Hundreds of Israeli soldiers scoured the villages outside the city of Nablus Friday night, looking for Palestinians suspected of shooting two Israeli settlers in front of their four children near the Israeli settlement of Itamar on Thursday.
Mourners held a funeral for the deceased — Eitam and Naama Henkin — early Friday in Jerusalem, while the Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon visited the attack site and promised that security forces would soon "place our hands on the murderers."
Later that day, the Israeli army declared the south of Nablus a military area and blocked all routes to the city, as Palestinians hunkered down for a potentially protracted period of violence.
"There are reports of lynch-mobs and a number of attacks in the area between Ramallah and Nablus," a West Bank resident who did not want her name used said by phone.
The area of the shooting has been a flashpoint for violence between settlers and Palestinians, with repeated attacks on Palestinian homes over the last few months. In the nearby Palestinian village of Beit Furik, a Palestinian was killed by Israeli forces during clashes last month. In July, a Palestinian baby was burned alive after settlers set two Palestinian homes on fire in the village of Duma near Nablus.
"It's got into a tit for tat grind," said PJ Dermer, a former defense attache at the US Embassy in Tel-Aviv, adding that the recent deployment of Israeli troops as "standard operating procedure," after such an attack.
But while the violence in the West Bank has become routine, the most recent incident comes just days after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas hinted he would end security cooperation with Israelis in the West Bank at a high-profile speech at the UN.
"We cannot continue to be bound by these signed agreements with Israel, and Israel must assume fully all its responsibility as an occupying power," Abbas said.
So far, the Israeli operation on Friday has been confined to an area of the West Bank where the Israeli military enforces security. But if the IDF wants to enter Palestinian controlled zones, it may test Abbas' statement at the UN.
"Does he actually mean that he's going to end security cooperation? That It remains to be seen," Diana Buttu, a former advisor to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), said.
The operation may well require cooperation, since Israeli media is reporting that the Abdel Qader al-Husseini Brigades — a group that is technically aligned with the ruling Fatah party — has claimed responsibility for Thursday's attack. The group is active in refugee camps, and is made up of younger Palestinians who are often disaffected by the ruling ranks of the PLO.
Social media reports out of the West Bank on Friday evening indicated the PLO had begun to round up some Palestinians, suggesting some level of cooperation between Palestinian security forces and Israel over the recent attack. Some accounts claimed that Palestinian security forces and Brigade members were fighting in the streets.
While Abbas has yet to formally condemn the attack, experts caution against equating the brigade with the Palestinian leadership class, which exercises little control over the group.
"It's the equivalent of saying Tim McVeigh voted Republican, so he received orders from the GOP — these armed groups are that decentralized," Buttu said.
Still, the attack may be a sign of growing disenchantment with the status-quo among Palestinians who are increasingly the target of attacks by Israeli settlers, and do not have faith in their government to protect them.
"There's a tremendous amount of tension and frustration, and the people are giving up hope that their leaders can deliver a diplomatic solution," Yezid Sayigh, a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, said.
A recent poll from Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, revealed that for the first time, the majority of Palestinians no longer favor a Two State Solution to the conflict. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is currently enjoying near-record low approval ratings.
Negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis have long stalled, and the newly elected right-wing government in Israel has shown little interest in working with Abbas over a final peace agreement. Meanwhile, over the last few months Israelis and Palestinians have clashed repeatedly at the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem over competing religious claims to the site, which is holy to both Jews and Muslims.
Sayigh says that the current climate resembles the environment that preceded the earlier intifadas — widespread Palestinian uprisings that occurred in the late 1980s and the turn of the 21st century. But he cautions against making predictions about the future: "You can never know what will lead to a serious flare up." he said. "But it's clear that Abbas and the PLO leadership don't have a game plan."
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