Analysis

The Nightmare Scenario That Has Worried Israel for Months

Sunday’s attack by a Palestinian Authority security service officer on three Israeli soldiers underscores concerns of wider involvement in terrorism by members of Palestinian security services.

Palestinian police loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas dressed in riot gear, show their skills during an exercise in the West Bank town of Jericho, Feb. 12, 2008.
AP

Amjad Sakri, the assailant who shot and wounded three Israel Defense Forces soldiers in an attack on a checkpoint north of Ramallah on Sunday morning, is the second member of the Palestinian Authority security services to commit an attack since the current wave of violence began in October. He was preceded by a member of the PA’s General Intelligence Service – a relative of senior PA official Saeb Erekat – who opened fire on soldiers manning a checkpoint south of Ramallah about two months ago. In both cases, soldiers killed the men.

Both assailants served in jobs that required them to be vetted by the PA intelligence services (Sakri was the driver and bodyguard of the PA’s chief prosecutor). There have also been other cases in recent months in which Israel arrested PA employees on suspicion of helping to plan attacks.

It’s still not certain that a new trend is emerging, although the assailant’s identity is likely to serve as fodder for Israeli public diplomacy in its attacks on the PA and its demands that PA President Mahmoud Abbas stop the terror. In practice, all the relevant Israeli defense agencies – the defense minister, senior IDF officers, the Shin Bet security service and the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories – constantly stress the need to preserve the excellent security coordination with the PA and the efforts the PA security services have made in recent weeks, especially against Hamas terrorist cells in the West Bank.

Israeli security forces gather at a checkpoint near the Beit El settlement, close to the West Bank city of Ramallah, January 31, 2016.
AFP

But more widespread involvement in acts of terror by members of the PA security services and the Tanzim (Fatah’s armed wing) is a nightmare scenario that has worried the Israeli defense establishment for months. Together, the Tanzim and security services have tens of thousands of guns, and the PA’s so-called “Dayton Brigades,” trained by U.S. officers, have at least basic combat training.

Yet despite the rise in the number of shooting attacks in the West Bank over the last two months, in most cases the perpetrators resembled the lone-wolf stabbers: They acted on their own, not as part of an organization that gave them orders.

The second scenario that worries Israel relates to Hamas. The organization’s leadership in the Gaza Strip and its West Bank command, which still operates out of Turkey, have ordered operatives in the West Bank to carry out attacks by any means possible.

The Shin Bet and IDF have recently uncovered several Hamas cells that were planning suicide bombings, shooting attacks or kidnappings. Israel has also confirmed a claim by Majed Faraj, the head of the PA’s General Intelligence Service, that the PA has thwarted some 200 attempted attacks against Israel. Most of those arrested were Hamas operatives, whom the PA views as no less a threat than Israel does.

This latest attack also underscores the ongoing failure by the IDF and Shin Bet to stop lone-wolf attacks before they happen. Immediately after the identity of Sunday’s assailant was published, Israeli and Palestinian journalists – and presumably also intelligence officials on both sides – examined his recent postings on social media. In retrospect, it seems they provide hints of his intentions.

Two weeks ago, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot said there had been 101 stabbing or car-ramming attacks since the current wave of violence began, and in not one case was there any intelligence warning. Since then, the list of assailants has grown longer, but the number of intelligence warnings remains at zero.

The intelligence agencies are now working hard to try to develop ways of sifting through the enormous mass of social media posts and identifying those that might warn in real time of impending attacks. The problem is how to differentiate between the genuine danger signals and the thousands of other anti-Israel posts.

During the second intifada between 2000 and 2005, the Shin Bet eventually learned to identify potential suicide bombers and arrest most of them before they could strike. But so far, no effective modus operandi has been developed for lone-wolf assailants.

Monday will mark four months since the start of the current round of violence, which the IDF dates from the October 1 murder of Eitam and Naama Henkin, near Nablus. In the past week alone, an Israeli woman was stabbed to death in the Beit Horon settlement; two other civilians and two soldiers were seriously wounded in shooting or stabbing attacks; and another civilian was lightly wounded in a stabbing attack.

The tendency to describe these events as a wave of terror that will quickly pass belies the reality. Even though there have been worse periods in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the current situation in the territories is clearly completely different to the one that prevailed until last summer.

Despite upswings and downswings in the number of incidents, what’s happening here is a long-term process whose full ramifications have yet to be felt.