The quiet that prevailed this week inside the Green Line should not mislead anyone. The present wave of violence, which according to the defense establishment began with the murder of Na'ama and Eitam Henkin near Nablus on October 1, is not yet past. It has only been taking on a different shape in the past two weeks. Due to the distance of the attacks from Israeli population centers, the media are happy to focus on other dramas, like the flooded streets and homes without electricity in the Sharon region.
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But while the tremendous pressure Israel is applying in East Jerusalem helps bring about at least a temporary lull in the city, making it difficult for terrorists to reach the center of the country (most of the stabbers in the city during the first two weeks of the violence were East Jerusalemites), the attempts at stabbing and running people over continue in the West Bank, mainly in the Hebron area and occasionally the nearby Bethlehem area. On average, there are at least two incidents every day, at least one of them in Hebron itself.
At the end of the first two weeks of violence the defense establishment spoke about a wave of terror that is fueling itself: stabbers, most of them very young, act on personal initiative without a terror organization behind them. The success of the stabber gives rise to imitators. A failure, particularly if the stabber is shot and killed, automatically grants him the status of an innocent victim in the eyes of Palestinians.
Two video clips sent out by Israeli eyewitnesses have only reinforced this impression. The stabbing itself can’t be seen clearly in them. Yet the clips record the shooting of the terrorist, sometimes even when he is already lying on the ground, and sometimes they also show degrading treatment of his body, which ignites feelings of revenge and attempts at imitation.
This cycle is continuing, but recently it has been focused in Hebron. For veterans of the two previous intifadas — and today, almost all the senior commanders in the Israel Defense Forces, Shin Bet security service and police who deal with terror in the territories have such experience — the situation in Hebron is no surprise. During previous periods of violence, too, the city followed what seemed its own timing: It woke up later than the other West Bank cities, exercised greater violence (and Israeli punishments, by demand of the settlers, were harsher), and it took the city much longer to calm down.
Because the Palestinians and Israelis in Hebron have been close, bad neighbors for the past 48 years, the situation there provides endless opportunities for terror attacks.
In addition to the violence of the present round, there is a macabre new dimension: In line with a cabinet decision from the middle of the month, Israel keeps most of the bodies of the terrorists killed. Of the over 65 Palestinians killed in incidents since the beginning of the month, 18 are Hebron-area residents (14 of killed in the city, four killed on Israeli territory).
In Hebron in recent days there have been stormy protest marches and demonstrations in front of the Red Cross offices every day, with a demand for immediate release of the bodies. The Israeli move may also be related to an attempt to pressure Hamas in Gaza to make progress in the negotiations for the return of the bodies of soldiers Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, which have been held by Hamas since the war in the Gaza Strip last summer. But for now, in Hebron it’s already a matter of the bodies themselves, rather than the occupation or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is intensifying the anger before the next attack.
Data collected by the Shin Bet, which are correct as of Thursday morning, indicate that 80 percent of the terrorists who were active in the present wave of terror were between 16 and 24 years of age (another three were aged 13-15 and the others 23-25). Almost 90 percent of them are men and about 90 percent are single. The percentage of East Jerusalemites among them is now about 35 percent (after approaching 80 percent after two weeks of violence).
About half of the terrorists came from the West Bank, 92 percent of them residents of the Hebron, Bethlehem and Ramallah area, and only 8 percent from the northern West Bank. Over 70 percent of the attacks were stabbings, and most of the others were combined events: running over with vehicles and stabbing, or stabbing and shooting. There have been few shooting attacks so far. Despite repeated calls by Hamas in the Gaza Strip to switch to firearms, as yet there is no clear trend in that direction.
The prolonged nature of the violence is also bringing with it the first Military Police investigations of soldiers' actions. Seven of the soldiers of the Netzah Yehuda Battalion, a unit in the Kfir infantry brigade, were arrested last week on suspicion of abusing young Palestinians. In another incident, which aroused a minor storm in the army and media, a cadet from the battalion was ousted from an officers’ training course after his friends reported he had made remarks implicitly justifying the murder of Yitzhak Rabin, following a ceremony at Bahad 1 training base marking the 20th anniversary of the assassination.
In both cases, it is interesting that the soldiers are not requesting the assistance of the IDF Military Defender’s Office, as was usually the case in the past. Those suspected of abuse are being defended by the right-wing organization Honenu, which usually provides legal assistance to settlers suspected of crimes motivated by ideology. The ousted cadet hired an attorney who is a Kahanist, and who sent an urgent letter to Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot with a demand to reinstate the soldier in the course.
The chief of staff’s office, in its letter of response, recommended to the cadet and his attorney that they do their homework and further their knowledge of democracy. In the media coverage of the incidents, Netzah Yehuda is still sometimes described as a “Nahal Haredi” battalion. This is apparently a mistaken definition. The number of Haredim presently serving in it is small, and on the other hand, especially prominent in the battalion are the many soldiers who identify with the far right.
Cameras on the Temple Mount
In the diplomatic arena, the most important development relates to an arrangement for the installation of cameras on the Temple Mount, formulated between the United States and Jordan at the end of last week. No less than this step — in which Israel played an important role behind the scenes — is meant to calm the atmosphere on the mount, it is meant to calm the Jordanian king. Despite Israel’s extensive assistance to Jordan in various areas, including dealing with the threat presented by the Islamic State (ISIS), King Abdullah was furious at the renewed escalation surrounding the Temple Mount and accused Israel of partial responsibility for it.
The agreement enabled U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to situate himself once again as an honest broker, and to strengthen Jordan’s status as the defender of the holy places. It is also very convenient for Israel, which hopes to prove by means of the cameras that the Palestinians are the ones responsible for the violent incidents on the mount. But the two sides still have to explain how the filmed material will be collected, and mainly who will be responsible for disseminating it.
The Palestinian Authority is not a party to the agreement, which was forced on it. That is the source of the overt criticism by senior PA officials against Jordan this week, as well as the attempt by the Waqf (the Muslim religious trust), halted by the Israel Police, to install cameras of its own on the mount. The atmosphere between the PA and Jordan remains fraught, and the Palestinians are afraid that the agreement also provided Amman with belated revenge for the humiliation of a Jordanian minister who was greeted with insults and flying shoes when he visited the Temple Mount at the invitation of the PA a few months ago.
Behind the scenes, personal tensions continue to play an important role in diplomatic developments. The atmosphere among PA officials is very fraught. At one of the meetings recently there was a violent incident between two of the senior officials. In another case Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, an independent-minded figure, was attacked and beaten.
Also in the background is the escalating struggle over the successor to PA President Mahmoud Abbas. The Israeli defense establishment counts about 10 possible candidates for the inheritance. These are the twilight days of the Abbas government, and although his order to the PA security services to check the violence is usually enforced in the areas under his responsibility, there is no way of knowing whether he will be able to continue controlling them over time.
Abbas, who this week delivered another belligerently anti-Israel speech at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, is also aware of the price being paid by the PA. The Obama administration has already announced a cutback of $80 million from the aid budget to the PA, while in the background there is growing criticism in Congress and a Republican demand to punish the PA for what the GOP views as incitement to violence.