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Sanctions on Ramallah, Deal With Hamas: Israel's Risky Message to Palestinians

Why does the Israeli army go to lengths to stress the significance of assassinating an Islamic Jihad operative? ■ Suicide bombing down in 2019, but 2020 could see a spike

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The cabinet devoted two meetings this week to the Palestinian arena, focusing on progress in the efforts to arrive at some sort of arrangement in the Gaza Strip, and the possible implications of the opening of an investigation against Israel at the International Court of Justice in the Hague.

The decisions have not been made public but the direction regarding the Gaza Strip remains clear – just as it was indicated by Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi in his speech at the memorial assembly for the late former IDF chief Amnon Lipkin-Shahak: Israel is aiming for a long-term truce with Hamas, even if someone decides that the public will view the term “quiet” as sounding less defeatist.

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The easements for Gaza regarding traffic and the economy will be carried out slowly, step by step, and with the lowest possible media profile because of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s fears of political damage. 

With that same consideration in mind, Defense Minister Naftali Bennett has hastened this week to link the discussion in the cabinet to the announcement of the implementation of another measure against the Palestinian Authority – a cut of about 150 million shekels ($43 million) from the tax revenues Israel transfers to it, as a sanction against its continued support for Palestinian prisoners in Israel. Apparently the PA will survive this move, too, which will be in force for all of this coming year. 

In the long term, however, Israel is perpetuating a problem here. Not only is it signaling to the Palestinians that the path taken by Hamas, which has insisted on fighting Israel militarily, pays off better, but also that Israel is continuing to flagellate the PA, which officially at least is still declaring its support for achieving an agreement by peaceful means. 

The way the Israeli side’s narrative has been positioned is planned and far from incidental. Possibly this is also the background to the conscious decision, both by the Israel Defense Forces and the elected officials, to glorify the role and importance of Baha Abu al-Ata, a top man in Islamic Jihad whom Israel assassinated in the last round of fighting in Gaza in November. At the end of that round, the IDF began applying pressure to the government to move ahead towards an arrangement, on the grounds that the death of the Jihad man removed the main obstacle in that path. 

In fact, a number of obstacles remain, beginning with the Israeli fear of commitment, to the avoidance by Hamas of strict enforcement of the cease-fire, to the firing of more rockets by the Jihad side. Why, then, did Israeli officials take such great care to depict Abu al-Ata as a local mash-up of Che Guevara and Ho Chi Min? This too is a matter of image. If we emphasize the military achievement in hitting the terrorist, it is easier now to justify the move toward an arrangement, which entails concessions, from a position of strength.

Of the many developments Kochavi mentioned in his speech, one important milestone was omitted from the media coverage: By mid-2020, said the chief of staff, the construction of the barrier against the tunnels in the Gaza Strip will be completed. Though this will occur with a delay of several months relative to the planned timetable, Israel will thereby complete, it can be hoped, the blocking of one of the most dangerous threats available to the Palestinian organizations in the Gaza Strip.

At the end of Operation Protective Edge in 2014, the threat of the tunnels was identified belatedly as a major one necessitating root canal treatment. The barrier along the Gaza Strip is being built at a cost of more than 3 billion shekels. 

In December the IDF began an accelerated operation to destroy six tunnels that Hezbollah had excavated under the Lebanese border. It is doubtful that the threat of the tunnels will disappear from our lives entirely, but in both cases the enemies’ spectrum of possibilities has been diminished to a critical extent.

Less ISIS, fewer suicide attacks 

Every year the Institute for National Security Studies issues a report on the number of suicide attacks that happened in the world during the past year. The report for 2019, the findings of which were sent to Haaretz this week, determines that there has been a marked decline in the number of suicide attacks, in the wake of the military defeat of the Islamic State organization. 

The authors of the report, Yoram Schweitzer, Aviad Mendelbaum and Dana Ayalon, write that suicide attacks were still one of the most effective types of action in 2019, despite the sharp decline in their number, continuing the trend of a more moderate decline that had been identified in the preceding years. In 2019, there were 149 suicide attacks in 24 different countries around the world. 

File photo: A Kenyan police officer folds up a flag inscribed with the logo of the Islamic State following a raid on two mosques in the coastal city of Mombasa, November 17, 2014. Credit: AFP

Participating in those attacks were 234 suicide terrorists, of whom 22 were women. About 1,885 people were killed in those attacks and about 3,660 were wounded. In 2018 there were 293 suicide attacks, so there has been a drop of about 49 percent in their number.

The most active arena for suicide attacks this past year, for the second year in a row, was Central and Southern Asia, where there were 68 suicide attacks (about 45.5 percent of the total number). Most of those attacks were in Afghanistan. Others were in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and the Philippines. In Africa there were 33 suicide attacks (22 percent), with the leading countries being Somalia, Nigeria and Mali. A rare, single attack was carried out in Latin America, in Nicaragua, by the National Liberation Front there in which about 20 people were killed.

The authors of the study write that “the gradual military defeat of Islamic State accelerated in the past two years and its control has been eradicated in extensive areas of Iraq and Syria, until by March 2019 it lost its last stronghold in eastern Syria. Despite the sharp decline, by about 60 percent, in the number of suicide attacks carried out by Islamic State, this year too it remains the leading factor. Islamic State and its partners were responsible for 69 terror attacks and in those attacks about 850 people were killed.” 

The rival Sunni-jihadist group Al-Qaida and its offshoots accounted for 52 suicide attacks this past year. The identity of the perpetrators of another 17 suicide attacks in various places around the world is unknown but most of them were apparently carried out by Islamic State, Al-Qaida or organizations influenced by them. Thus, about 97 percent of all the suicide attacks in 2019 were carried out by those organizations.

Schweitzer, Mendelbaum and Ayalon write that “despite the sharp decline in their number, suicide attacks remain a useful mode of action in the service of terror organizations. In 2019 it was employed by 21 different organizations. In the past year, on average the number of people killed in suicide attacks was about 12 in each incident but in more than a dozen suicide attacks the number of fatalities was far higher. A prominent example of this was the series of attacks carried out in Sri Lanka in April, in which ... 253 people were killed.”

According to the authors, “Among the major factors in the decline in the number of suicide attacks in 2019 was the continuing retreat by Islamic State and its military defeat in the past two years. This retreat led to the total loss of control of territories as well as to a drastic erosion of income and also of manpower, in the absence of new recruits.” They assess that the Americans’ assassination of the leader of the organization, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has compelled Islamic State to go through a period of reorganization and of reestablishing itself in the Middle East while working to reinforce its ties with partners worldwide. 

The three write: “Islamic State and its partners, and at the same time also Al-Qaida and its partners, see the suicide attack as a shared religious value and moral symbol that proves their devotion to God’s path. Therefore, they are not expected to stop using it as a major means in fighting their enemies. The extent of their activity from now on will be influenced to a crucial extent by the rate at which they recover, their internal organizational circumstances and the situation in the countries where they act. Islamic State, which remains active in Syria and Iraq, is even now demonstrating an ability to survive and an ability to carry out suicide and guerrilla actions, though in lower numbers than in the past.”

They expect that in 2020 there might be a renewed increase in the number of suicide attacks, especially by Islamic State and its offshoots. According to them, “The decline recorded in the number of suicide attacks in 2019, as a continuation of the trend in preceding years, does not necessarily indicate a decline in the attractiveness of this mode of action for the organizations. The reorganization that is underway of the international jihad camp is liable to be manifested in the future in increased use of suicide attacks.”

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