The attacks by Palestinians on Israelis — using knives and cars — since October have embittered both sides, and there is no sign that peace negotiations might start between Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Yet the attacks are morphing — most recently including infiltration of Israeli homes in the West Bank, by young men who brutally stab women.
[This analysis was written for The Jerusalem Post by Yossi Melman, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars and other books.]
There are commentators who rushed to draw broad conclusions about the nature of ongoing Palestinian terrorism after two Palestinian teenagers infiltrated two Jewish settlements in the southern part of the West Bank, not far from the city of Hebron this past week.
One Israeli woman — mother to four children — was stabbed to death, and in the second case a pregnant woman was wounded. One terrorist was captured after two days, and the other was shot on the spot by a Tekoa resident.
[Another attempted stabbing of an Israeli security guard at a West Bank settlement made worldwide headlines on Saturday (Jan. 23), when the attacker — a 13-year-old Palestinian girl — was shot dead by the guard. Israel said she had been in a dispute with her parents and rushed over to the settlement with the intention of ending her life. Her parents said that was not so, and said she was just a little girl.]
Indeed, for the first time during the current wave of Palestinian terrorism – which can be called the “third intifada” – settlements were infiltrated. To that one can add the recent exposure of a terrorist cell in the West Bank that was recruited and sponsored by Juad Nasrallah, the son of Hezbollah’s secretary-general.
Essentially there is nothing in these events to indicate that Palestinian terrorism is changing its direction or its nature, or that it is rapidly escalating.
The above-mentioned cases are just new variants, additional manifestations of the same phenomenon. It began four months ago and so far has claimed the lives of 29 Israelis and 152 Palestinians. Nearly 350 Israelis and more than 1,000 Palestinian have been wounded.
It is difficult to characterize the nature of the current wave of attacks, since it changes constantly with new or additional elements.
So far its perpetrators have come from all walks of Palestinian life, though most of them were young. Most of them were single, but some were married with families.
Most were male, but there have also been female terrorists.
Some came from poor families, but others from middle-class and well-off ones. Some decided to resort to terrorism because members of their families were killed or jailed by Israeli security forces.
The terrorists also cannot be geographically defined. They originated from all over the West Bank and east Jerusalem, though 30 percent of the participants were from the Hebron area, which is known to be Hamas turf, or were deeply religious.
Their motives are also a mixed bag. Some were incited via social media. Some were influenced by religious sermons promising they would become martyrs in heaven.
Some were motivated purely by hatred of Jews and Israelis. Others wanted to avenge the death of their family members.
In a few cases, the decision to become a terrorist was made out of desperation over their poverty or even as defiance against parental authority.
Their weapons of choice were not very selective. They used knives, cars, stones, firebombs and, in only a few cases, firearms – in short, any tool that can kill, wound or cause bodily harm.
Israel is powerless in confronting this kind of Palestinian terrorism.
This helplessness was echoed in what Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot said this week, when he addressed the annual conference of the Institute for National Security Studies.
He recalled the second intifada, which occurred a decade ago when he was commander of the IDF division in charge of the West Bank.
“What helped us then was a preventive anti-terrorist concept, based on intelligence superiority.”
In other words, Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) managed then to penetrate terrorist cells, recruit agents among them, and bug and intercept their phone and computer conversations, e-mails and chats.
Thus, important information was gleaned, which led to the disruption of terrorists’ plans and the arrest of culprits.
This was possible because although the second intifada was a popular rebellion, it was initiated and organized by well known elements: the Palestinian Authority led by Yasser Arafat, the PLO-Fatah groups, and Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Israeli security forces and the IDF had intelligence and military addresses against which to strike back.
Today’s terrorist acts are mainly carried out by individuals who make their own decision to attack. They are neither initiated nor structured nor organized by others.
True, Hamas is trying hard to jump on the terrorism wagon and hijack it to advance its agenda – to inflict casualties on Israel and the settlers in the West Bank; to spread terrorism from the West Bank to Israel; and to provoke the Israeli security forces to turn against the PA, its arch-rival, and thus weaken it. And all this while almost completely maintaining peace with Israel on the Gaza frontier.
Since the last war in Gaza in the summer of 2014, Hamas has not fired a single rocket against Israel. All the rockets from Gaza – some two dozen – were fired by anti-Hamas Salafist and jihadist groups. While Hamas continues to rearm and regroup by manufacturing more accurate, longer-range rockets and to build tunnels leading to Israel, thus preparing for the next round, at the moment it has no interest in confronting Israel in Gaza.
So far, Hamas has failed in its attempts to escalate the violent situation in the West Bank and Israel — with ambitious plans to again use suicide bombers.
Hamas’s failure is due to several reasons. First, because of the efficiency of Shin Bet and the IDF (Israel’s army). Second, because the PA led by Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) continues to instruct its security services to cooperate with Shin Bet in the struggle against Hamas.
Third and most important, it is because the PA now — unlike in the time of Arafat — does not wish to join the terrorism and violent struggle. It doesn’t shed tears when Israelis are killed, and the West Bank media controlled by the PA have praised the terrorists (though, in the last month, much less vociferously), but it stops short of ordering its own personnel to take part.
Because of all these developments, it is impossible for Israeli security services to have early warnings and disrupt terrorists’ plans. Even the omnipotent Shin Bet cannot read the minds of the Palestinian individuals who decide — sometimes in a matter of hours, sometimes in a split second — to attack Israelis.
This harsh reality is also an outgrowth of what the government is doing or, to be more precise, not doing.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government doesn’t wish to negotiate with the PA. Netanyahu would be willing to do so, only under its own preconditions while continuing to build more settlements and confiscate Palestinian land – 150 hectares (370 acres) this week in the Jordan Valley.
Instead of trying to move with good faith to the negotiating table, all the government does is “maintenance” – maintain the conflict with the hope and self-delusion that it will somehow miraculously succeed in bringing security.
In truth, however, the situation is fragile and slippery. Palestinian terrorism will not stay forever on a low flame. Sooner or later it will escalate and get out of control, either by more Palestinians joining the circle of terrorism or by Hamas taking it over.
This is of great concern to the IDF and Shin Bet, whose chiefs beg the government in closed-door sessions not to stand still.
But so far their advice has fallen on deaf ears in Jerusalem.