As Passover Begins, Threats to Israel Are Both Short and Long Term

In addition to last week's bus bombing, problems include the West Bank's dire economy, the PA's succession struggle and a rift between the top and bottom of the Israeli army.

Israeli police forces walk by Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem's Old City as they patrol the area, March 9, 2016.
Thomas Coex, AFP

Passover week could be a tense one in Israel’s relations with the Palestinians. Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot told the cabinet last week that security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority had improved and the army believed this was having a calming effect. But the recent easing of violence could now be threatened if lone-wolf terrorists launch attacks during the holiday, especially in Jerusalem.

Hamas’ first suicide attack this intifada, on a bus in Jerusalem last week, may also have repercussions on Israeli-Palestinian relations this week.

In the longer term, the Israel Defense Forces and Shin Bet security service have other things to worry about. One is the continuing erosion in the PA’s status due to President Mahmoud Abbas’ weakening and the tense relations with the Netanyahu government. The second is the soldier who shot dead a wounded Palestinian in Hebron and the wide gaps between the generals' position and the way young combatants see the incident.

Forces in Jerusalem will be beefed up this week due to the expected increase of Jewish visitors to the Old City and the fear Palestinians might try to disrupt the holiday with stabbing or shooting attacks. The traditional priestly blessing at the Western Wall will be accompanied by a large contingent of police for fear Palestinian stone throwers will riot on the Temple Mount. Meanwhile, right-wing groups unhappy with prayer arrangements on the Temple Mount could cause a disruption.

On Passover eve, police chased Jewish youths who tried to smuggle baby goats to sacrifice rituals in the Old City. Other incidents are expected with rightists, as well as with lone-wolf Palestinian assailants.

Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich recently renewed the ban on Knesset members visiting the Temple Mount. Israel told Jordan it would do everything to calm spirits on the Mount and Jerusalem as a whole. To Israel’s surprise, Amman has suspended the plan to install surveillance cameras on the Mount, following pressure from the PA.

The first suicide bombing has not yet been officially classified as one. The terrorist, the only person killed on bus No. 12 last Monday, was identified as Abed al-Hamid Abu-Srur, a young Palestinian from the Al-Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem. But it's not clear if he intended to blow himself up with the bomb he had smuggled into Jerusalem.

On Thursday the Shin Bet said it had arrested a number of Palestinians from the Bethlehem area on suspicion of helping plan the attack. The suspects, like the Palestinian who was killed, are linked to Hamas. They appear to have belonged to a local cell that wasn’t very skilled. The modest number of casualties could indicate the bomb wasn’t made by professionals.

That didn’t stop Hamas media and websites from taking responsibility for the attack and portraying it as a success. Israel, meanwhile, didn't openly link Hamas in Gaza with the attack and didn't retaliate in the Strip. This may have something to do with Israel’s desire to pass the holiday week quietly in the south, a few days after the exposure and destruction of the tunnel Hamas had dug into Israel from Gaza.

Since the rising violence in the West Bank and Jerusalem last October, Hamas has decoupled events there and Gaza. Hamas has urged its cells in the West Bank to carry out attacks while enforcing quiet in Gaza also on small Palestinian factions seeking to renew fighting with Israel.

Hamas’ calm reaction to Israel’s destruction of the tunnel, and Israel’s similar reaction to the bus bombing, show that both sides are still interested in preserving the current situation.

Abbas may have pulled himself together and told his security forces to act vigorously to thwart suicide attacks, but Israel detects signs that the 81-year-old is weary. The West Bank media is talking more about a successor, and a campaign is underway for the candidacy of Marwan Barghouti, who is imprisoned in Israel.

All that, along with the West Bank's dire economy and the lack of communication between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Abbas, could lead to further deterioration of relations.

If the terror escalates, it could even lead to the collapse of the Palestinian government in the West Bank. There doesn’t appear to be an immediate danger of this, but few on the Israeli side would wager a smooth transition from Abbas to his successor.

In the IDF, a big issue is still the case of Sgt. Elor Azaria, who is charged with manslaughter for shooting a terrorist in Hebron last month after the Palestinian appeared to have already been subdued. On Friday, Azaria was released from detention on his base to go home to Ramle for Passover. He was received as a local hero. Opinion polls continue to show wide support for scrapping the legal proceedings against him.

For the time being, the army isn't backing down and the military prosecutor isn't pushing for a plea deal. But the real problem that the major generals, brigade commanders and battalion commanders see is what's happening in combat companies. Despite explanations Eisenkot has ordered, soldiers, junior officers and even company commanders have been expressing open support for Azaria and reservations about the policy of the senior command.

In the long term, the army faces a serious problem. It’s a holding action that, if not carried out with determination and consistency, could erode the IDF’s values.