On Friday afternoon a member of the inner cabinet, Yisrael Katz (Likud) was interviewed by a local news site. In light of the ongoing terror assaults – that day alone there had been two car-ramming attacks in the West Bank and later that evening, a stabbing in Nahariya – Katz demanded the immediate closure of any Palestinian village from which a terrorist emerges. The prime minister’s bureau didn’t miss a beat. An unnamed government official told journalists that a total closure had been imposed on Beit Ummar north of Hebron after a terrorist from that village rammed into and injured five soldiers and officers. The action, the official explained, came following a cabinet decision the previous evening.
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The prime minister’s bureau quickly reaped the rewards of its action. In the Internet age, the battle for image takes place hour by hour. The headlines in all the main news sites changed to reflect the bureau’s statement. The Israel Defense Forces, the media reported, was implementing the cabinet’s decision and imposing a closure on Beit Ummar. But according to a report by Gili Cohen that was posted on Haaretz’s website on Friday, things happened a little differently. First of all, the army has been imposing closures on villages from which terrorists emerge for a few weeks now. Second, the IDF was not aware of any new directive from the night before. Third, in the case of Beit Ummar, there was no full closure. The main exit from the village to the east, to road 60, the Hebron-Jerusalem road, had indeed been closed, but passage westward to the village of Zurif was open.
Anyone rummaging through newspaper archives at headlines at the start of the previous two intifadas will find nothing new in this story. From the moment an uprising erupts the government, except for the defense minister and perhaps the prime minister, has trouble following every move the IDF commanders make. Nevertheless, the government (in 1987 it was a right-wing government, in 2000 a left-wing government) tries to convey to citizens that it remains in full control.
Most of the steps presented as a wonder drug to stop terror, including house demolitions, closures and deporting families of terrorists, were raised in the previous two intifadas. In contrast to the steps touted by various ministers, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot say that what the army is now doing — beefing up forces in the territories by some 40 percent, massive arrests every night, refraining when possible from collective punishment — are the right responses to the violence, which so far has killed 23 Israelis and more than 100 Palestinians.
The gaps between the positions of some ministers and that of the IDF were also illustrated in the briefing given by the chief of command, Maj. Gen. Roni Numa. The latter presented a number of possible measures to ease the situation for the Palestinians in the West Bank. He mentioned economic gestures, limited prisoner releases and even providing bullet-proof vehicles and light arms to the Palestinian security agencies. But it seemed that what was not made completely clear to the military journalists is that these steps had been discussed but not implemented in June, before the current violence broke out and that Numa supported implementing them partially only after the terror stopped.
Media reports of the recommendations reached the cabinet ministers, who met that same night. Ya’alon and Eizenkot explained to those who asked that the general’s comments were taken out of context by the media. The next day, Numa distanced himself from the recommendations in conversation with the heads of the Yesha Council of settlements.
Although in recent weeks there have been more shooting attacks and hence a greater number of Israelis killed, most of the incidents are still knifings and car-rammings. It is relatively difficult to provide defense against a terrorist who pulls a knife at point-blank range. Reducing such attacks depends mainly on the quick response of security forces to neutralize the attacker.
But when it comes to car-rammings, although the perpetrators also appear suddenly, the picture is more complicated. In most cases the victims are soldiers. The IDF General Staff believes that the risk of harm can be reduced if soldiers follows orders to stay behind concrete barriers at hitchhiking stations. And when the attacks occur in the open, the number of injured depends on how close together the soldiers are standing and how well protected they are. In the attack at Beit Ummar, the injured were officers who had been touring the sector or holding a meeting.
This is a well-known problem in regular combat as well. It is hard to think of an exercise of any size in the IDF where commanders do not reprimand soldiers for staying too close together. And this was particularly prominent in a number of incidents in Operation Cast Lead in 2009 and Defensive Edge last year. A meeting of officers at the Central Command last week also reiterated the need for soldiers to follow orders in this situation.