Israel Must Crack Down on Illegal Palestinian Workers, Before It's Too Late

Unlike a year ago, this time there have been large demonstrations as Temple Mount fervor feeds the flames.

Ofer Vaknin

The two attacks Monday — a 26-year-old-woman was stabbed to death and two others were hurt at a West Bank junction, hours after an Israeli soldier was stabbed by a Palestinian man at a train station in Tel Aviv — are just the latest in a series of violent incidents that have taken place over the past three weeks.

The casualties come in addition to the four Israelis killed in two terror attacks in Jerusalem over the past few weeks, as well as the shooting of Temple Mount activist Yehuda Glick, also in the capital. In a wave of rioting among Israeli Arabs after police officers killed Khayr al-Din al-Hamdan in Kafr Kana on Friday, hundreds of demonstrators have fought with police, throwing stones and firebombs. On Sunday a Jewish man was wounded when he found himself in the midst of an angry mob in the Israeli Arab town of Taibeh.

It appears that these attacks, which come on the tails of the summer’s war with Hamas, are beginning to erode the sense of safety that most Israelis have felt for several years. The government will have no choice but to take steps to make Israelis feel safer: significantly boosting police presence in large crowds, deploying more military units to the West Bank, and doing a better job of coordinating the intelligence effort against terror groups. Politicians will also doubtless consider demolishing the homes of terrorists from the West Bank.

The attacks can be expected to have political ramifications. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been marketing himself for years as a strong leader, and now the terrorists have challenged him just as the right-wing segment of his government is blaming him for impotence in the face of terror.

This series of incidents closely resembles what happened in the West Bank, Jerusalem and inside the Green Line exactly a year ago — a wave of uncoordinated attacks in which several Palestinians, most of them unaffiliated with any particular terror group and acting alone, attacked Israeli civilians and members of the security forces.

A soldier was attacked under similar circumstances a year ago, too: a Palestinian teenager from the Jenin region stabbed Eden Attias to death as they rode a bus in Afula. Like the man who attacked the soldier in Tel Aviv on Monday, the man who stabbed Attias was also in Israel illegally.

The difference can primarily be traced to the increasing importance of the religious element of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The tension surrounding the Temple Mount — including the Palestinian fear that Israel will unilaterally change the status quo there, despite the government’s denials — consistently feeds the flames. This fear is fanned by an onslaught of Hamas and Islamic Jihad propaganda.

The Palestinian Authority, notwithstanding the nearly Pavlovian attacks by some cabinet members, is still not involved. Israeli military sources have been consistently discussing close cooperation with PA forces, along with  PA leader Mahmoud Abbas’ unequivocal directive to prevent acts of terror.

The trouble with the latest series of attacks is that in Israel, strategy is often developed in response to a buildup of incidents like these. When Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch went Monday to the Haganah train station, where the soldier was stabbed, he was surrounded by citizens complaining about the security situation. It was a reminder of bleak times, like the wave of stabbings during the first intifada and the bombings during the second one, and is the sort of complaint to which politicians listen closely — particularly if an election campaign is coming up any time soon (talk of which is in the air now that Likud has set a primary for early 2015).

Over the next few days, cabinet ministers can be expected to issue firm statements, Israeli public figures will accuse the Palestinian educational system of incitement, and emergency meetings about the security situation will be convened.

What will not be mentioned will be the Israeli neglect that allowed the terror attacks to happen in the first place. Preliminary reports indicate that the Palestinian man who stabbed the soldier is an illegal resident from Nablus. This kind of attack happens because, 12 years after heavy public pressure compelled then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to begin construction of the West Bank separation barrier, the project was stopped and never completed.

The defense establishment, mainly for budgetary reasons, never completed the construction of the barrier in the area between the West Bank’s southern Hebron Hills and two areas populated by Israelis: the southern section of the Gush Etzion settlement bloc and the Lachish district. These two regions contain a “freeway” of Palestinian workers from the West Bank who enter Israel to work without permits. There are also breaches in the Qalqilyah area that allow people to cross into Israel without much trouble, and supervision at the checkpoints along the Green Line is far from tight.

Israel was able to afford such luxuries during times of relative calm with the Palestinians, once the second intifada died down, but now this policy may need to be rethought.

The problem has nothing to do with the roughly 50,000 workers who enter Israel with work permits issued to them after a security check (an additional 25,000 Palestinians work legally inside West Bank settlements). The risk potential of this group is negligible. The risk has to do with the 30,000 to 40,000 Palestinians who work illegally inside the Green Line.

The vast majority of this group comes into Israel to make a living. But because these laborers do not undergo a security screening and are not monitored by the government, and have not been compelled to identify their employers, there is almost no way to prevent terror attacks by people staying in Israel illegally, some of whom are also suspected of engaging in run-of-the-mill criminal activity.

The next time ministers promise to come down on terrorism with a heavy hand, it would behoove us to ask them where they were when they could have been passing laws regulating the employment of illegal residents, and making sure those laws are enforced. Palestinians who are not authorized to be in the country arrive in Israel thanks to the assistance of Israeli citizens. Neither the employers of these illegal residents nor those who charge a lot of money to smuggle them into Israel are paying a price for their criminal activity. The lone terrorist is always liable to act, certainly during a period of unusual hostility fueled by religious fervor.

It won’t take much before a general atmosphere of public panic prevails. The question is why the state and the defense establishment do not take some necessary measures that could reduce the risk.