Monday’s car-ramming attack in Jerusalem returned Palestinian terror to the headlines.
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The near-daily stabbing or car-ramming attempts – sometimes two or three in one day after a few days’ lull – had lately begun to receive no more than terse, factual news coverage, reminiscent of the daily reports on other types of crime, or even road accidents. By now, an incident that ends with a wounded Israeli and a dead Palestinian terrorist, especially if it happens in the West Bank, is viewed as almost routine. But Monday’s attack, with 14 people wounded, including a seriously wounded baby, just a few minutes’ drive from the capital’s television studios, received very different coverage.
Yet even if the media’s response is different, all these attacks resemble each other. It’s been two and a half months since the attack that the army defines as the start of the current violence, the murder of Eitam and Naama Henkin near Nablus, but the security services still haven’t figured out how to cope with a lone Palestinian terrorist.
Even more systematic monitoring of posts on social media networks has produced at most a few warnings about the possibility of attacks. When the interval between a decision to attack and its implementation is sometimes a mere half hour, according to the testimony of several assailants who were arrested, it’s very hard to provide hermetic protection.
The beefed-up army and police deployment in the West Bank, in Jerusalem and along the border between the West Bank and Israel has turned armed security personnel into the defensive shield against which most of these attempted attacks shatter. That’s the main reason for the relatively low number of Israeli casualties and the rapidity with which the terrorists are taken down.
Monday’s terrorist deliberately targeted a crowded bus stop and thereby succeeded in wounding more people than usual. Nevertheless, swift action by security personnel prevented him from using the ax in his car, which was apparently intended to be stage two of the attacks.
What all the terrorists so far have had in common – aside from the Henkins’ killers, who were part of an organized Hamas cell – is the complete absence of any organizational infrastructure behind them. Last week, an Israeli security agency collated statistics on more than 120 terrorists who have perpetrated or tried to perpetrate attacks in the last two and a half months. Even though more than 10 of them belonged to known terrorist organizations (Hamas, Islamic Jihad and, in one case, Hizb al-Tahrir), none of them acted under orders received from higher up in the organization.
This doesn’t mean the organizations have renounced the violence – on the contrary. Aside from the Fatah-affiliated Tanzim organization, which is currently signaling its desire to avoid clashes with Israel, the main Palestinian groups – especially Hamas and Islamic Jihad commanders in the Gaza Strip – are actively encouraging residents of the West Bank and East Jerusalem to commit attacks.
The defense establishment is on the lookout for any signs of a shift to organized cells carrying out shooting and bombing attacks on orders from above. There have recently been some signs in this direction, but so far, the shift hasn’t materialized.
The ongoing violence in the West Bank, which also includes numerous daily incidents of stone-throwing at Israeli cars driving on the roads, is also testing the relationship between the Israel Defense Forces and the settlers. In Hebron, especially, right-wing extremists have increasingly accused the IDF of excessive restraint. The arrest of several right-wing extremists on suspicion of involvement in last summer’s deadly arson attack on the Dawabsheh family in Duma has also contributed to the tension.
In Gaza, meanwhile, aggressive rhetoric by Hamas’ leadership has been combined with a policy of complete restraint when it comes to firing rockets at Israel. After a radical Salafi group fired a rocket at the Negev on Sunday, Hamas security forces quickly took steps to calm the situation.
The big question, from Israel’s standpoint, is where Hamas’ military wing stands. The concern is that a growing rift between hawks and super-hawks within Hamas might result in the military wing deciding to resume rocket attacks on Israel without even consulting the political leadership, or in open defiance of its authority.