Hebron has become the focus of the terror attacks in the past two weeks. Israel Defense Forces soldiers in the West Bank city don’t know when the next attack will happen, but they know it will – and that it will most likely be directed at them or Border Police officers deployed in and around the segregated city.
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The attacks come one after another, in the same places, at the same time, and the perpetrators have a similar profile – a man or woman in their late teens or early 20s, without prior involvement in terror activity. On more than one occasion, the parents hear of their children’s involvement only after the act while they are being questioned by Israeli security officials.
Sometimes, before leaving home to attempt a stabbing attack, the youngsters post a Facebook update of their intention to become shahids (martyrs).
Last week, two young Palestinian women came to Hebron from Abu Dis to carry out an attack. After being caught with knives, they told the security officers they had come “to kill soldiers and die,” but ultimately got cold feet and didn’t go through with their plan.
The IDF has arrested some 200 Palestinians in the Hebron area over the past month – that’s more than after the kidnapping of three Jewish teens in the West Bank in June 2014. Six brigades are deployed in the city – the largest in the West Bank – and the hilly slopes nearby. And soldiers at checkpoints have been given electromagnetic inspection devices to help spot potential attackers.
“We understand there’s something different here, something complex that is happening to Israel and that must be dealt with,” an officer serving in the Hebron area tells Haaretz.
“We’re doing everything to keep the Tomb of the Patriarchs out of the game,” he adds, referring to the city’s holy site that is held sacred by both Jews and Muslims. “There’s no shortage of weapons, know-how and potential for suicide attacks [in the West Bank]. Still, the Palestinians understand that they must not have another intifada. This strategic understanding is strengthened by their memories of Defensive Shield, Brother’s Keeper and Protective Edge [Israeli military operations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip dating from 2002 and last year].”
A few minutes after his comments, the officer is notified of another attack in the city. A Palestinian youngster has drawn a knife from his coat and approached a military guard post. The soldiers then shoot and kill him. “Routine,” mutters the officer.
Fourteen Palestinian perpetrators have been killed by IDF soldiers in and around Hebron since the terror wave began about a month ago. Some of the city’s residents were also involved in attacks outside it – in Kiryat Gat, Beit Shemesh, Petah Tikva and at the Gush Etzion junction.
Some of the soldiers say there’s no knowing when the next perpetrator will arrive, just that they know he or she will. A hiatus of several hours between attacks raises no hopes of a day passing without an attempted stabbing. To deal with the situation, some turn to black humor. Others keep a close watch on the clock, assuming that the attacks recur at similar times.
“I told you,” a soldier says, after receiving a report of another stabbing in the area. The commanders have started bringing mental health officers to give daily talks to the soldiers, and to encourage them to talk about their experiences.
“If I think that nothing’s happening with the soldiers, then I’m mistaken. This has been going on for a month, it’s not a quick-fix solution,” the officer says. “Some soldiers are used to seeing bodies every day, and that’s not easy.”
Next Saturday, for Parashat Hayei Sarah, the Tomb of the Patriarchs will open for Jews only, as part of a long-standing arrangement. The IDF is preparing to beef up forces in anticipation of hundreds of Jewish worshippers visiting.
On the Islamic New Year’s Eve, some two weeks ago, the tomb was closed to visitors and only approved Muslim worshippers were allowed to enter.
Officers say they are strictly guarding the status quo at the tomb compound, for fear that any disruption could agitate the region. Col. Yariv Ben Ezra, the army commander in Hebron, calls the tomb “mini Al-Aqsa” for good reason.