For those with good memories, senior army officials this week sounded like their predecessors in October 2000, the first month of the second intifada. Real old-timers may even have heard echoes of December 1987, when we didn’t even know what an intifada was.
Defense officials are taking time to craft a response to the new situation. The government and military leaders are still trying to explain why the situation in the West Bank isn’t an intifada; they say there’s a difference between the two uprisings and the escalation since the murder of the Henkin couple on October 1.
The differences are significant indeed. At this stage, only Palestinian youths are engaged in the violence. There have been relatively few shootings and no suicide bombings. Almost all the attacks have been stabbings or hit-and-run attempts. We have seen worse waves before, from the months of stabbings after the October 1990 Temple Mount riots to the surges of the previous two autumns.
While no two intifadas are alike, we no doubt face a significant terror wave that will take time to extinguish. Officials in the army and Shin Bet security service stress the positive side — that the Palestinian Authority, unlike in 2000, isn’t encouraging terror, and its instructions to its security forces to restrain violence are unambiguous. But the behavior of President Mahmoud Abbas and his forces can’t blur the fact that they’re living on borrowed time.
The freeze in peace talks can’t keep the relative calm in the territories going since the suppression of the second intifada a decade ago. The PA can’t submissively accept its role in the understandings that coalesced after the Oslo Accords eroded. The contract under which the PA is Israel’s subcontractor to fight Hamas in the West Bank and thwart terror is about to expire.
Israel offers old solutions to new circumstances. Security officials send forces to Jerusalem and the West Bank but don’t advise changing the approach to the PA. Right-wing activists demand revenge in the streets. The prime minister alternates between belligerent rhetoric and restraint. Suppressing the current wave could take a long time because most of the terrorists are acting alone; there are few clues before they act.
Part of the problem is the tendency to assume that things will quickly return to normal. In December 1987, Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin didn’t want to return early from his U.S. visit. Less than a month later, some intelligence officials predicted the end of violence after Fatah Day passed relatively quietly.
Similarly, two days after Ariel Sharon’s Temple Mount visit in September 2000, Haaretz asked Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz how long the violence would last. “I spoke with [Jibril] Rajoub and [Mohammed] Dahlan,” Mofaz replied about the two Palestinian kingpins. “There will be a cease-fire by four in the afternoon.”
By 4 P.M., the boy Mohammed al-Dura and his father were caught in the crossfire at Gaza’s Netzarim Junction, becoming a symbol of the violence. It would take another five years to restore relative calm.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might be wise to temper his accusations against Abbas. The president didn’t condemn the latest terror attacks, but Israeli intelligence agencies are united in their assessment that he’s trying to put out the fire and is worried about its repercussions for him and the PA. Central Command chief Roni Numa met with PA security chiefs Tuesday night. Their message was clear: Palestinian police would take positions at the usual flashpoints to prevent clashes.
Members of Fatah’s Tanzim militia had taken part in disturbances a few hours earlier at Ramallah’s northern edge; some were rebuked by Abbas when they fired live bullets. The Tanzim hasn’t engaged in violence since. If it enters the picture and defies the PA’s will in the refugee camps, this would be a sign of deterioration.
Shootings are still rare. When the Israeli troops entered Nablus early Wednesday, they went in with two jeeps. That isn’t how Palestinian resistance looked in the second intifada. The Shin Bet has identified few West Bank cells armed with guns, and most are from Hamas.
They form quickly, almost completely improvised, often with support from Hamas commanders in Gaza or Turkey. The old hierarchy under which Hamas’ armed wing operated in the northern West Bank was terminated. It seems Hamas concluded that coordinated operations would expose cells to the Israelis.
No suicide attacks
Despite the shocking result, the murderers of the Henkin couple weren’t exactly terror professionals. One accidently shot a comrade while running to the victims’ car after the shooting. The wounded man dropped his gun at the scene before fleeing. This misstep, not their consciences, probably saved the lives of the four Henkin children in the back seat.
The five terrorists were arrested the next night in Nablus, barely taking any steps to hide or resist arrest. The terror wave is worrying and certainly impinges on our sense of security, but we’re far from the suicide attacks at the peak of the second intifada. Shin Bet head Yoram Cohen told cabinet members this week to keep things in perspective. Eight Israelis have been killed in terror attacks in 2015, four of them in early October.
Israeli officials consider the Temple Mount tensions and the Jewish terror attack in Duma as the factors accelerating the current outbreak. Last month, Netanyahu let Construction Minister Uri Ariel resume his visits to the Temple Mount after a nine-month hiatus if he didn’t publicize his deeds.
Security officials say Ariel only partly fulfilled his commitments. Somehow a video of him, mumbling a prayer on the Temple Mount and explaining the importance of freedom of worship for Jews there, made its way to the social networks. Netanyahu is angry about Ariel’s irresponsibility, but he’s playing dumb. He never should have let him visit in the first place. Only this week did the Prime Minister’s Office temporarily ban MKs from the Mount.
Ariel’s September 2015 visit isn’t like Sharon’s September 2000 visit, but Palestinians have a hard time accepting Israel’s learned explanations on the matter. For them, the way from an MK’s provocation to conspiracy theories about Israel changing the status quo is short.
True, Netanyahu is aware of the dangers and is careful to avoid change, but the reality on the Temple Mount is different. It starts with the visit of thousands of Jews, thanks to a new ruling by their rabbis, continues with the removal of the Islamic guards and ends with increased clashes between the police and masked Palestinian rioters.
You could feel the tension in the Old City this week, with armed policemen on every corner. To light the fire, only one more match is needed.
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