Analysis

Deadly Terror Attack Challenges Israeli Army’s Aversion to Collective Punishment

The military is still against it, but after the killing of three Israelis Netanyahu has pledged a hard line

Israeli forces outside the house of a Palestinian who killed three Israelis in an attack near a West Bank settlement, in the West Bank village of Beit Surik, September 26, 2017.
THOMAS COEX/AFP

The shooting attack Tuesday that took the lives of three Israeli security personnel at the settlement of Har Adar once again brings up the question preoccupying Israel’s government and army since the latest terror wave began two years ago. What measures should be taken to reduce the number of such attacks and can steps include collective punishment of the Palestinians in the West Bank? Even if the government decides to keep its current policy, renewed scrutiny is necessary of the Shin Bet security service’s measures that let a terrorist reach an Israeli community near the 1967 border.

>> Three Israelis killed in attack in West Bank settlement ■ What we know ■ Victims laid to rest ■ Netanyahu blames Palestinian incitement for attack ■ Palestinian killer suffered from personal problems ■ U.S., EU, France condemn attack >>

Over the past two years there have been more than 400 attacks and attempted attacks, whether knifings, vehicle rammings or shootings. Of these, 50 were in Jerusalem and 15 within the 1967 border. Only one perpetrator had a permit to work in Israel and another (who killed three Israelis at Tel Aviv’s Panorama Building) had a temporary, expired permit. This fact helped the security establishment justify its policy throughout this tense period.

Collective punishment, it is argued, only increases motivation for terror attacks. There’s no point in revoking work permits because a Palestinian with a permit wants to focus on making a living for his family. Continuing to employ Palestinians in Israel and West Bank settlements, and even expanding such employment, would help separate the average Palestinian from the relatively small circle of people who commit attacks.

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This approach was led by the Israel Defense Forces’ chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkot, and the coordinator of government activities in the territories, Yoav Mordechai, usually with a degree of support from the Shin Bet and the police. The previous defense minister, Moshe Ya’alon, fully adopted this policy. His successor, Avigdor Lieberman, expressed doubts about it in his first months in office, but eventually accepted the army’s position.

A guide to collective punishment

From time to time, for example after the June 2016 attack at Tel Aviv’s Sarona Market in which four people were killed, collective punishment was imposed for a limited period on the town from which the terrorists set out. But the roadblocks and hazing ended the moment the Israeli public lost interest.

The terrorist attack Tuesday challenges this idea. The perpetrator, Nimer Mahmoud Ahmad Jamal, had a permit to work in the settlements. Right after the attack, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged three things: The terrorist’s house would be demolished, his village would be blocked off, and his extended family would lose their work permits. This sounds almost like a guide to collective punishment according to its definition under international law. Netanyahu was quickly joined by ministers and Knesset members from his governing coalition, who, as usual, vied with one another in threatening harsh measures against the Palestinians in the West Bank.

The scene of the shooting attack at Har Adar in the West Bank, September 26, 2017.
Emil Salman

The IDF, meanwhile, hasn’t changed its recommendation. At present, it considers the attack localized – no reason to penalize hundreds of thousands of Palestinians for an extended period, while any such move would only increase the danger of deterioration. Experience shows that when the army insists on its position enough, the politicians tend to fold. But the long-term policy depends mainly on the extent of the terror. If a new wave of attacks doesn’t develop as a result of the incident at Har Adar, demands for extensive punishment will dissipate and the debate will recede.

Compared to the terrorists of the past two years, Hamal is unusual in being slightly older, 37, and he was married with four children. The circumstances that led him to his action are less unusual. He wasn’t a member of any organization and acted on his own after a family crisis. His wife fled to Jordan after she said he beat her. In revenge, he decided to attack Jews.

The Shin Bet and Military Intelligence will have to investigate why his name didn’t come up as a potentially dangerous terrorist, after on Monday he posted hints of his intentions. That was a second miss in about two months. The terrorist who murdered the three members of a family in the settlement of Halamish posted a “Facebook will” that wasn’t found in time. Every month, dozens of people are arrested in the territories after their Facebook posts betray intentions to commit attacks. This method is far from hermetic, as these two attacks show.

Tension during the High Holy Days

The outcome of the attack at Har Adar is not only tragic, it’s intolerable from an operational perspective. The fact that a lone terrorist, armed with only a gun and lacking experience, manages to kill three armed guards and wound a fourth could be described as a very unlikely scenario. It’s more likely that it also indicates failures in security at the site. It might have involved insufficient alertness, the clustering together of too many security people, or improper deployment. (Security guards are supposed to back each other up at a certain distance from one another, covering risks from different directions.)

The four men who were attacked were not a unified unit. They consisted of a Border Police officer, security guards from a civilian company and the settlement’s security coordinator, who was severely wounded in the incident. Such a situation where personnel come from different branches of service invites trouble. All these aspects must now be thoroughly investigated by the security forces.

Another question involves the implications of the attack for Jerusalem and the West Bank. Sometimes the operational success of terror (measured by two interconnected aspects – the number of casualties and media attention) leads to copycat attacks. This time, the circumstances are worrisome because the period of the High Holy Days always brings tensions on the Temple Mount. There’s also the Palestinians’ concerns that the Trump administration isn’t serious about the peace process, and the atmosphere that the term of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is in its twilight.

In the summer of 2015, Military Intelligence issued a strategic warning to the government regarding the possibility of an outbreak of violence in the territories. The warning was borne out, but the conflict didn’t spill over extensively, mainly because of Israel’s level-headed response – refraining from collective punishment and deploying soldiers and police to the scenes of terror attacks.

MI’s warning is still in effect for this fall. The fact that coordination between Israel and the Palestinian security forces has been very limited since the Temple Mount metal-detector crisis in July also doesn’t contribute to optimism.