The steep decline in the number of Palestinian terror attacks in recent months – before Wednesday three months had passed without Israelis being killed – got many of us thinking the violence was over. Then came the most lethal attack over the past year: the killing of four Israeli civilians in a carefully planned shooting in the heart of Tel Aviv.
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The attack clearly showed yet again that the Palestinian side is constantly seeking ways to increase the damage inflicted. The recent decline in the number of terror attacks was also due in part to Palestinian frustration with the limited results: Israeli casualty numbers have been modest, most of the assailants have been killed, and the terror wave has hardly had an effect on the strategic level.
As has been shown once more, gunfire, even from makeshift weapons like Carl Gustav recoilless rifles, is much more lethal than knifings. For now, shooting is the preferred method of the terrorists, who by and large are still operating independently.
Since October, there has been just one attempted suicide bombing, on a Jerusalem bus in April. Although a Hamas cell was behind it, this was a local effort by people with little operational experience. The not-too-sophisticated bomb wounded civilians but did not cause mass casualties.
Wednesday’s attack was surely considered a success by the terrorists who committed it, given the number of victims and the way foreign television has stressed that it happened so near Israeli defense headquarters.
And this time wariness is warranted before automatically classifying the attack as a lone wolf attack. There were two, possibly three, terrorists, including the person who drove them to the site, who has yet to be identified. Such an attack requires planning and the acquisition of weapons.
Even if the operation was not dictated from above, there are indications of more ambitious organization on the local level, as seen in several other shooting attacks in recent months. The Israel Defense Forces and Shin Bet security service believe that more such cells are organizing in the West Bank with the aim of carrying out similar operations.
Following Wednesday’s attack at the Sarona Market, the usual ritual kicked in: a special security consultation (once Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned from Russia), a nighttime tour of the murder scene, a cabinet meeting the next day, and a massing of forces and arrests in the town the terrorists came from, Yatta.
This last move was collective punishment. In the latest period of attacks, Israel has occasionally gone this way, but for the most part the position of IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot and former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon has been followed: limited measures.
This time, it was decided to suspend entry permits into Israel for 204 relatives of the terrorists, on top of broader punishment. The IDF imposed a closure on Yatta and announced the suspension of 83,000 entry permits from the West Bank and East Jerusalem into Israel that were issued for Ramadan. There was also the suspension of several hundred entry permits issued to Gaza residents.
Besides the punitive aspect, this decision also derives from fears that during Ramadan, the likelihood of displays of Islamic extremism increases.
Still, the substantial reduction in terror attacks in recent months has been achieved amid determination and sober judgment on the Israeli side and steadily improving security coordination with the Palestinian Authority. New Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman will quickly find that the measures at his disposal under the current diplomatic conditions are limited; Israel hopes to avoid a total rift with the PA.
Lieberman is now in an entirely new situation. During the Gaza war two years ago, while he was a cabinet member, Lieberman harshly criticized what he called the security leaders’ feeble response to Hamas. And of course his year in the opposition gave him maximum maneuver room as far as that goes.
To judge by his first few days as defense minister, Lieberman appears to be taking a mixed approach: diplomatic moderation coupled with toughness on security. This approach will now be put to the test, as there will be Palestinian attempts to replicate the Sarona attack during Ramadan.
Wednesday’s terror attack was ruthless murder, whether it happened in the center of Tel Aviv or the settlement of Ariel. Anyone who opens fire point-blank on families at a chocolate bar isn’t thinking about the nuances of the paralyzed peace process. He probably isn’t familiar with the details of the French peace initiative.
The PA sat on the fence in this intifada’s first few months, but then it realized that the violence was threatening its weak grip and began arresting youths who hinted about their intentions to launch attacks. If Ramallah isn’t alert to the dangers inherent in a renewed outburst of violence, it won’t take long until the two sides slip back down the slope and the relative quiet they achieved with great effort will be lost.
Fatah, Hamas and others
A side effect of the months of violence has been a change in the balance among the Palestinian security prisoners in Israeli jails. There are currently about 6,500 security prisoners. Nearly half are from Fatah and the rest are divided among Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Israeli Arabs arrested for security offenses (and unlinked to any organization) and Palestinians from the territories who don’t belong to any organization.
This latter group has grown significantly thanks to the wave of arrests in recent months. There are 460 prisoners who are minors, 40 women prisoners and 400 adult male prisoners – all without any organizational affiliation. About two-thirds of this latter group are residents of the West Bank and the rest are residents of East Jerusalem.
This jibes with the intelligence analysis on the leaders of the recent violence. They’re young people (from teenage minors up to young men around 20) usually without a record of security offenses and unaffiliated with any Palestinian organization. They’ve acted on their own.
In keeping with a policy set many years ago, the prison service tends to separate prisoners from Islamist organizations from other prisoners. The prisoners from the recent period, most of whom declare themselves unaffiliated – as Israeli prosecutors declare them in indictments – are put with Fatah prisoners. The top Hamas people among the prisoners don’t like this because they strive to recruit young and unaffiliated prisoners to strengthen their organization in the West Bank in the future.
Shin Bet sources tell Haaretz that putting the new unaffiliated prisoners with the veteran Fatah members has been done in consultation with the Shin Bet. For years, a stay in an Israeli prison has been likened to a course at Terrorism University run by Hamas, during which young prisoners behind bars for modest offenses are indoctrinated with Hamas ideology and given training so that after their release they’ll join active Hamas cells.
The Fatah prisoners, meanwhile, are largely caught up in internal rivalries and the power struggles that are tearing apart the movement’s leadership. Most of them have been in prison for a while and their ties to terror by now are weak.
The Shin Bet sees that the new prisoners arrive with little knowledge or ideological background. Prisoners who were arrested while committing an attack usually say they decided to act quite suddenly. They know very little about the history of the conflict and have very little knowledge about Israelis. At the same time, they’re wary about accepting the authority of the veteran prisoners.
“It’s a brazen and defiant generation,” says one intelligence officer. “They don’t care what the adults say. They ignore them and tell them right to their faces: ‘We’re not part of your tricks.’ This attitude is leading to more clashes when the new prisoners arrive.”
The officer doesn’t see any of these younger prisoners aspiring to leadership positions. “Their lack of organization, as well as their rejection of the established movement, Hamas and Fatah, continues in prison too,” he says. “For now at least, they’re not dominant and not spearheading any move.”
Still, it seems a third Palestinian power is starting to emerge, one that could influence what happens in the territories in the future.