Israel Arrested 400 Palestinians Suspected of Planning Attacks After Monitoring Social Networks

The Shin Bet and Military Intelligence have developed a method to identify suspects using online clues, significantly reducing the number of attacks

The scene of a deadly stabbing attack in Jerusalem in 2015. The assailant, Mohannad Halabi, had written an inciting text on Facebook just hours before the attack.
The scene of a deadly stabbing attack in Jerusalem in 2015. The assailant, Mohannad Halabi, had written an inciting text on Facebook just hours before the attack. Olivier Fitoussi

Israel’s security services have used the internet to thwart hundreds of potential terror attacks in less than a year, with the Shin Bet security service and Military Intelligence stopping 2,200 Palestinians at various stages of planning and preparing for attacks, mostly stabbings and car-rammings.

The Israel Defense Forces and Shin Bet arrested more than 400 of these would-be perpetrators, and some were put on trial. The names of a similar number were passed on to the Palestinian Authority, which arrested them and warned them against planning attacks on Israel. The rest received warning conversations from the Shin Bet and IDF, or sometimes their parents did.

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So far the move has significantly reduced the number of attacks. The Palestinian young people apparently feel that Israeli Big Brother is keeping an eye on them, and they’re also being deterred based on the fear that their families will be punished for their actions.

The one thing almost all Palestinians who carried out attacks in the recent terror wave had in common is their status as lone wolves with no affiliation to any organization. Most of them, like Gamil Tamimi who stabbed to death the British student Hannah Bladon in Jerusalem on Friday, acted on their own and did not receive assistance. They appear to have been motivated by media coverage of previous attacks, by the Israeli security forces’ killing of Palestinians, by family members, or by other events happening around them.

Soldiers of Unit 8200.
Moti Milrod

Tamimi was an aberration, even in terms of the lone-wolf intifada taking place over the past year and a half. Many of the stabbing and car-ramming assailants were from the fringes of Palestinian society who perhaps preferred “a martyr’s death” as a way out of their problems.

But Shin Bet sources say Tamimi’s case was different, not only because he was middle-aged. The man suffered mental problems, had been sentenced to prison for sexually assaulting a family member and even tried to kill himself recently when he was hospitalized in Israel for surgery.

The terror wave peaked in the winter of 2016, when attacks occurred daily; since then the violence has gradually ebbed. Since the summer of 2016 a serious attack has been occurring once every few weeks. There have been more attempts of local assailants trying to form groups or cells, but they too lack a clear affiliation to an organization.

Members of cells, sometimes lone assailants as well, are making greater efforts to obtain guns for their attacks. The homemade Carl Gustav submachine gun, known colloquially as the “Carlo,” is still the go-to weapon. Its price on the West Bank black market has risen by a few times following Israel’s moves to destroy gun-making workshops and halt sales of the rifle.

Defense officials list several reasons for the reduced number of attacks and casualties over the past year. The IDF and Jerusalem police are deploying themselves better, the Palestinians feel that the attacks have brought them no closer to a state, and the Palestinian leadership has decided, belatedly, to try to stop attacks from the West Bank and warn Israel. Also, Israeli Intelligence is monitoring Palestinians on social networks, often stopping would-be assailants before they act.

The two last reasons are connected. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hinted at this when he mentioned Israel’s use of “big data” to foil attacks. The Shin Bet and Military Intelligence have been working together on this from the end of 2015, when the wave threatened to turn into a flood. It turned out that relatives and acquaintances were following the lead of lone-wolf assailants − due to the way the Palestinian media covered the attacks, not to mention the response on social networks.

Although most assailants have acted alone, the authorities have found that many telegraphed their intentions. The Shin Bet and Military Intelligence’s main difficulty was to distinguish between supportive responses on social networks and clues that a person actually planned to take action. Within a few months the Shin Bet and Military Intelligence developed a method that yielded results.

The reduction in the number of attacks is conditional. A new crisis between Israel and the Palestinians, a clash within the Palestinian Authority regarding President Mahmoud Abbas’ successor, or an incident with the Israelis over religious issues could reignite the violence.

Still, reducing the violence, which only a year ago was the main story in Israel – even the case of the shooting by Sgt. Elor Azaria was linked to it – could be seen as an impressive achievement of new Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman in his first year in office. Argaman, who was appointed last May, recently enacted streamlining measures such as merging divisions and canceling two posts of division heads equivalent to IDF brigadier generals.

The most significant move was merging the signal intelligence and cyber divisions with the technology division.

The current cyber division was set up in 2011, but the Shin Bet realized it wasn’t up to the challenges of the current era. The united division is expected to be particularly prestigious, given the increase in cyberterror and the increasing need to use technology to foil terror operations.

The Shin Bet has also merged theory and instruction activity to one division, and has transferred responsibility for counterterrorism to other divisions.

The Shin Bet and Military Intelligence recently signed a cooperation agreement detailing the division of work between them. In the past the responsibility was divided among Military Intelligence, the Shin Bet and the Mossad in a document dubbed the Magna Carta, but this has become less relevant in view of the changes in the terror threats.

The geographic division among the organizations is no longer suitable because in many cases networks cut across countries and combine separate organizations’ activities in different regions − for example, Iranian assistance in weapons smuggling to terror groups in the Gaza Strip, which also involves mediator groups in Yemen, Libya or Sudan.

Security sources told Haaretz that today a higher level of coordination is required among the various intelligence services in various areas. At the same time, the Shin Bet has tightened its cooperation with intelligence services in the United States and several West European countries.