Settler's Murder Reveals False Sense of Security for Israelis in the West Bank

The fence that separates Palestinian communities from neighboring settlements has been breached for years, but this is the first case this year of a deadly attack on Israeli civilians in the West Bank

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The West Bank separation barrier in Abu Dis, Jerusalem, 2020.
The West Bank separation barrier in Abu Dis, Jerusalem, 2020. Credit: Emil Salman

The West Bank forest where Esther Horgen was murdered Sunday with exceptional brutality lies west of the separation barrier. When then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon drew the line in 2002 for the future barrier fence, at the peak of the second intifada, he kept the bloc of settlements of Shaked, Hinanit and Tal Menashe (where Horgen lived) on the barrier’s Israeli side, connected directly to Israel within the Green Line.

However the barrier, which separates these settlements from the Jenin area, creates a false sense of security, which was shattered on Sunday. Over 15 years have passed since the northern end of the barrier was completed. In recent years, especially, Palestinians have systematically sabotaged the fence to gain free passage to the Arab towns of the Triangle on its western side, and from there on to Israel’s big cities. Those involved in the smuggling industry through the barrier include those who bring in people who reside and work illegally in Israel, car thieves, weapons dealers and many other criminal elements from both sides of the Green Line, Jews and Arabs.

The forest where Horgen, a mother of six, was murdered – when she went out for an afternoon walk – is located close to one of the smuggling routes for illegal workers. The immediate suspicion falls on those who use this route regularly – Palestinians who enter Israel this way or the people they pay to transport them, mostly Israeli Arabs from the Triangle.

For now, the leading direction of the murder investigation is terrorism, or that a political motive played a part. It seems that this is the type of terrorist attack committed without a great deal of advance preparation. In general, this involves a single attacker who finds a defenseless victim and immediately flees the scene. The Shin Bet security service, which is coordinating the investigation with the help of the Israel Police, is experienced in such investigations and is capable of using many methods to solve them. One can hope and assume they will find the murderer relatively quickly.

2020 was a very quiet year for Palestinian terrorism. Horgen is the third Israeli killed this year by Palestinians; a soldier was killed when a large brick was dropped on his head during an arrest operation in the Jenin area, and a civilian was stabbed to death in Petah Tikva. Jenin, compared to other West Bank cities, is considered more volatile. It has had the greatest number of shooting incidents, and armed opposition of local cells meet every entry of IDF forces to carry out arrests in the Jenin refugee camp or in the town of Qabatiya. But militants from the Jenin area have enough opportunities for violent confrontations with the military closer to home. This is why the murder in the Reehan Forest seems more likely to be linked to people who are infiltrating into Israel through the separation barrier, or those who are leading them.

Palestinians going through a breach in the fence to jobs in Israel. Credit: Alex Levac
Palestinians climb over the separation barrier with Israel to pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, on the Friday of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, in Al-Ram, north of Jerusalem, June 8, 2018. Credit: Majdi Mohammed / AP

The damage to the fence has been going on for years, but more recently the separation barrier has been completely breached along large parts of its route. The IDF and Defense Ministry have been making temporary repairs to it, until it is breached once again. But these are no longer just illegal workers and criminals passing through the holes. Many Palestinians who have permits to work in Israel prefer to use these breaches to save themselves time waiting at the IDF checkpoints.

The direct result of the Swiss-cheese fence is a rise in break-ins and thefts in the agricultural communities in the nearby Jezreel Valley, Hefer Valley and Tel Mond areas. The fear is – as in the days of the second intifada – that terrorist attacks will be carried out via this criminal platform, with the use of the very same routes and methods. The murder in Petah Tikva, and another stabbing attack this year in Rosh Ha’ayin, were carried out by illegal workers who infiltrated into Israel through the fence.

The IDF is aware of the problem. Recently, a battalion headquarters of the Border Police was deployed in the area of the Green Line in the Jenin sector, and companies of IDF troops were placed under the Border Police’s authority – in an attempt to reduce the damage to the barrier and the scope of the infiltration through it. But given the relative quiet on the West Bank, the army has been keeping smaller numbers of troops in the territories compared to more volatile periods in the past. This is part of a calculated risk assessment. Otherwise, the IDF chief of staff could not conduct his wide-scale training model, which allows, for now, the IDF’s frontline combat units to devote about half their time to preparing for war.

Fired for not firing

While all this is happening, on Monday the IDF announced it had dismissed a combat soldier from the Golani Brigade’s elite reconnaissance battalion, who’s actions were filmed when a Palestinian threw a firebomb at him and the video leaked onto the internet. The incident occurred on Saturday night, when the Palestinian got out of his car near an IDF post at the back entrance to Kedumim in the northern West Bank. The Palestinian confronted the soldier on guard there, threw the fire bomb at him, and fled.

The soldier, who wasn’t injured, did not open fire at the man, even though regulations allow him to shoot at his legs. The video immediately led to shocked responses on social media and in the press about how the IDF has lost its deterrent power, along with calls to dismiss the soldier. A bit more fuel was added to the fire when internal correspondence from the IDF leaked out, containing criticism of the soldier’s actions.

The IDF spokesman said on Monday that the soldier’s battalion commander had decided to dismiss him, with a possibility that he could return to a combat role in a few months’ time. We must mention that such hesitation, certainly for a young and inexperienced fighter, is not so unusual. In the heat of a real incident, people do not always respond as they were trained and educated to do.

It is clear that the army needs to demand a more forceful response from its soldiers. But the public ganging up on the soldier has a dangerous side too. The other side of the coin is the possibility that excessive pressure will lead to an excessive response by the fighters, as could be seen during the period of the stabbing terrorist attacks – such as the shooting at young women and girls with knives in Hebron and Jerusalem in 2015, or the Elor Azaria affair in Hebron a year later. As usual, it will certainly be the extremists on the right who will try to connect the dots between the hesitation of the soldier in Kedumim and the murder in the Reehan Forest. There is no connection between the two. The IDF does not have a problem of deterrence against terrorism; it does have, at times, a problem of clarifying the appropriate guidelines for soldiers.

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