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Israel's Triple Security Threat: Settlers, Gaza Rockets, and Syria Chemical Weapons

Israel has already faced a triple security threat this week, with a Palestinian terror attack against a settler in the West Bank, the assassination of a militant in Gaza and chemical-weapons worries in the north.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The murder of Eviatar Borovsky, a settler from Yitzhar, south of Nablus, ended the longest period without a fatal terror attack against an Israeli in the West Bank in the past 13 years.

Initial details suggest it is typical of what the Shin Bet security service calls "popular terror": acts carried out by single perpetrators without the support of organized terror groups or extensive planning beforehand.

But it is hard to ignore the broader context. In the past few months, there has been a rise in the number of stone- and incendiary-device throwing on roads in the West Bank and of violent demonstrations and clashes between Palestinians and settlers. For instance, Rachel's tomb in Bethlehem has in recent weeks gone from being completely quiet to the site of almost daily stone- and incendiary-device throwing against Israel Defense Force troops.

Yitzhar is one of the most extreme settlements in the West Bank and has even worse relations with its Palestinian neighbors than is normal in the tense north of the occupied territory. So it is no surprise that after Borovsky's murder Tuesday, settlers set fire to fields and threw stones at vehicles belonging to Palestinians. Security forces will try to calm things down, keeping in mind the threat of a Jewish terror attack, like the "price tag" incidents that have targeted local mosques.

The heads of the Yesha Council, an umbrella organization of municipal councils of Jewish settlements, linked Borovsky’s murder to what they called the “atmosphere of incitement in the Palestinian Authority and the lenient attitude to the terror of stone-throwing and discussions about releasing terrorists from prison.”

But in fact, under the current government, the settlers enjoy almost unprecedented power. Their senior representative, Industry Trade and Labor Minister and Habayit Hayehudi party head Naftali Bennet was the director general of the Yesha Council until two years ago. That being said, there will probably be no real change in relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The main thing Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon can give the settlers is a pledge to take more determined steps against the harassment of Israeli traffic in the West Bank.

Gaza

A few hours after the murder in Yitzhar, Israel assassinated a Palestinian terror operative in the Gaza Strip. There is no real connection between the two events. The killing of Haitham Mishal was a response to terrorism from Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula.

According to the Shin Bet, Mishal was involved in the rocket attack two weeks ago on Eilat from Sinai. Israel also believes that Mishal, who was a member of the extremist Jihadist group the Shura Council, was involved in weapons development and rocket attacks on the Negev from Gaza. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said following the assassination that Israel would not show restraint in the face of “a drizzle of fire from the Gaza Strip or Sinai.”

Netanyahu has a dual problem. The peace and quiet achieved in Gaza after Operation Pillar of Defense is eroding and, despite Netanyahu's warning, Israel has no real entity against which it can act. Intelligence on jihadist groups is relatively meager and, more importantly, Israel wants to avoid conflict with Egypt. While Israel is concerned with Cairo's weak control over Sinai, it considers security coordination more important.

But the real problem in Gaza is not the extremist groups. It is Hamas. In the first three months after Operation Pillar of Defense, Israel proudly pointed out that Hamas was preventing rocket fire completely. In recent months, Hamas has been turning a blind eye or has simply been unable to rein in the factions responsible, according to the official Israeli explanation. The problem is that once you say Hamas can enforce its authority, it is difficult to turn around and claim the opposite. Israel has painted itself in a corner where it has to deliver periodic measured blows and hope they will suffice to keep things relatively quiet – at least for a while.

The north

The north is the major hot spot for Netanyahu at the moment. Reports in the Arab press in the past few days of an Israeli attack on Syria were false, but that does not mean such an attack could not take place soon. Israel is becoming increasingly nervous, because the more complex the civil war in Syria becomes, the harder it is to track the regime’s chemical weapons. As Netanyahu and Ya’alon have stated more than once, if President Bashar Assad decides to transfer chemical weapons to Hezbollah, Israel will act to thwart the move.

The American red line, we know, is different. The White House has said it will act if Assad uses chemical weapons against his adversaries. Now that the word is out that this in fact happened, thanks in large part to Israeli intelligence, the administration is squirming. But Israel is not anxious for the United States to attack now, and, most of all, does not want to be blamed for involving the superpower in another war.

In this charged atmosphere, the Northern Command held a long-planned major call-up exercise Monday. The IDF must prepare for the possibility of a flare-up in Lebanon or Syria, including by quickly calling up of thousands of reservists. Given the reports coming out of Syria, the IDF did well to explain the details of the exercise in a press conference Monday afternoon. But it is too bad the briefing was not held earlier to address rampant rumors in Israel that a real call-up was taking place due to escalation in the north.

Scene of stabbing attack at Tapuach Junction, April 30, 2013.Credit: Nir Keidar

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