Analysis

Jerusalem Terror Attack Stands Out From the Others

The attack on Border Police officers in the capital's Old City is the act of a daring, methodical local terror cell, even if it is not part of a known organization.

Border Police officers patrol a street in Jerusalem following an earlier terror attack at the Old City's Damascus Gate on February 4, 2016.
AFP

Wednesday’s fatal shooting of a border policewoman in Jerusalem was one of the first attempts by Palestinian terrorists in the current confrontation to carry out a complex, sophisticated attack.

Instead of targeting the nearby Jalameh checkpoint on the Green Line, the three youngsters from the West Bank township of Qabatiya chose a target in the capital’s Old City, probably assuming it would resonate more strongly. They were armed with submachine guns and improvised explosives, in addition to knives.

Only the swift response by a Border Police detail, which thought the three looked suspicious, prevented more casualties at Damascus Gate, as the incident ended with the death of Hadar Cohen and moderate injuries to her colleague.

Like most terrorists in the past four months, these three apparently didn’t belong to any organization. But in their case it was no longer a “lone wolf” attack – not only because it involved three men but because of the planning required. They acquired weapons, drove all the way from the north of the West Bank to Jerusalem and succeeded somehow to cross the separation fence without being detected.

This is the act of a local terror cell, even if it is not part of a known organization. It attests to a certain degree of daring and of learning from previous attacks. Setting out as a group and carrying firearms indicate that the assailants meant to attack more people, unlike in the recent stabling attacks. Apparently the explosives were also meant for this purpose, but the trio didn’t get a chance to use them.

The Shin Bet security service must now work to reenact the cell’s route and find out how they entered Jerusalem. If they came in armed, they must have used a breach in the security system around the separation fence. If they received the weapons in Jerusalem, their allies must be located. In any case, at this stage it’s hard to rule out the possibility that they received assistance.

The Shin Bet will also have to determine if the assailants’ preparations should have set off an early alarm among the Israeli intelligence branches. Israel has been trying for months to work out a system to intercept a lone terrorist, the kind who leaves at most a vague message on his Facebook page and sets out with a kitchen knife in his hand. But this time the attack appears to have been carried out by a somewhat more organized cell, which may have left signs signaling its intentions.

More than four youngsters from Qabatiya have been killed in recent months while carrying out stabbing attacks at the Jalameh checkpoint. The defense establishment has found in the past that militants from Qabatiya came from the same social circle, and that their chief motives were apparently to imitate their predecessors and avenge their deaths.

These same motivations may well have been behind Wednesday’s attack. Similar ties were found among five terrorists from the same clan in Sair village north of Hebron, and who were killed one after another while carrying out attacks in the region. It was also discovered that one of these assailants had left Sair for an attack after being a pallbearer at the funeral of his friend, who had been killed a day earlier.

Qabatiya has a long history in the Palestinian struggle. In 1988, not long after the start of the first intifada, the townspeople lynched a resident who had collaborated with Israel. This was followed by the murder of hundreds of West Bank Palestinians suspected of collaborating with Israel. The IDF blockaded the township for weeks.

In the second intifada dozens of Qabatiya residents, mainly Fatah and Islamic Jihad activists, took part in attacks against Israel.

Wednesday's terror returned to Jerusalem after a few relatively quiet weeks. This will require police to continue beefing up their forces in the capital and along the separation barrier. The current, massive police presence has proved itself in the rapid response to attacks, like the one that took place on Wednesday.

However, despite the swift response, it was of questionable judgment to dispatch two new Border Police recruits to the Damascus Gate patrol, which runs near the sites of some 10 terror attacks of recent months. The two policewomen joined the army only about two months ago and hadn’t completed their combat training.

The IDF generally avoids posting novices in the territories at such an early stage of their training. Now it appears the police and Border Police will have to reexamine their policy in this matter.