Terror Wave Returns to Israel, Just in Time for the High Holy Days

As the terror attacks increase, so does the tension between Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and the top military brass. His conduct nowadays is reminiscent of his behavior just before the 2014 Gaza war.

Border Police officers perform a search near the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem, September 2016.
Olivier Fitoussi

A year after the start of the terror wave and on the eve of the Jewish holidays, the attacks are back with a vengeance, exactly as predicted by military intelligence. If they continue, the already existing tension between the army and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman will increase. His conduct nowadays is reminiscent of his behavior just before Operation Protective Edge in Gaza.

While violence returned this week to the streets of East Jerusalem and the checkpoints of Hebron, the army’s general staff, regional commands and divisional headquarters were occupied with an extensive general staff war exercise. Last Thursday the exercise administrators, commanded by Maj. Gen. Sami Turgeman, presented the core features of the scenario to Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot and other generals. The exercise consisted of a scenario in the occupied territories: a violent outbreak on the West Bank rapidly deteriorates into a confrontation with Hamas in the Gaza Strip and from there to another front, with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

This time reality competed with the reports being transmitted by the administrators of the training exercise. The first stabbing occurred on Friday morning in Hebron. By Tuesday there were seven stabbings, one attempted stabbing and one car ramming, in Hebron, the Etzion Bloc and East Jerusalem. Five members of the security forces were wounded in these incidents and seven Palestinians were killed, all of them assailants.

These were the first serious incidents since a Palestinian gunman murdered Rabbi Michael Mark near the settlement of Otniel in the Hebron hills in early July. The number of attacks in one week was higher than in any given month since last May.

The new wave of terror which supposedly burst out of nowhere was actually quite anticipated. The defense establishment had been pleased at the easing up of the violence. Former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said last week, in a lecture at the Washington Institute, that the previous wave had “largely dissipated.” However, all the intelligence assessments cited the possibility that the territories would heat up between the Muslim Feast of the Sacrifice, Id al-Adha, and the Jewish High Holy Days. The reasons for this are multiple: inflammatory sermons in the mosques, the one-year anniversary of the start of the wave of violence and a concern among the Palestinian public that right-wing groups would try to change the status quo on the Temple Mount during the Jewish holidays (which in the past led to restrictions on Muslim prayers in the compound).

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman with generals, summer 2016.
GPO / Ariel Hermoni

This time, as in the past, there is a clear common denominator among the assailants. They are young, they lack any organizational affiliation and are unknown to Israeli intelligence organizations. Once again there is a prevalence of relatives and friends of Palestinians who were killed in incidents over the preceding year. And, as in the past, personal and family problems frequently contributed to the decision to embark on an attack.

The most extreme case was that of a 12-year-old girl who was slightly injured by gunfire from a security guard at a checkpoint near Qalqilyah two days ago. The girl, who wasn’t even carrying a knife, approached a no-go area in a suspicious manner and was shot. During her investigation she said that she wanted to die, that she missed her aunt who had been killed under similar circumstances last year, and that she was fed up with her family’s life of poverty.

Perhaps concerned about possible steps President Barack Obama might take after the U.S. presidential elections or, in the hope of extinguishing a new conflagration, the Netanyahu government has taken some exceptional steps in recent weeks, in an attempt to bolster the Palestinian economy in the West Bank. These include an agreement for delivering electricity to the West Bank, and approval of new allocations of extra cellular phone bandwidth as well as infrastructure projects in water and natural gas. All of this did not prevent the wave of violence that erupted last Friday, evoking surprise in Israeli media.

The various explanations for the outbreak, including its timing, ignored one thing: From the perspective of the Palestinians, reality on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem has not changed an iota since last year. The basic problem of the occupation, in its 50th year now, and the growing frustration with it, have not diminished. The sharp anti-Israeli incitement has not abated, nor has the influence of Islamic terror in the Middle East and the West. Under these circumstances, what is surprising is not that the knifing attacks have resumed, but that there was over two months of quiet in these parts.

An attempted stabbing attack in Hebron on Saturday, September 17, 2016.

Collective punishment

Less than a year ago, when the violence was at its height, right-wing ministers and Knesset members pressured the prime minister to approve collective punishment against Palestinians in the West Bank. Eisenkot, supported by Ya’alon, advocated an opposite tack. He argued that it was necessary to maintain the distinction between terrorists and a population that is not involved in attacks. If we prevent the entry of thousands of laborers into Israel we’ll push some of them into the circle of terror, he reasoned. Netanyahu usually accepted the army’s position. Even though his spokesmen often came out with belligerent statements, punitive measures on the ground were relatively limited.

Defense Minister Lieberman believes in a different approach. Following the attack in Tel Aviv’s Sarona market and two attacks in the Hebron area, which took place shortly after he assumed office, Lieberman ordered harsher measures against the towns or villages from which the assailants had set out. The dispute between the minister and the army is expected to resurface if attacks continue.

This isn’t the only source of tension between the two sides. Lieberman recently ordered the defense establishment to ignore Nikolay Mladenov, the UN Secretary-General’s representative, after the latter criticized Israeli policies in the territories. The problem is that Mladenov’s activities are vital for Israel, especially for the office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, as a channel of communication with the Palestinian Authority and indirectly with Hamas in Gaza.

A similar boycott, which Lieberman initiated when he was foreign minister, directed at Mledanov’s predecessor Robert Serry, contributed to the deterioration which led to the 2014 Gaza war, since it derailed a UN plan to transfer money from Qatar to pay the salaries of Hamas activists in the Strip.

On another occasion the defense minister said that he’d instructed the army to consolidate channels which would bypass Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas. Lieberman assails the Abbas regime for its corruption and refusal to engage in peace talks. His public statement actually damaged attempts to create bypass routes, which were already present and operating discreetly.

Shortly before he assumed office, Lieberman’s threats against Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh raised a furor. After his appointment, his associates said that if another war broke out in Gaza it would be necessary to ensure that it was the last one, and that Hamas would be toppled. It was recently leaked that the minister is dissatisfied with the army’s operational plans in Gaza and that he has given instructions to change them to include the removal of Hamas. In practice, these plans were approved and ratified by Ya’alon earlier this year.

Retake Gaza?

While the army will obey the instructions of the political leadership, its position has been clear ever since the plans were revealed to the cabinet during Operation Protective Edge. For starters, the army has reservations about conquering the entire Strip, foreseeing heavy losses incurred in such a move and in the prolonged mopping up operations that would be necessary. The annual cost of maintaining the area (with the Palestinian Authority unlikely to replace Hamas) is estimated at 10 billion shekels ($2.6 billion).

In the backdrop of all this is the trial of Sgt. Elor Azaria, charged with manslaughter for the shooting death of a prone Palestinian assailant in Hebron in March. While the army disliked the intervention of politicians (including that of then opposition MK Lieberman) at the early stages of the trial, it is doubtful that anyone was pleased with the defense minister’s statement 10 days ago, indicating that he would back the soldier regardless of the court’s ultimate ruling.

Last week, after a sharp exchange involving MK Moti Yogev (Habayit Hayehudi) at a Knesset subcommittee meeting, Lieberman sent a letter to the head of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, MK Avi Dichter (Likud), warning MKs not to attack the military advocate general, Brig. Gen. Sharon Afek, or the people working for the Coordinator of Government Activities in the territories, Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai. “Publicly elected officials must treat IDF officers with respect and civility,” wrote Lieberman. Of course, it is precisely these two bodies which are in constant conflict with the minister.

There are significant gaps between the minister of defense and the general staff on a host of issues, including the interpretation of the army’s values in combat and its relations with Israeli society. This tension won’t necessarily end in a grand explosion. Lieberman knows that a direct conflict with army brass could hurt him politically. However, the current tension will continue — notwithstanding periodic statements by both sides about the wonderful working relations they enjoy.