After a relatively calm year from a security perspective, the number of Israelis killed this year in terror attacks in the West Bank soared within two days from one to three, following the two incidents in which soldiers Tomer Hazan and Gal Kobi were killed. While the proximity of the incidents led, predictably, to a series of meetings at the highest levels of the defense establishment and a political uproar among the right wing, it seems that at this stage, it is not evidence of a general escalation in the territories.
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Sgt. Tomer Hazan, who served on the Palmahim air base, was kidnapped and murdered by his coworker at a restaurant in Bat Yam, a Palestinian named Nidal Amar, who lured him to the village of Beit Amin in the West Bank last Friday night. The full story of how Amar tricked Hazan into going with him will be made clear to the public when he is indicted. According to Shin Bet security service officials, Amar, who was arrested several hours after the murder, confessed during questioning that he had murdered Hazan to use his corpse as a bargaining chip for the release of his brother, Nur al-Din Amar, who is imprisoned in Israel. The investigation’s preliminary findings do not point to a professional terrorist: Nidal left a clear trail and was taken sleeping in his home, several dozen meters from the separation barrier.
Many details of the second incident remain under wraps. Staff Sgt. Gal Kobi, a combat soldier in the Givati Brigade, was shot in Hebron by a lone sniper, evidently from a distance. No intelligence warning preceded the attack, and at least according to what is known so far, the security forces have no leads about the act or its perpetrators. A murder by sniper fire such as this usually requires greater skill and more thorough preparation than the first type of incident does. It is not likely that the sniper took his inspiration from the murder of Hazan, which was perpetrated far from Hebron. If there is a common denominator between the two incidents, it is a broader one — the Palestinian terrorist struggle against Israel — and does not necessarily indicate a sharp change in direction that ends in a new intifada in the territories.
The past two years have been full of predictions of a third intifada — predictions that remain unfulfilled. But although six Palestinians have been killed in incidents with the IDF since early August, the atmosphere in the West Bank is not particularly tense and only relatively few calls for revenge were heard. No significant crisis that could lead to an escalation in the violence has erupted in the talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority either.
The Palestinian public remains relatively cool, and the Palestinian Authority has its own agenda for now as well. The leadership in Ramallah is focused on continuing the talks with Israel, despite the low expectations, to avoid having the American administration blame them for the negotiations’ failure. Perhaps more importantly, it is busy taking advantage of the trouble the Hamas regime in Gaza has gotten itself into. People who have recently met with PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) have gotten the impression that he is having a hard time hiding his glee over the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo and the subsequent weakening of Hamas’s status. It is doubtful whether the PA has anything to gain from a renewed violent confrontation with Israel. For now, the security coordination between both sides continues as usual.
As a result, Israel’s available means for a response against the Palestinians are fairly limited. The IDF will set up roadblocks near Hebron to search for the sniper who fired the fatal shot on Sunday and to show the city’s inhabitants the possible price of renewed escalation. It seems there will also be a certain reinforcement of troops to strengthen security around the tens of thousands of Israelis who visit Hebron over the Sukkot holiday. But the main response will be political. Since Sunday night’s incident, the MKs of Habayit Hayehudi have been vying with each other in their demands for severe punitive measures. The party’s leader, Minister Naftali Bennett, also issued a sharply-worded statement. This is the lip service that Bennett must pay to the more right-wing members of his party to justify staying in Benjamin Netanyahu’s center-right government, alongside Yair Lapid.
But the prime minister’s response is also intriguing. After the terror attack, he announced that he would allow the resettlement of Beit Hamachpela, the Palestinian building near the Tomb of the Patriarchs that had been bought by settlers but boarded up by the state. Netanyahu is toeing a right-wing line with Bennett, who in turn is aligning with Habayit Hayehudi MK Orit Strock. Alongside the calls for settlement as an appropriate response, some right-wing figures have also been demanding a freeze of the second phase of the release of the Palestinian prisoners, the gesture being made to the PA as part of the resumption of the talks. In the previous round two months ago, the settlers and Habayit Hayehudi preferred releasing prisoners, including convicted murderers, to the other gesture that the Americans and Palestinians suggested that the prime minister make — freezing construction in the territories. The question is whether this time, Netanyahu will feel he has enough maneuvering room to grant both demands by the settlers.