The fatal accident on Route 1 naturally preoccupied the media on Sunday; by comparison, the daily string of Palestinian terror attacks already seems almost normal. Only a particularly serious attack still merits live television broadcasts or front-page newspaper headlines.
Nevertheless, Sunday was a fairly unusual day, with eight attacks in East Jerusalem and the West Bank over the space of 12 hours – three attempted stabbings, three shootings and two bombings, though none caused Israeli casualties. Soldiers and policemen killed five of the Palestinian perpetrators and critically wounded one. This is an intifada in every respect, even if the authorities still refuse to admit it.
Most of these attacks aren’t organized by known terrorist organizations, though some have been perpetrated by a few people working together rather than a lone individual. The shooting attack that killed policewoman Hadar Cohen in Jerusalem’s Old City two weeks ago, for instance, was perpetrated by three residents of Qabatiyah armed with submachine guns and knives. On Sunday, two terrorists opened fire at the same spot – Damascus Gate – with improvised weapons.
The use of bombs is also relatively new for this round of violence. Experience teaches that bombings are almost always the work of a group.
The Israel Defense Forces dates the start of the current violence from the murder of Eitam and Naama Henkin on October 1. Since then, four and a half months have passed, virtually identical to the initial phase of the second intifada, from late September 2000 to Ariel Sharon’s victory over Ehud Barak in the prime ministerial election of February 2001. In the current round, 31 Israelis and 174 Palestinians (about two-thirds of them assailants killed in mid-attack) have died. In the comparable period of the second intifada, fatalities were almost double on both sides – 58 Israelis and about 320 Palestinians.
There are other differences, too. This time, there are no mass demonstrations in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip is relatively quiet, and the Palestinian Authority (despite four security personnel who perpetrated attacks) is staying out of the violence.
Nevertheless, the intensity and impact of the current attacks shouldn’t be underestimated. It has undermined Israelis’ sense of personal security, damaged Jewish-Arab relations within Israel and strengthened both the Israeli right’s McCarthyite tendencies and the left’s confusion.
Still groping for a solution
In 2003, when Israel had already begun formulating a solution to Palestinian suicide bombings (though only after hundreds of Israelis had been killed), then-Shin Bet security service head Avi Dichter acknowledged that the security forces hadn’t given the nation “the protective suit it deserved.” Today, confronting a much smaller threat, the security forces are still groping for a solution. IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot admitted last month that the army hadn’t received intelligence warnings about a single one of the 101 attacks to date. Since then, there have been dozens of additional attacks, but still no intelligence warnings.
Admissions of shortcomings, however, have been left to the professionals. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hasn’t said a word, other than to boast of Israel’s stamina and accuse the PA of incitement. Last week he promised to continue surrounding Israel with fences to stop “predatory beasts” coming from outside. But he has offered no solution to the stabbing attacks from inside those fences.
The army, in sharp contrast to the start of the second intifada, has been relatively restrained this time. It has used much less live fire in the West Bank, and the number of Palestinians killed during violent demonstrations has been fairly small. Stringent rules of engagement remain in place, even though several ministers and MKs have urged security personnel to shoot first and ask questions later. Some soldiers and policemen have overreacted to attacks, but not on orders from above. And this relative restraint seems to have kept the West Bank’s atmosphere from deteriorating further.
Had the army killed more Palestinians or reduced the number of Palestinians allowed to work in Israel, far more Palestinians would likely be participating in violent clashes. The IDF and Shin Bet both believe such steps could push the PA security services and the Fatah party’s armed wing into the fray, creating a second-intifada-style bloodbath.
The continued quiet in Gaza also isn’t guaranteed, given the progress of Hamas’ tunnel building. And as the battle to succeed PA President Mahmoud Abbas heats up, potential candidates will have increasing trouble in publicly supporting the continuance of security cooperation with Israel.
Given the level of terror, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and the heads of the security services took a bold step by deciding to let another 30,000 Palestinians work in Israel, and refusing to impose collective punishment on the West Bank. But with no diplomatic process and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of young Palestinians willing to risk death to kill Israelis, such steps seem like little more than Band-Aids.
If the attacks continue – and currently, nothing seems likely to stop them – public pressure on the government to take harsher steps against terror will grow. If so, a prolonged and increasingly bloody conflict isn’t an far-fetched prediction.
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