New Terror Wave Begins, With Relatively High Casualty Rate

Responding faster than before, Israeli army is bolstering forces in the West Bank. But even this won't be enough to stop new wave of lone-wolf terror attacks.

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Border policemen perform a body search on a Palestinian youth following a stabbing attack on near Jerusalem's Old City.
Border policemen perform a body search on a Palestinian youth following a stabbing attack on near Jerusalem's Old City.
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Israel and the Palestinians have embarked on a new round of violence after a three-month lull, with characteristics similar to those of the last round, which began a year ago. Since Friday morning, there have been nine Palestinian attacks: two stabbings in East Jerusalem, one in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc, and five stabbings and an attempted car-ramming in Hebron and the area.

Moreover, the casualty rate is relatively high. Five Israeli security personnel were wounded, one seriously. Six Palestinians were killed and three seriously wounded, all of them assailants.

The escalation is no surprise. Intelligence agencies predicted that attacks might resume between the Muslim holiday of Id al-Adha and the Jewish holidays in October. But now, the main factor is copycatting. Each slain attacker prompts a new attack, usually from relatives, friends or neighbors.

For now, these attacks can’t be stopped with the same methods that calmed the last round – improved security coordination with the Palestinian Authority and better Israeli monitoring of social media, which resulted in many suspects being arrested before they could commit planned attacks. But the army is responding faster than it did last year; it has already begun bolstering its forces in the West Bank, and police are expected to follow suit in Jerusalem.

Individual soldiers and policemen are also responding more effectively and ending the attacks rapidly, thanks to improved training by both the army and police following last year’s attacks. And Israeli civilians are better protected, thanks to the installation of cameras almost everywhere and of concrete barriers at West Bank hitchhiking posts. All this won’t stop the wave of lone-wolf terror attacks, but it should reduce Israeli casualties.

As usual, right-wing activists and Knesset members are pouring fuel on the fire. The former held a provocative demonstration on Monday near the Wadi Ara home of terrorist Nashat Melhem, while the latter visited the Palestinian village of Sussia, near Hebron.

Border Police officers patroling a street following a Palestinian stabbing attack near the Herod's Gate entrance to the Old City of Jerusalem, September 19, 2016.Credit: Menahem Kahana/AFP

But at least Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu understands the risks of reigniting tensions on the Temple Mount. His restrictions on politicians ascending the mount remain in place.

Meanwhile, the Azaria trial continues

For the Israel Defense Forces, the fact that this escalation has coincided with the climax of the defense testimony in the case of Elor Azaria is no cause for joy. Azaria is on trial for shooting a wounded Palestinian assailant in Hebron in March, and Monday two of the most high-ranking defense witnesses gave their testimony: Uzi Dayan and Danny Biton, both major generals in the reserves.

Dayan told the court that “terrorists should die” and said the Military Police lacked the tools to investigate army activity. Biton said Azaria’s decision to shoot the terrorist was reasonable under the circumstances and that he should never have been indicted, because questions about a soldier’s judgment in responding to an attack should be dealt with by command inquiries, not criminal investigations.

Dayan has undergone an ideological U-turn in recent years, from diplomatic moderation to the hawkish wing of the ruling Lkud party. This political conversion seems to have caused some memory loss. As the prosecutor reminded him, when Dayan headed the IDF’s Central Command in 1998, it took him all of 70 minutes to order a Military Police investigation of an incident in which paratroopers accidentally killed three Palestinian laborers whose van had approached the Tarqumiya checkpoint. When the paratroopers’ battalion commander protested this decision, Dayan was furious, and explained at length to the press why such an investigation was essential.

Biton assailed the prosecutor (“You’re castrating the army”), the chain of command that handled the incident (“There’s not one person in this trial who isn’t lying, and that’s what’s sad”), and even the former commander of the Binyamin Brigade, Col. Yisrael Shomer, whom he accused of killing a Palestinian who threw rocks at his jeep “out of vengeance” (the military advocate general deemed the shooting justified). And all this was mild compared to what he has written on Facebook.

Reserve officers said the Azaria trial reminded them of the case of Lieutenant D., a tank commander whose crew accidentally killed a Palestinian teen in Gaza 13 years ago while firing a warning shot at suspicious figures approaching their outpost late at night. He was convicted of negligent homicide and given a suspended sentence.

But the incident wasn’t filmed, and the trial attracted little public attention. Reserve officers who tried to persuade serving tank officers – including Biton – to get involved in the trial were ignored. This time, a long list of officers has volunteered to defend Azaria.

One question mark hovering over the trial is how Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman will respond. Speaking at Ariel University last week, he said, “We’ll stand behind the soldier even if he erred.” That’s the opposite of the approach taken by the military establishment headed by Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot.

These days, Eisenkot’s nightmare scenarios probably include the following: a filmed attack in which a terrorist kills a soldier as he and his comrades hesitate to shoot. So far, it hasn’t happened. But if it did, it would link the Azaria trial to events in the field and reopen the debate over the army’s rules of engagement.

The army brass doesn’t share Dayan’s view that “terrorists should die”; it wants soldiers to weigh the risks, exercise judgment and take care not to killing uninvolved civilians. Yet this stance becomes harder and harder to explain to the public when stabbing attacks are once again rampant.

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