Analysis / Unusual, but not unexpected
After yesterday evening's terrorist attack in Tel Aviv, the worst suicide bombing inside Israel since the Park Hotel incident in Netanya last March, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz's statement yesterday to the cabinet seemed prophetic: "There is an unceasing effort by the terrorist organizations to carry out attacks."
But that has been true at nearly every moment in the past year. The number of alerts on the Shin Bet list hasn't dropped from 30-40 a week since the summer. Military Intelligence counts alerts slightly differently with slightly fewer specific alerts than the Shin Bet, but that's only a matter of definitions.
The Shin Bet calls an alert what the IDF calls "an organization" and the IDF's test is more stringent - an alerts needs at least general answers to questions such as who is planning, what is being planned, when is it planned for, and where.
There was no alert for last night's attack, but the operation was familiar - two suicide bombers at the same time is a relatively efficient way to achieve mass bloodshed, and for the terrorist organizations it a near satisfactory alternative for a "mega-attack."
The last attack in the same district, the old central bus station, was also a two-bomber one but on Tisha B'Av there were few people in the area - five were killed. This time the bombers appeared to have been "better" equipped.
The Islamic Jihad's claim of responsibility sounds reasonable, but has not been backed up by firm intelligence. It could have been a Fatah attack, or a "joint production" between local operatives of the Fatah and Islamic Jihad. It's less likely it was Hamas. The "engineers" of that organization are the most deadly of all and if Hamas had sent two suicide bombers into Tel Aviv, the results would most likely have been much more lethal.
The timing also appears to match the Islamic Jihad's intentions - it has derived some momentum since the November 15 attack on Worshipers Way in Hebron. The Islamic Jihad is one of the more recalcitrant of the Palestinian groups in Cairo, where Egypt is trying to force a pan-Palestinian cease-fire.
Since November 15, Islamic Jihad has been a focal point for Central command. In the northern zone in Samaria, dozens of its activists have been arrested, but most of its strength is in the Hebron and Bethlehem areas. A senior officer, asked yesterday about the pace of progress in damaging the Islamic Jihad's infrastructure pulled out a piece of paper with an organizational chart of the group.
Dozens of names were on the chart and 70 percent had an X drawn through their names, meaning they have been caught or killed in the last few weeks. But the two major names are still free - Islamic Jihad leader in the West Bank, Muhamed Sidr, and a second top leader, Diab Shuweiki. Sidr is in direct contact with the command headquarters in Damascus, which issued the declaration of responsibility for the attack yesterday.
Despite the attack, however, the IDF is sticking to its basic assertion that terrorist networks have been badly damaged. In some areas, the fifth and sometimes sixth layer has been shaven away by arrests. About 1,800 Palestinians have been arrested since September, and now there are plans to build new facilities at Ketziot, the prison where many of them are being held.
The wave of arrests and continuing IDF pressure throughout the territories, slows down the cycle of attacks. The planners are less experienced and the "engineers" have been replaced by "technicians." Because of reduced skills, the networks need more help from overseas and money and instructions flow in from Gaza and Lebanon. Typically, Iyad Sawalhe, head of the Jihad in Samaria who was killed in October, was a 30-year-old ideological terrorist with a decade of anti-Israeli experience behind him. His replacement, Abdullah Wahash, arrested in November, is a 19-year-old ex-convict who could barely read the instructions he received from overseas. On the other hand, the Palestinian terrorist learning curve is very fast.
But ultimately, the facts remain the same. The IDF, given its current level of forces, finds it difficult to do more than it is doing now, with troops in every Palestinian city. Despite two years of constant fighting and despite the obliteration of the Palestinian Authority, the fact remains that despair is the most fruitful hothouse for terror.
Suicide bombings are still perceived as a legitimate means of resistance by the Palestinian public. Arafat remains indifferent to terror - if he's not encouraging it. And while manufacturing bombs and smuggling them into Israel is more difficult than ever, Kalashnikovs are readily available. An attack like last night's is unusual. But more shooting attacks, like the one in Beit Shean and Otniel, are ever more likely.