Analysis: Israel’s Gaza invasion could test its occupation of the West Bank

Israel will struggle to man its ever-increasing checkpoints in the West Bank and flood the Gaza Strip with soldiers.

A Palestinian youth argues with Israeli settlers as a remote-controlled gun is seen on an Israeli army checkpoint in Hebron, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank September 26, 2022. REUTERS/Mussa Qawasma
A Palestinian argues with Israeli settlers as a remote-controlled gun is seen on an Israeli army checkpoint in Hebron in the Israeli-occupied West Bank on September 26, 2022 [File: Mussa Qawasma/Reuters]

Israel maintains a hefty security presence in the occupied West Bank with a network of permanent and temporary checkpoints set up by the army and paramilitary border police.

Military authorities do not reveal the number of checkpoints or their locations, and new, ad hoc posts often pop up overnight with no advance notice.

Those checkpoints and the personnel needed to man them are reminders of how Israel’s military is spread out to maintain its occupation. There are also warning signs of the challenge Israel might face in supporting a likely increase in demand for these barriers from Israeli settlers while also needing its troops for an expected invasion of the Gaza Strip.

International agencies try to keep track of the checkpoints, which are a major obstacle to normal and dignified life in the Palestinian territory.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) counted 645 obstacles before the latest violence. Human Rights Watch counted 1,500 temporary checkpoints that came and went in 2019 and 2020.

The human rights group also warned that, even in a period of relative calm: “Israeli forces routinely turn away or delay and humiliate Palestinians at checkpoints without explanation, while permitting largely unfettered movement to Israeli settlers.”

Most of the checkpoints are along the separation barrier – a wall that in places rises three storeys high, topped with razor wire and dotted with observation towers and all sorts of surveillance and security equipment.

It snakes through Palestinian lands for more than 700km (435 miles), preventing access to Israel from the occupied West Bank.

Any additional barriers will make daily life and movement more difficult, complicated and miserable for most of the three million inhabitants of the West Bank.

Hit and burn

Many observers believe the Hamas attacks on southern Israel on Saturday were triggered by unchecked violence instigated and perpetrated by Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank. There have been numerous cases of hit and burn attacks against Palestinians and their properties near new illegal settlements without any attempt by the Israeli army to prevent the settler rampages.

It is unclear whether the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has turned a blind eye to the rise of settler aggression or tacitly encouraged it.

Most Palestinian residents report two faces of violence: institutionalised but contained harassment by the military and unconcealed hatred and belligerence by settlers who, unlike other citizens of Israel, can legally and openly carry automatic weapons.

Israeli authorities know that potential Palestinian attacks in the occupied territory could target settlers in isolated settlements. In quiet times, many settlements do not have army units but rely on minor garrisons that are responsible for an area with several settlements.

Protecting settlers

Bloody scenes of Israeli villages being overrun by Hamas gunmen and people mowed down by machine guns in their homes or captured have created a new reality on the ground. Settlers now insist on direct and close protection, and the authorities cannot deny it.

Control posts are manpower-intensive. From my own experience during the second Intifada from 2000 to 2005, the Israeli army puts a squad of at least 10 to 20 soldiers on even the smallest “flying checkpoint”.

In addition to troopers checking passengers and vehicles, a flying checkpoint needs more soldiers to observe incoming and outgoing traffic and provide wider reconnaissance of the surroundings. For an armed response, at least two teams manning vehicle-based weapons for perimeter security and a quick reaction infantry team are needed.

Two shifts can man such a checkpoint around the clock when needed, but after a week or two of long hours, fatigue sets in, causing complacency and loss of vigilance. Every sensible commander will demand a third shift as soon as enough reserves are available.

Thus, to maintain the simplest checkpoint, Israel needs at least 50 men and women. Bigger ones, like crossings in the separation wall, need hundreds. It can be assumed that during this conflict, the Israeli army will eventually deploy up to 50,000 soldiers, a third of its peacetime strength, just to man roadblocks and control stations, some of which will be erected inside Israel too.

Security and political aspects of the settlements also cause a major drain on human resources. The occupied West Bank has about 150 illegal settlement and about 100 outposts not recognised by the Israeli government.

It is hard to imagine that, facing the fury of settlers, the government would settle for anything short of putting at least a platoon of 20 to 40 soldiers in the small settlements and at least a company of 200 soldiers for the bigger or more difficult to defend settlements.

Adding up settlement by settlement, the manpower estimate gets to 30,000 to 50,000 just for that.

Assuming that the Israeli land attack on Gaza is most likely to be launched at the beginning of a weekend, for reasons that are political rather than purely military, the big question is: Can Israel finalise the deployment of all its forces, a prerequisite for action, by the end of Friday?

Risking my reputation, I guess probably not.

Source: Al Jazeera