Analysis |

Tensions in Israel Prompting Ill Use of Firearms

The Israeli-Arab community is making an effort to rein in violent demonstrations; meanwhile, the lynching of an Eritrean migrant in Be'er Sheva proves authorities' impassioned rhetoric and legal authorities' silence are proving deadly.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
Eritreans gathered in Holot detention center after Habtom Zarhum's lynching, October 19, 2015.
Eritreans gathered in Holot detention center after Habtom Zarhum's lynching, October 19, 2015.Credit: Mutasim Ali
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Sunday’s deadly attack in Be’er Sheva was the second incident during this current wave of terror in which an Israeli Arab was definitely involved. The previous one occurred last week when an Umm al-Fahm resident wounded a female soldier and several civilians near Kibbutz Gan Shmuel. (In another incident, when a Nazareth woman holding a knife was shot and wounded in Afula, the circumstances are still not entirely clear.)

In both cases, the terrorists were citizens by virtue of family reunification regulations that govern personal status when an Israeli Arab marries a Palestinian resident of the West Bank or Gaza Strip.

In recent days, we have seen an effort by the Israeli-Arab community to rein in violent demonstrations and avoid a rerun of the October 2000 riots, in which 13 Arabs were killed by security forces only a few days after the second intifada began. But it’s clear that attacks by Israeli Arabs will increase tensions between Jews and Arabs within the Green Line.

The Be’er Sheva assailant, Muhannad al-Okbi, was a resident of the Bedouin town of Hura, in the Negev. Religious extremism among the Negev Bedouin, where the influence of Islamic Movement is growing, has been known for more than a decade.

The death of Habtom Zarhum, the Eritrean man who was mistaken for a terrorist in the Be’er Sheva attack, renews debate over the rules of engagement given to the security forces, and how much influence the recent inflamed declarations by politicians and media personalities may be having. It’s hard to deny a connection between the public mood and the wild, reckless mob attack on the 29-year-old migrant.

“It’s strange that the attorney general hasn’t seen fit to condemn this ugly fervor, whose bitter fruits we may have seen with the lynch in Be’er Sheva,” Prof. Mordechai Kremnitzer, vice president of the Israel Democracy Institute, said Monday. Ami Ayalon, a former head of the Shin Bet security service and a fellow at the institute, added, “Restraint means killing the one coming to kill when he’s trying to kill, when it’s necessary. But not to kill him when he can clearly be neutralized and no longer poses a threat.”

The family home of Muhannad al-Okbi, Hura, Oct. 19, 2015.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkowitz

Of course, these are nuances that must be assessed by security people in the field in a fraction of a second. One can assume that the Be’er Sheva bus station’s security officer, who apparently shot Zarhum first, believed he was a terrorist and that the civilians who subdued him afterward were acting based on that erroneous assumption. But the eagerness to continue attacking Zarhum as he lay unconscious, which is clearly seen in videos of the event, are evidence of a desire for revenge.

No new rules of engagement

Similar behavior was previously documented in videos and recordings from other incidents, like the shooting of Fadi Alon, the East Jerusalem resident who got involved in a scuffle with Jewish youths and stabbed one of them in Jerusalem earlier this month. Alon was shot to death by a patrol officer who was being egged on by the crowd, although security officials tend to doubt that what occurred was even a terror attack.

In fact, the rules of engagement have not really changed for police officers. At the end of September, following the stone-throwing incident that led to the death of Alex Levlovitch while he was driving in Jerusalem, the government changed the orders for the capital and allowed officers to use Ruger rifles, as the army does in the West Bank. More recently, after videos showed terrorists attacking policemen at close range, the rules for frisking suspects were changed in order to keep a distance between the person and the security team.

But despite calls by politicians – ranging from Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid through government ministers to Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman – to kill terrorists without asking questions, no new obligatory guidelines have been issued. It seems as if the police brass is leaving the decision on when to shoot to the policeman in the field, although if he kills a terrorist when there might have been an alternative, under the current circumstances no one will hold him to account (or bring in the Justice Ministry’s internal affairs division for the investigation of police officers). In other words, a sort of “Oral Torah” has developed on the issue.

Back to suicide terror?

Police at the site where an Eritrean national was shot in Be'er Sheva on Oct. 18, 2015.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkowitz

Meanwhile, there are estimates in the defense community that more organized Hamas and Fatah terror cells in the West Bank will try to carry out shooting attacks in the West Bank and within the Green Line. The mounting death toll is liable to spur such attacks. There is also the risk that suicide bombings could resume after a break of nearly a decade. Palestinian security sources even claim that Palestinian Authority forces foiled such a plan by a Hamas cell in Hebron.

But although Hamas hastened to embrace the terrorist in Sunday’s Be’er Sheva attack (his mother is Gaza-born), one needs to express caution in assessing the likelihood of suicide attacks. First, Hamas’ terror infrastructure has been badly damaged in recent years by both Israeli and PA pressure. Second, if Hamas were to launch such a move in the West Bank, its leaders would have to understand that Israel will retaliate massively in Gaza, which is liable to drag the region into another war. It’s doubtful that this would be in Hamas’ interests right now.

These estimates, like the general Israeli climate right now, are reminiscent of the second intifada. There is no doubt that the combatant atmosphere in the Palestinian public is gradually expanding to other cities and areas. And, as it has been for quite some time, it is now difficult to find a solution to the violence.

Looking at the numbers, there were more casualties in the first month of the second intifada than there have been this past month. Since October 1, the day the current wave of violence began, until October 19, eight Israeli citizens have been killed, as well as the Eritrean asylum seeker. Approximately 45 Palestinians (including the terrorists) have also been killed. Between the start of the second intifada on September 29, 2001, a day after then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon visited Temple Mount, until the end of that October, 12 Israelis and 129 Palestinians were killed.

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