Escalation in Palestinian Terror Puts Israeli Collective Punishment Back on the Table

West Bank troop deployments, arrests and roadblocks are like throwing a blanket over a fire. The question is whether the situation will continue after the drive-by shooters are apprehended.

Israeli soldiers secure the scene of a shooting attack near Hebron, West Bank, Friday, July 1, 2016.
Nasser Shiyoukhi, AP

The escalation in Palestinian terror – the murder of 13-year-old Hallel Ariel, the murder of Michael Mark and the wounding of his wife and two of his children, the stabbing of two people in Netanya and the attempted stabbing at the Tomb of the Patriarchs – all within just over 24 hours has led to a harsher-than-usual response.

The army cordoned off Hebron and the surrounding villages and towns, imposed major restrictions on movement to and from the Hebron area, and announced a mass revocation of work permits for residents of Bani Na’im, where Ariel’s murderer lived.

The Israel Defense Forces stresses context – the manhunt for the perpetrators of the drive-by shooting of the Mark family. Roadblocks and the deployment of two regular army battalions to the Hebron area are meant to help find the killers and increase the settlers’ sense of security.

The success (terrible as it is, the murder of a teenage girl asleep in her bed is described as a success on the Palestinian side) feeds copycats. So troop deployments, arrests and roadblocks are like throwing a blanket over a fire. The question is whether the situation will continue after the drive-by shooters are apprehended.

The closure of the Hebron area, which affects some 700,000 Palestinians, is the harshest measure since the current violence began after the kidnap-murder of three teenage boys in June 2014.

But for the first time, a major gap can be seen between the positions of the army and the government. For eight months, then-Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot jointly thwarted attempts by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and some of his ministers to take more extreme steps, some that constituted collective punishment.

Until the attack at the Sarona shopping complex in Tel Aviv in early June, terror had been subsiding for a few months. The IDF ascribed the decline to a series of actions – increased troop deployment, a major arrest sweep, improved monitoring of social media, close cooperation with the Palestinian Authority security forces, and distinguishing between terrorists and the majority of people in the West Bank. Most people there have been little affected by the army’s operations and continue to rely on the nearly 150,000 Palestinians working in Israel and the settlements.

This brought results, until the new outbreak of terror. The current operation is a gamble because of the greater impact on the population. Will it be a deterrent or will it push others into terrorism, as the army has warned over the past few months?

And with Avigdor Lieberman now defense minister instead of Ya’alon came new punishments: a freeze (for now minor) on the transfer of PA tax money, a directive not to return the bodies of terrorists, and a renewed discussion on the deportation of their families. The IDF and Shin Bet security service say the first measure impairs security coordination with the Palestinians and the second doesn’t deter terrorism.

The third option, deporting family members, could be legally difficult and draw criticism from abroad, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it won’t be used under pressure.

This is all happening as the PA weakens and the struggle for succession to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas comes out in the open. Meanwhile, nighttime rocket fire from Gaza has struck an empty kindergarten in Sderot. A Salafi organization, not Hamas, was responsible (and Israel as usual sufficed with firing on empty Hamas buildings), but a renewed escalation in the West Bank could have an effect in Gaza.

During Netanyahu’s visit to the Ariel home Friday, Hallel’s parents demanded that Netanyahu take concrete steps – fighting terror and construction in the settlements. Their demands contained an echo of the 2001 visit by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to the family of Gilad Zar during the second intifada, shortly after Sharon won an election.

Sharon came out of that and similar encounters determined to respond more harshly to Hamas terror networks and Fatah’s military wing. Netanyahu has to deal with squads using improvised weapons, teens taking knives from their parents’ kitchens, and Facebook.

His ministers have vied with one another on social media. Gilad Erdan said Facebook had blood on its hands, and Naftali Bennett posted a plan on Facebook and Twitter to limit Palestinian access to the internet in the Hebron area. Miri Regev called on Lieberman to “destroy the house of the family of that devil,” referring to the killer of Hallel Ariel.

Such responses might show that staying off the web might be a good idea to calm the Israeli side down as well. Maybe ministers and Knesset members should stay off the web for two days after every attack. This might be just as effective as the strange demand to start stockpiling terrorists’ bodies again.