Analysis

As Attacks Rise, Abbas' Weakness and Israeli Elections Talk May Hurt War on Terror

Israel's right-wing claims only a mixture of deterrence and retribution can restore security, but most security officials have long opposed such steps

Hamas member in Nablus over the weekend
ABED OMAR QUSINI/Reuters

After two grave terror attacks near Ramallah over the past week, Israeli radio and television stations broadcast a series of interviews with Knesset members, right-wing activists and settlement chiefs. Immediately after expressing sorrow and grief over those killed, the numerous interviewees voiced a uniform message: The Israel Defense Forces’ deterrence has been lost, along with the sense of security of West Bank settlers.

The list of demands they presented was almost identical: limit Palestinians’ movement, demolish terrorists’ homes, impose sanctions on the Palestinian Authority and, of course, issue the appropriate Zionist response in the form of unfreezing settlement expansion and giving retroactive legal authorization for homes in Jewish settlements and outposts.

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Only a combination of deterrence and punishment, so they claimed, would bring back a sense of security to those traveling on West Bank roads.

This list of demands, and the latter one in particular, is as old as the settlement enterprise itself. The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is aware of the pressure exerted by settlers. Indeed, several of his latest statements – which may or may not be acted upon – coincide with a large part of their demands.

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Israeli soldiers walk away after they demolished Abu Hmaid's family home in al-Amari refugee camp near Ramallah, West Bank, December 15, 2018.
Majdi Mohammed,AP

In reality, however, it’s difficult to identify any link between speeding up construction in the settlements and bolstering deterrence or sense of security. The anger over the recent deaths is being channeled into a demand to hurt Palestinians by means of more houses in the settlements, but it has never been proven that settlement expansion has worn down the willingness of Palestinians residents of the West Bank to fight Israel; just the opposite may be true.

Furthermore, demands for collective punishment aren’t supported by senior security officials. In the fall of 2015, as a wave of stabbing and car-ramming attacks led to the death of dozens of Israelis in the West Bank and Jerusalem, the IDF and Shin Bet presented a united stance, the opposite of the one promoted by settlement leaders.

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, followed by Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman, who assumed his position in May 2016, both recommended concentrating on foiling the efforts of potential terrorists, continuing to distinguish between terror and the general population and avoiding collective punishment as much as possible. The occurrence of lone-wolf attacks eventually dwindled and Israel wasn’t required to use the same aggressive means it has used in the past to suppress the second intifada in the first half of the previous decade.

Heads of security agencies are also opposed to freezing security coordination with the PA. On the contrary, they still view it as an asset that strengthens the latter’s stability but also helps Israel in its fight against terrorism. Maj. Gen. Tamir Heyman, director of Military Intelligence, reiterated this stance during a Knesset discussion last week, amid the recent escalation.

A Palestinian man wrapped in a Hamas flag rides a bike during clashes with Israeli troops at the Hawara checkpoint, south of Nablus, West Bank, December 14, 2018.
Majdi Mohammed,AP

The IDF, undoubtedly egged on by higher-ups, demolished the family home of Islam Abu Humaid, who is charged with killing Israeli special forces sergeant Ronen Lubarsky after throwing a marble slab from a rooftop during a raid in El Amari refugee camp in Ramallah in May. Two of Abu Humaid’s older brothers have been involved in deadly attacks and the house was demolished once by Israel in the 1990s. In his case, it seems like deterrence didn’t work.

Additionally, a committee appointed by then- Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon in 2005 concluded that no proof exists of a link between house demolition and deterrence.

Nevertheless, this policy was revived four years ago due to political pressure. Right-wing speakers, who now demand to expand and accelerate house demolitions, present its benefits as clear, but don’t rely on any actual proof. It seems the main goal of these demolitions is satisfying the Israeli public’s desire for revenge.

Circumstances have changed since the 2015 wave of terrorism, and not for the better. The political system is already in a pre-election atmosphere and for the first time, Netanyahu has no defense minister on which he can deflect some of the charges about deteriorating security. Hamas, apparently still hoping to achieve a long-term cease-fire with Israel in the Gaza Strip, on its own terms, keeps on trying to set the West Bank on fire.

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The most important part of the equation, perhaps, is the PA’s relative weakness. The Trump administration’s clear backing of Netanyahu, with nothing remaining of the U.S. president’s pretense to serve as a fair mediator in the political process, destabilizes Palestinian President Mahmnoud Abbas’ standing in the West Bank. Abbas has long lost trust in the prospect of peace with Israel during his rule.

More attacks, followed by harsher reactions from Israel, might also erode security coordination between Israel and the PA.

All these recent developments, however, don’t mature into a new intifada. It’s clear that individual terror attacks that succeed, along with the momentary glorification of so-called shahids, bring in their wake attempts to emulate such attacks. But most of the recent incidents, which occurred in Ramallah, are linked to one or two Hamas cells.

Neither Fatah nor other PA security bodies are currently involved in the attacks. This is not a broad popular phenomenon. Stone-throwing along West Bank roads is on the rise, but incidents are not as violent or widespread as they were in turbulent times in the past, and no massive demonstrations are in sight.

Even the PA itself understands the risk posed to its stability by Hamas’ strengthening, as was made clear in the violent suppression of demonstrations held on Thursday in the West Bank to mark the anniversary of the establishment of Hamas. It seems, in fact, that a potential government decision to pursue collective punishment, as right-wing politicians demand, would exacerbate the situation and push more Palestinians to violent confrontation with Israel.

Twice in four days, deadly shootings on roads near Ramallah showed that the soldiers’ response was insufficient. This may indicate an intelligence gap, since at least some of the shooters were supposed to be known to security agencies. But it may also point to the level of the forces’ preparedness. The Nahal Haredi soldiers who were shot at weren’t waiting to hitch a ride home, but were on duty. And still, a lone Palestinian gunman managed to fire at them and flee with impunity, taking one of the soldiers’ guns.

These recent incidents exposed gaps in operational discipline, not for the first time of late, and demand a thorough self-examination by the IDF and Shin Bet.