Thwarted Hamas Terror Plot a Throwback to the Second Intifada

The suicide attacks planned by 25 Hamas operatives captured near Jerusalem would have pushed Israel into a large-scale operation.

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The scene of the stabbing at Jerusalem's Jaffa Gate, December 23, 2015.
The scene of the stabbing at Jerusalem's Jaffa Gate, December 23, 2015. Credit: AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Despite the perceptible decline in terror attacks in recent weeks, the violence on the Palestinian front is far from over.

The number of attempted attacks, as well as the number of Israeli fatalities, showed a downward trend over the past month. But the attacks continue. Attempted stabbings or car rammings occur every two days or so in the West Bank and every week within the Green Line.

Wednesday's stabbing at Jaffa Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem, in which two Israelis were killed and one seriously wounded, was preceded by a stabbing in Ra’anana on Saturday night and a car-ramming attack at the entrance to Jerusalem last week, in which 14 people were hurt. 

The bulk of these attacks remains the work of people acting on their own and on their own initiative. Even when the perpetrator is a known figure belonging to a terror group, it usually turns out he made the decision alone without following a directive from above. 

But on Wednesday, shortly before the attack, a new development occurred that could point to a future direction. The Shin Bet announced that it had uncovered a large Hamas grouping in the West Bank and Gaza. The 25 members of the group who were arrested are suspected of planning suicide attacks, preparing explosive devices and suicide belts and recruiting suicide bombers.

Suicide attacks against Israelis peaked in the first half of the 1990s, but the trend disappeared almost entirely in the last 10 years. The main reason for that is probably tactical. The Shin Bet and Israel Defense Forces have thwarted cells deployed by the Hamas’ military wing in the West Bank, while the Palestinian security forces have arrested Hamas activists amid fears of a coup against the PA in the West Bank.

But there are those who attribute strategic reasong to Hamas as well: The realization that suicide missions, especially against civilians in Israel proper, undermine sympathy for the Palestinian cause abroad and provoke a stronger military response from Israel.

The rift the second intifada caused among West Bank Palestinians was mainly a consequence of the suicide attacks. From the moment Israel began using virtually all available means to counter suicide attackers, the campaign moved to the cities and Palestinian refugee camps. The terrorism ultimately abated, but the West Bank Palestinians were subjected to huge military pressure whike it was going on.

Now the Shin Bet says it has uncovered the first significant attempt by Hamas to organize along the lines of the second intifada. Until now, Hamas has played only a modest role in the violence. Hamas in Gaza has preached intifada in the West Bank, under  Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and in East Jerusalem under Israeli rule, but it has usually kept things quiet in the Strip.

Even the solidarity marches toward the Gaza fence, which Hamas allowed last October and which sometimes ended in the deaths by IDF fire of youngsters trying to cross the fence, have ebbed in recent weeks. 

When small jihadi groups fired the odd rocket into the Negev, Hamas reacted aggressively, sometimes arresting the perpetrators. So far, only one terror attack in the West Bank has been attributed to  Hamas – the murder of the Henkin family near Nablus on October 1, the event the IDF considers the start of the current wave of violence.

Paradoxically, it’s easier for the Shin Bet and IDF to cope with organized networks making explosives and planning suicide bombings than with isolated individuals planning stabbing attacks. The reason is simple: Even if a terror network’s members are compartmentalized and careful, the cell leaves a trace that the Israeli security forces are trained to identify.

When a network is remotely operated from Gaza and apparently includes an Israeli (a Negev Bedouin,) the traces proliferate. That ability, which was proven this time as well, is apparently what led to the speedy discovery of the new group, before it had a chance to carry out its first planned attack. 

Security sources told Haaretz on Wednesday that the members of the group were “stopped at the last moment.” The decision to use suicide bombers had already been made and was close to being carried out, they said. The network was run by Hamas operatives based in Gaza, though the identity of the senior figure who gave the order to resume suicide attacks from the West Bank is not yet known. Nor is it known if the decision has the approval (for reason of efficacy, not morality) from the number one person in the organization, political bureau head Haled Meshal.

The security services are also concerned by the connection between Hamas and Israeli Arabs, among them Negev Bedouin, who are undergoing an accelerated process of religious radicalization and are inspired by the deadly activities of the Islamic State in the Middle East. 

It is the second instance in which a Negev Bedouin is suspected of being involved in an attack during the current wave of violence. In November, an IDF soldier was killed (and a civilian from Eritrea was fatally shot) during a shooting at the Be’er Sheva bus station carried out by a Bedouin. 

From the perspective of Hamas, there is great operational potential in using Israeli citizens, who can move freely around the country, virtually without arousing suspicion. Contrary to the situation during the second intifiada, there is an ostensible willingness on the part of the Israeli Arab to carry out suicide attacks himself and not act as simply a driver or assistant for terror gangs from the territories.

According to the Shin Bet, workers at the explosives lab uncovered on Wednesday in Abu Dis, within the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem, had already prepared materials to make a “significant quantity” of bombs, and volunteers had been recruited and information collected ahead of suicide attacks.

Obviously, if such attacks had succeeded, they would have sparked new levels of violence and propelled Israel closer to a broader military campaign in the West Bank. That’s something Israel’s political and military leaders would prefer to avoid. 

Clarification: This article was amended on December 27 to correct the cause of death of Eritrean asylum seeker Haftom Zarhum. According to the results of an autopsy, Zarhum died from gunshot wounds and not as a result of the mob beating that followed.

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