On the evening of December 1, amid more banal reports about Hanukkah celebrations and the murky new COVID variant, Israel’s primetime television news reports all broke in with dramatic images of a car set ablaze in the West Bank, with the screaming caption: “Attempted Lynch in Ramallah.”

Two Jewish Israeli citizens from the Breslav Hasidic sect drove their technicolor-painted car into central Ramallah’s Al-Manara Square, after which they were set upon by an angry crowd. Video from the scene showed the two men in the religious-hippie wear of the Breslavs cowering in the back seat, taunted by the crowd—with several Palestinian security officers protecting them.

The Palestinian Authority Security Forces (PASF) safely extricated the errant Israelis and handed them over, injury-free, to the Israeli military. The car was subsequently left a charred husk, although it too was later transferred back to Israeli hands. A disaster was narrowly averted.

This incident, along with the terminology of “lynch” and “Ramallah,” immediately brought to mind the October 2000 murder of two Israeli reservists in the same city at the hands of a Palestinian mob. More than two decades later, this event—at the start of the Second Intifada—is still seared in the minds of the Israeli public. Back then, the Israelis were in fact detained in a Palestinian Authority (PA) police station.  

Nowadays, incidents of the PASF safely returning Israeli civilians (and in some cases soldiers) who enter PA-controlled areas of the West Bank are commonplace. According to Israeli authorities, an estimated 300 Israelis were returned in this fashion in 2016 alone; Palestinian officials touted more than 500 in 2017 (the last two years such figures were made public). 

Every single incident like this holds within it the potential to turn fatal and into a major strategic crisis.

Members of the Palestinian Authority Security Forces in the West Bank town of Jericho. Photo Credit: Nayef Hashlamoun, Reuters.

Yet after the two Israelis were confirmed safe earlier this month, the country and media quickly returned to normal holiday programming. The work of the PASF is, like with much else relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, taken for granted. When the West Bank and Gaza are quiet the Palestinian issue falls off the national agenda—until it comes roaring back when violence escalates. Indeed, in a recent Channel 12 poll of what the Israeli public deems its most pressing current priority, the Palestinian issue was nowhere to be found, overtaken by the cost of living, violence and crime inside Israel, Iran, and COVID-19.

For the PASF, however, events like the one that took place in Ramallah open it up to attacks by Hamas and other rejectionist groups, to say nothing of the wider Palestinian public who simply view them as Israeli “collaborators.” The flames on the car were barely out when Hamas issued a statement praising the “act of resistance” and calling for similar attacks to “continue with force and spread across the West Bank.” 

Nevertheless, the PA under President Mahmoud Abbas has steadfastly adhered to close security coordination with Israel despite the policy’s unpopularity. 

After two uniformed Israeli soldiers were similarly extracted after straying into Jenin in 2018, one Palestinian security official explained the PA’s rationale to The Jerusalem Post.

“We intervened because we do not want anyone to die, regardless of their background. We believe that protecting the soldiers was a humanitarian issue,” the official said. “Second, we want to protect our people. If the soldiers were, God forbid, killed, the Israeli army would wreak havoc in Jenin. We have no interest in returning to the days of the Second Intifada.”

Israeli Defense Forces in Hebron during the Second Intifada. Photo Credit: Devin Asch

Israeli-Palestinian security coordination could soon be put to the test again.

Recent weeks have seen a worrying uptick in “lone wolf” Palestinian terror attacks: six in the past month alone, with all the perpetrators (save one) ranging in age from 14 to 23 years old. Israeli authorities have not yet termed it a new “terror wave,” although concerns are rising that more are in the offing. The last such escalation of ad hoc stabbing and car ramming attacks by overwhelmingly young Palestinians, in late 2015, lasted six months–the so-called “Knife Intifada” or haba (eruption). It was only stopped due to a combination of increased Israeli security measures and PASF assistance. 

Faced with the prospect of widespread instability in the West Bank, the PASF then—similar to the Israeli side—began monitoring Palestinian schools and social media, bringing in potential suspects for “cautionary talks.” PASF personnel during this period were dispatched to Palestinian schools to search for knives in students’ backpacks, and educators were told to issue alerts regarding truant students. PA security officials implored local leaders (village elders, clergymen, educators) to deter young people from joining in the escalation. PASF retirees in Hebron reportedly worked to interdict Palestinian youth suspected to be on their way to attacks. 

The PA’s standing now is, if anything, even worse. Long-delayed elections were called off at the last minute this past spring. In the summer, Palestinian intelligence officers arrested and then murdered a prominent dissident, Nizar Banat, while the PA writ large is facing a financial crisis and may be unable to pay full salaries to its civil servants, including the 30,000-person PASF. 

It’s not a coincidence that both the Israeli military and Shin Bet are calling on the Bennett government to move forward with real steps to strengthen the PA economically and politically. Security coordination cannot, and should not, be taken for granted; the continued work of the PASF has to be tied into a genuine political horizon that provides some hope of improvement for the Palestinian side.

The Israeli security establishment knows better than anyone that the PA, for all its faults (and there are many), is a stabilizing force in the West Bank. The prospect of its collapse, or even simply the continued erosion of its control, would undoubtedly bring the Palestinian issue back to the international forefront—for arguably all the wrong reasons.

But for the quick actions of the PASF earlier this month in Ramallah, we would already be there.