery through the West Bank, Highway 443. The justices ruled that the military had overstepped its authority when it closed the road in 2002, at the height of the second intifada. They gave the military five months to come up with alternatives to ensure the security of Israelis while allowing Palestinians to travel on the highway.)
Israel’s army has resisted the calls to re-impose restrictions on Palestinians’ movement. Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, the head of the army’s civil administration in the West Bank, said that he would not impose new movement restrictions and praised the Palestinian security services there.
The recent tension comes at the end of a year of growing security calm in the West Bank. The Palestinian Authority has won praise from Israel in reasserting control over several key West Bank cities. Security cooperation between the Palestinian police forces and the Israeli army is said to be even better than the first years of the Oslo Accords. Israel has removed roadblocks around the West Bank in an effort to boost movement and prop up the Palestinian economy, which is expected to grow 7 percent this year.
With four dead on the West Bank, the specter of a resumption of the Palestinian uprising seems possible.
The flare-up began on Thursday evening, when gunmen opened fire on an Israeli van en route to a settlement near Nablus, killing Rabbi Chai.
Within two days, Israel dispatched undercover agents and soldiers to Nablus to apprehend the attack suspects. But when they resisted, soldiers killed them. At a funeral march over the weekend, angry Palestinian participants called for revenge and an end to the security collaboration with Israel.
Despite the threats, however, the Shin Bet’s director, Yuval Diskin, told a parliamentary committee that he doesn’t expect the outbreak of a third intifada.
Bar Ilan University Prof. Gerald Steinberg concurred with Diskin’s assessment that the wave of bombings from the West Bank that peaked in 2002 would not resume in the near futures.
But he said that doesn’t exclude the possibility of more frequent “low-level” acts of violence.
“There’s been a slow, steady building up of acts of violence in the last six months or so. A lot of Molotov cocktail throwing, stone throwing, occasional ambushes,” Steinberg said. “These are attempts to create friction through violence, and to re-energize the Palestinian cause like in previous periods of intifada. It’s also a response to a [Palestinian] middle class that’s enjoying the status quo and prosperity.”
In downtown Nablus, one can see the same dissonance as at the Tapuach Junction. On one hand, for the first time in months, public places are plastered with martyrdom posters for the three militants killed by the army. Despite that, the streets in the commercial district and the Old City bustle with traffic and pedestrians.
Nablus has been one of the chief beneficiaries of the West Bank détente. Thanks to a bolstered police force and cooperation with Israel, the checkpoints around this city have been lifted and villagers can once again come and go with ease. Israeli Arabs are visiting too, on day trips.
Some shopkeepers and residents complained that the first killing of militants by Israeli forces in months has kept people indoors, but the street life is much more robust than two years ago.
Outside a shop for interior décor, two Nablus residents were debating how Palestinians should respond to the Israeli incursion.
Hazem Sayeh, 21, who recently spent time in an Israeli jail, didn’t give it much thought. “Blood for blood,” he said. “In my opinion, any chance of a peace process is out. Israel assassinated these men.”
But 45-year-old Ghazi Najav, who owns a furniture shop, said that a new wave of attacks on Israelis would not be good for the city. “There is a fear of going backward,” he said, adding that the recent year of calm has bolstered Palestinians’ sense of personal and economic security. “We don’t have a military compatible with Israel. I don’t want to see more Palestinian young men die.”
At a mourning gathering nearby for the militants, local politicians paid their respects to family members, who accused Israel of assassinating the gunmen deliberately and wreaking destruction on the buildings in which the militants were hiding.
Husam Khader, a Palestinian legislator, accused Israel of deliberately working to undermine President Mahmoud Abbas by ordering the offensive. Still, he acknowledged that cooperation with Israel remains robust. “We are cooperating with Israel and will continue to cooperate.”
One of those killed had been granted amnesty from the Israeli army in return for a commitment not to go back to terrorism activity. Until now, the amnesty program had been credited with helping to defang militant groups.
Several years ago, Nablus was infamous for the breakdown of law and order as Palestinian Authority rule gave way to the bands of militants who sent suicide bombers into Israel. After the recent attack, Palestinian police are combing the city in search of other militants.
But despite the calls for revenge, Nablus residents are not eager to resume the militarized uprising against Israel.
At a kebab restaurant downtown, grill master Sabri Sabri complained about a drop in business as a result of the Israeli raid, but did not foresee another intifada.
“People are fed up with intifadas,” he said. “People want to live a normal life.