As Nakba Day and Jerusalem Day Approach, Israel Struggles to Address Its Main Vulnerability

Logistics and bureaucracy hamper Israel's attempts to secure the border fence across which tens of thousands of Palestinians cross ■ An Israeli general warns: Iran's nuke program is only a part of the threat it poses

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Israeli policemen at the Temple Mount compound in April.
Israeli policemen at the Temple Mount compound in April.Credit: MENAHEM KAHANA - AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Almost eight weeks have passed since the start of the present wave of terrorism. Even though the frequency of the events is not especially high, and is not sweeping the Palestinian masses in its wake, what’s happening is enough to preserve a permanent sense of confrontation. The killing spree in Elad with the use of axes and knives, on Independence Day, heightened the anxiety among the Israeli public. And the death of Shireen Abu Akleh became a Palestinian national event, validated by a state funeral at the Muqata – PA headquarters – in Ramallah. Even if quiet prevails for a few days from time to time, everyone knows that one event will be enough to rekindle the fire. Looming in the background are two sensitive dates this month: Palestinian Nakba Day, next Sunday, May 15, and Israeli Jerusalem Day, with its flag parade in the Old City, exactly a week later.

The Temple Mount remains the major trigger of the violence. Fewer Muslim worshippers are going there now, following the conclusion of the month of Ramadan, but apprehension of an Israeli plot to seize control of Al-Aqsa Mosque continues to fester, notably on social media. The two terrorists who perpetrated the Elad attack said in their interrogation that they had set out to murder to defend the Temple Mount. From their perspective, a religious war is underway in Jerusalem – the same sentiment left behind by the perpetrators of other terrorist attacks recently.

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Most of the terrorists who have acted in the past few weeks came from northern Samaria, which is where the IDF is focusing its activity, including operations to arrest arms dealers. Incitement by Hamas from the Gaza Strip is playing a part in the escalation, but intelligence continues to maintain that the organization’s practical part in the events is small, and that the majority of the attacks are independent initiatives by “lone wolves” or local squads.

The “seamline” remains a major point of vulnerability, which Israel is having difficulty closing. Effectively, a total U-turn in policy is taking place here in a very short time. For years, the defense establishment turned a blind eye to the passage of tens of thousands of Palestinians through breaches in the separation fence and made no effort to seal them. When the terrorist attacks flared up again, the most available and cheapest resource was assigned to deal with the issue: units of the regular army. Nine and a half battalions from the regular army were sent to close the area, while other forces carried out arrests deep inside the West Bank.

The improvised deployment entails numerous problems. As the journalist Yoav Zeitun reported this week on Ynet, there are places where soldiers do guard duty while sitting on plastic chairs, without necessary protective means (such as concrete cubes) or appropriate logistics. In some cases, IDF soldiers are in topographically inferior situations. Forces deployed in this manner for weeks on end are prone to attrition, and with it weakness that is a signal to the adversary. Suffice it to recall the deadly Palestinian attacks on IDF checkpoints in the West Bank during the second intifada. Senior officers who were asked about the issue this week, in the wake of complaints by parents of soldiers that were made available to Haaretz, replied that the IDF is aware of the problem and is trying to overcome it by improving protection, and by stepping up the pace of making means of observation available. But it remains a weak point that could also produce casualties.

Bureaucratically, too, the system isn’t yet prepared to cope with the upgraded means by which Palestinian workers without entry permits to Israel are smuggled across the Green Line. Thus, it turned out that the Elad terrorists got to the city in the car of a transportation contractor, who was also their first victim. Police relate that the procedure of confiscating vehicles that are seized while smuggling workers is ineffective. It turns out that the lot on which the state holds the confiscated vehicles is completely full. As an alternative, the offenders are required to sign a form on which they undertake not to make use of the vehicle for this purpose again. In the meantime the vehicles remain in their possession, in the best tradition of Israbluff.

The response to terror is also being harmed by the sweeping imbecility that has taken over the discussion on social media. The fact that the present government is teetering renders it particularly sensitive to external pressure. An extreme example occurred in connection with the Elad attack: first in the form of the demand for the immediate assassination of Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’ leader in Gaze, and afterward in the furious arguments over the handling of the two terrorists after they were caught.

It turns out that a stone thrown into the well by one strategic adviser can’t be pulled out by even five IDF officers. The idea to assassinate Sinwar came up on socail media within minutes of the perpetration of the terrorist attack. The context was apparently Sinwar’s “axes speech,” in which he called on Palestinians and on Arabs in Israel to seize weapons and embark on attacks. In short order, the demands for his assassination leapfrogged from Twitter to the established media, and from there found an attentive ear among the political decision-makers as well.

The IDF looked on with astonishment. Not only had no concrete discussion about an assassination been held in the authorized forums, but Sinwar’s status was instantly enhanced by the threats. After all, if the Israelis are eager to liquidate him, it must be right to view him as a contender for the throne of Palestinian leadership. And all this, it bears recalling, took place against the background of growing Israeli sensitivity to casualties. If during the intifada the Israeli public displayed impressive staying power, understanding that they must not impart to the adversary a feeling of success, the present reality is completely different. Every person killed is a whole world, but a terrorist attack cannot be perceived, strategically, as the end of the world or of the Zionist enterprise. That’s a complex lesson which the government is having a hard time imparting to the public, with the result that its room for maneuver becomes even narrower.

Iran’s ‘sub-nuclear threat’

Defense Minister Benny Gantz is drawing close to a decision to appoint Maj. Gen. Herzi Halevi as the next chief of staff, as reported here last week. The key obstacle is the political timetable: Aviv Kochavi’s stint as IDF chief will end next January, and the question is whether Gantz will finish the appointment procedure before the government dissolves. The attorney general and the courts have expressed reservations about making such senior appointments during a transition government. However, if Likud returns to power, the race for chief of staff might be less clear-cut.

In the previous round, four years ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wanted to appoint Maj. Gen. Eyal Zamir. Although Zamir was Netanyahu’s military secretary during the latter’s premiership, any attempts to link him politically to Netanyahu would do Zamir an injustice. In fact, he stood out in his ability not to compromise or sully himself in a bureau from which few emerged unmarred. Zamir spent the waiting period between his term as deputy chief of staff (in which Halevi succeeded him) and competing for his next post in the United States, as a research fellow in the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. A comprehensive report he published this week on the institute’s website presents his take on the Iranian threat for the first time.

Zamir’s analysis, titled “Countering Iran’s Regional Strategy,” focuses on the response to the activity of the Revolutionary Guards throughout the Middle East. In his view, while the United States and Israel are focused on halting Iran’s nuclear project, Tehran is continuing to build up its military capability along with a “regional radical Shia army” with the aim of achieving regional hegemony. The nuclear project and regional influence are complementary parts of one strategic process. The struggle against it, Zamir argues, will determine the region’s future. However, the extensive focus on the nuclear project is coming at the expense of efforts to halt Iran’s regional subversion. Tehran is actually using the nuclear program as a diversionary tactic as it extends its influence.

Iranian women hold pictures of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and General Qassem Soleimani, 2021.Credit: WANA NEWS AGENCY / REUTERS

In recent years, the axis of Iranian resistance has become a strategic threat, Zamir writes; Tehran is increasing its influence and entrenching its military presence in some of the region’s countries. Even if the nuclear project is frozen, Iran is already presenting a “sub-nuclear threat” (because of its progress toward developing a bomb) toward regional states through the militias it operates, by means of its ability to seize territories and deter its neighbors from taking action.

These developments call for a combined counter-effort, which will include tighter coordination between the United States, Israel and the Sunni states. To date, he writes, the efforts to cope with Iran have been merely tactical, response-driven and short-term. The absence of a counter-effort is facilitating Iran’s ability to cope with its adversaries without real difficulty. “The time to act is now.”

According to Zamir, a return to the nuclear accord between Iran and the powers, if it occurs, should be accompanied by a parallel plan to end the regional effort that the Iranians are undertaking. Without that, Iran will only increase its influence and exploit the vast funds that will flow into the country after the American sanctions against it are lifted. That money will be allocated to acquiring long-range precision missiles and drones. Zamir anticipates that Iran will continue attacking American targets in Iraq and Syria with the aid of the Shiite militias.

At the same time, Zamir writes, the Abraham Accords provide a platform for a joint regional alliance against Iran, which in the past seemed unfeasible. It needs to be coordinated by CENTCOM, the U.S. Central Command, which recently became the coordinating body with the Israeli military. Zamir calls for the campaign to be focused on the Revolutionary Guards and does not rule out assassination of the organization’s senior figures. (In January 2020, the Americans assassinated Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force near Baghdad; it was hinted that Israel had helped collect prior intelligence for the operation.)

The alliance needs to take into account the possibility that Tehran will spark a war, and to know that the Iranians, too, are vulnerable to attacks on their critical infrastructure. Zamir suggests to Israel and its partners to adopt a measure-for-measure policy in response to Iranian acts, and expresses amazement that Middle Eastern countries haven’t already adopted this approach – for example, following the Iranian attack on Aramco oilfields in Saudi Arabia in the fall of 2019. The anti-Iranian strategy also needs to include support for opposition groups in Iran, Zamir writes, and to encourage violent resistance to the regime, which in his view is vulnerable and suffers from a lack of internal legitimacy.

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