Palestinian terrorists held in Israel after being captured while carrying out attacks or attempting to do so during the present wave of violence have received surprise visits in their prison cells over the past month: The commanders of the Israel Defense Forces’ regional brigades in the West Bank.
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The army officials have come to meet with them at the orders of the IDF’s Central Command. The goal is to understand the background behind the actions of the young people, who are described as “lone terrorists” and do not belong to any terrorist organization.
The prisoners are asked what was the direct motive that led to their decision to carry out the attack, why they chose their specific weapons and target, what military dispositions they noticed at the site they chose, and many other questions whose answers could help the security forces understand and prepare better to put a stop to the violence.
Similar interviews, in much greater numbers, have been held by the Central Command’s intelligence officers and officers from the IDF’s coordinator of government activities in the territories unit – after the Shin Bet security service has completed its interrogations.
Two main understandings have come out of these sessions: One, which is heard in every discussion with senior officers dealing with the matter, is that Israel is facing a long-term, persistent phenomenon. Two, improving the tactical operations of the troops on the ground may help reduce the number of those killed and wounded (and it seems has some effect on reducing the number of attempted attacks), but the present response is far from being perfect, especially in terms of intelligence.
Even though Israel has taken steps to improve the monitoring of social networks among Palestinians, the results of these efforts have been relatively minor. Occasionally, early warnings of intentions to carry out attacks have been identified, mostly on Facebook, but the IDF finds the vast majority of terrorists only when they attack. Most of them did not have any “security history” before they decided to act.
Many of the terrorists who were interviewed answered the officers’ questions with openness. Those who conducted hit-and-run attacks, for example, told of how they decided to use the vehicle after learning that most of those who attack using knives are unable to carry through on their plans, and are themselves injured and caught without having killed anyone, soldiers or civilians.
The choice of the locations also stood out – specific locations of friction between Palestinians and IDF forces. Over 60 percent of the attacks in the West Bank took place at only seven well-known locations, including the Gush Etzion junction, the Beit Anun junction north of Hebron and in the Jewish enclave inside Hebron. The stabbers wanted to attack symbols of the Israeli occupation, but also to take revenge – to return to places where terrorists had been killed previously, and carry out an attack.
Frustration and despair
The terrorists’ explanations of their motives have changed over the past few months, in a way that is supported by the intelligence analysis of other incidents on the ground. In October, Jerusalem and fears over the fate of the Al-Aqsa Mosque were the central considerations behind the decision to carry out an attack. In November, the general atmosphere was one of preparations for a third intifada, and the attacks were seen as part of a broader initiative. By December, the attacks were mostly a matter of the inspiration of earlier terrorists, and mimicking them.
In recent weeks, the main justification given by the terrorists for their motives is the desire to take revenge, to pay back for the deaths of other terrorists, often relatives or acquaintances from the same village or neighborhood. This is especially true because of the rumors in the West Bank that Israel has implemented a policy of executing young Palestinians, even some who never even tried to carry out a terrorist attack.
The recent meetings in the prisons have shown that more than in the past, personal frustration and despair, along with other personal problems, have been added to the general situation and feelings in the West Bank. In many cases, the young men who decided to attack were on the margins of Palestinian society already, and saw a terrorist attack as a way they could possibly sacrifice their lives, sort of a way to “purify” themselves and win support and recognition from the Palestinian public.
About a third of the terrorists from the West Bank who were caught or killed so far are residents of the Hebron area. Many of the attacks at the Gush Etzion junction, one of the focal points of the conflict, were carried out by residents of villages in the area north of Hebron. Ramallah was the source of the second largest number of attackers after Hebron. The Palestinian cities Tul Karm and Qalqiliyah in the northern West Bank are relatively quiet. The number of terrorists in the recent wave of violence from refugee camps all over the West Bank is also low. There is a clear drop in the extent of mass demonstrations.
The number of hit-and-run and stabbing attacks has declined slowly over the past month, but there were still four such attacks so far this week, as of Thursday. There is a clear rise in the number of shooting attacks, though for now it looks as if these shootings are being carried out by individuals and not by organized terrorist cells.
IDF soldiers, more so than Israeli civilians, are for now the target of most attacks. The IDF thinks this is not an ideological choice, but simply the result of a better defensive deployment and preparation. Soldiers from the elite Maglan special forces unit were brought to the Gush Etzion junction for a few weeks in order to devise a new way of thinking about the security there, in light of the large number of attacks at the junction. Since then, the attackers with knives have been stopped by soldiers some distance away from the junction itself, without creating a threat to civilians there.
Soldiers from the reserve battalion deployed in the area of the junction killed four Palestinian youths last week, during two incidents in which they tried to stab the soldiers. As part of these new activities, the IDF has significantly increased the number of surprise roadblocks it sets up on roads in the West Bank. In two cases, armed terrorists got out of cars that were stuck in traffic caused by the surprise checkpoints, and started shooting at the soldiers. In both cases the terrorists were killed.
The Palestinians’ frustration at their inability to cause larger and more serious numbers of casualties on the Israeli side stands out in the Central Command’s analysis. This could be the cause of the recent rise in the use of firearms by Palestinians, and Hamas attempts to encourage an armed Intifada, which would include shooting attacks, explosive devices and kidnapping soldiers.
A short time after the incidents began, the IDF quickly realized that something had changed and a new situation existed. The central question was whether to expect a continuous escalation, with increasing severity, or just waves with higher and lower peaks. For now, it seems the direction is that of ups and downs, but no one high up in the IDF or Shin Bet is deluding himself that the third intifada will disappear anytime soon, the way it appeared so quickly at the beginning of October.