The attack that killed two Israelis in a West Bank industrial park Sunday poses a challenge for political and military leaders: How to respond without increasing the risk of a renewed escalation in the West Bank.
Ever since the violent Hamas-led protests began in the Gaza Strip on March 30, the organization has tried by every means possible to get West Bank Palestinians to join in. But so far, even 200 dead Gazans, thousands of wounded, the transfer of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, the annual Nakba Day commemorations and the Ramadan holiday have all failed to do so.
Hamas’ attempts to build up its terrorist infrastructure in the West Bank have also failed, thanks to efforts by both the Israeli and the Palestinian Authority security services.
But now, Israeli intelligence agencies fear the mood in the West Bank could provide fertile ground for lone-wolf terror attacks like the wave that happened three years ago. Starting in October 2015, lone-wolf assailants unaffiliated with any terror group carried out numerous stabbing, car-ramming and shooting attacks that killed dozens of Israelis. They were inspired mainly by social media, where the perpetrators of the attacks were glorified.
An outbreak of similar attacks in the West Bank now could completely alter Hamas’ position in its conflict with Israel, because the opening of a second front would pose a much more serious challenge for the Israel Defense Forces than it faces in Gaza. Senior defense officials still believe the Gaza front could be resolved by a cease-fire deal with Hamas.
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Defense officials have been warning the government for some time now of the possibility of an outbreak of violence in the West Bank. Just last month, IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot told the security cabinet there was a growing risk of violence in the West Bank in the near future, and the previous month, Shin Bet security service chief Nadav Argaman made a similar warning.
While defense officials support a cease-fire agreement with Hamas, they believe Israel’s effort to reach such a deal (via Egyptian and UN mediators) over the head of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas undermines Abbas’ standing in the West Bank and bolsters Hamas there. Moreover, they say, such an effort makes young Palestinians think that Hamas’ terrorism pays.
If the government responds to Sunday’s terror attack with collective punishment that hurts all 8,000 Palestinian employees of the Barkan industrial zone, or all 100,000 Palestinians with permits to work in Israel or the settlements, Hamas will be strengthened, and the chances of violence erupting in the West Bank will grow.
The defense establishment believes Israel should punish only the terrorist, the people who sent him and the people who abetted the attack. Both the IDF and the Shin Bet argue that preserving calm in the West Bank and security coordination with the PA are more important than collective punishment, which they don’t believe does much to deter lone-wolf terrorists.
But after every previous such incident, the politicians have favored collective punishment as a deterrent – often because social media users demanded such action – and have viewed the defense establishment’s position as weakness. After last year’s shooting attack in Har Adar, for instance, the government initially wanted to respond by banning all Palestinian workers from the settlement.
Today, defense officials consider the situation far more flammable and believe that collective punishment would give Hamas a significant boost among West Bank Palestinians. They are therefore trying to balance the need to respond to the attack against the need to maintain the calm in the West Bank.
Over the past year, the security services have largely managed to keep lone-wolf attacks at bay. For instance, Argaman said recently that the Shin Bet foiled 250 attacks during the first half of this year and arrested more than 400 Palestinians who had been planning lone-wolf attacks.
Altogether, the security services arrest some 4,000 Palestinians in the West Bank every year; they also employ sophisticated cybertech to monitor Palestinian social media. In addition, the IDF has seized 330 guns from suspected terrorists so far this year, one-third of them in the past three months.