In Israeli military doctrine, tanks were reserved for wars with Syria, Egypt and Jordan, not for Palestinians in the West Bank.
But now Israeli tanks surround virtually all the major towns of the West Bank. Not since the Six-Day War in 1967 has so much Israeli firepower been pointed at places like Bethlehem, Nablus and Ramallah.
None of the big guns has been fired, but Israeli officials do not rule out the possibility.
“It has to be understood that the rules of the game have changed,” said Moshe Fogel, a government spokesman. “This is not the intifada anymore. These are not civilian demonstrators. We are facing a paramilitary force of tens of thousands of Palestinians carrying guns.”
Under terms of the Oslo agreement, the Palestinians are allowed to have 12,000 firearms for their police force of 30,000. But Israeli intelligence sources now say there are between 40,000 to 80,000 guns in Palestinian hands.
“If you have to deal with this many guns, and you want to defend yourself and limit casualties, you use tanks,” said Fogel, who emphasized that “the tanks have not been deployed for recapturing the towns.”
Palestinian officials warned that the presence of the tanks only worsened tensions and could set off more clashes.
Israel has been badly shaken by the stark images of last week’s violence in which Palestinian police and soldiers for the first time exchanged gunfire with their Israeli counterparts. Fifteen Israelis and 58 Palestinians were killed in the battles.
The Israel Defense Force’s answer to the crisis has been an intimidating display of military might on the West Bank.
Senior officers this week outlined new rules of engagement: If soldiers are fired upon, they will return fire immediately, with intent to kill; if Palestinian demonstrators move toward Israeli positions and there is a “clear danger” to soldiers’ lives, the commander at the scene is permitted to use the tanks according to his judgment.
“This time, if there is an eruption in the territories, we will cream them,” said one senior officer quoted in the Israeli press.
The crisis in the peace process has exposed a serious rift between the military’s top commanders and the hard-line government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
This became apparent when it was revealed that Gen. Amnon Shahak, the army chief of staff, was excluded from the decision-making process that led to the opening of a new exit in the controversial Western Wall tunnel, the event that triggered last week’s violence.
The reason for the rift is political. In a country where old soldiers routinely go on to become politicians, a majority of the current crop of generals support the Labor Party and the peace process initiated by another former general, the late Yitzhak Rabin.
Shahak, in particular, was seen as a strong supporter of the peace process. Under the previous government, he and several other top generals played key roles in the negotiating process with the Palestinians.
“Rabin involved his top officers in the negotiating process, he sought their advice. This prime minister thinks that there was an inordinate amount of military involvement in what is really a political process,” said one senior Israeli official in the Netanyahu government.
But Israelis across the political spectrum put a great deal of faith in their army. If Netanyahu is perceived as losing the confidence of the army, he risks losing everything.