Tel Aviv Shooting: Israel Security Establishment's Alarms Failed to Sound

Only a fraction of Israel's Arab population is involved in violent acts, but one cannot ignore the growing influence ISIS has on young Muslims in Israel, and around the world.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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At the scene of a deadly shooting attack in Tel Aviv on Friday, January 1, 2016.
At the scene of a deadly shooting attack in Tel Aviv on Friday, January 1, 2016.Credit: Reuters
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

A large-scale manhunt for the suspect behind the Tel Aviv attack that killed two Israelis continued throughout Friday night into Saturday morning. Although the Shin Bet and Israel Police identified the suspected assailant soon after Friday's attack, they have been unable to track him down.

At this time, police are examining a potential link between the Dizengoff shooting and another murder, of Amin Shaaban, a taxi driver whose body was found in Yonitzman St. in north Tel Aviv not long after the attack took place.

If the suspect is somewhere where he has access to television or internet, then he clearly understands that he has been identified and security forces are after him. Under such circumstances, he may act desperately and or attempt to find safe haven in the West Bank or an Israeli Arab community.

Police have left open the possibility that the attack was criminally motivated, as opposed to terrorism. If it was a terror attack, however, the events are uncharacteristic of the terror attacks in recent months. Not only was the suspected assailant an Israeli citizen (although several recent assailants have held Israeli IDs), but he used a firearm and attacked in the heart the country. Most extraordinarily, he immediately fled the scene of the attack rather than stay to maximize casualties before being killed himself - as did many of the terrorists before him.

The testimony of the suspected assailant's family members, who described him as mentally unstable, do not seem particularly reliable. According to what has been published so far, the suspect obtained a weapon and ammunition, calmly drove himself to the scene and used his weapon at basic proficiency before managing to escape while the entire country searched for him. This is not simply behavior of someone who is mentally unstable.

The suspected assailant in the Tel Aviv shooting in a 2007 photo.Credit: Itzik Ben-Malki

The attack and the events preceding it raise a number of questions concerning the security establishment's actions in this affair. The suspect's cousin was killed by police during a confrontation in Arara in 2006. A year later, the suspect attempted to steal a soldier's gun and was sentenced to five years in prison. Despite this, his father, a security guard, is allowed to keep a submachine gun at home due to his work. Why were there no red lights relating to the father's gun permit? And what kind of surveillance did authorities maintain on the suspect's activities after he was released from prison?

The media policy is also slightly strange in this instance. The man's name was not cleared for publication, but all other details and a picture of him in court in 2007 (along with security camera footage of the suspect in a health food store shortly before the shooting) were released for publication.

Surprisingly, Roni Alsheich, the new police commissioner, opted not to appear before the media while forbidding officers to be interviewed, all while SWAP teams were running down apartment stairwells with guns drawn throughout Tel Aviv. The silence was only broken after four hours, when the commander of the Yarkon District police was sent to speak with journalists. Did the police believe that Tel Aviv residents were in danger while the attacker was loose or that life could return to normal? The policy dictated by Alsheich forced Tel Aviv residents to search for answers themselves.

The unbearable ease of lone wolf terrorists

One could notice the particular discomfort of journalists on TV when it finally became clear Friday night that the suspected assailant was an Arab citizen of Israel. The anchors identified with the pain and difficulties the suspect's family, making sure to emphasize the act attributed to him does not reflect the views of all Israeli Arabs.

A screenshot from security footage showing the gunman who killed two and wounded several others in central Tel Aviv on January 1, 2016 .Credit: Screenshot

This is true, of course: Only a very small percentage of Israeli Arabs are involved in violent activities, and an even smaller minority have carried out an attack of their own. However, one should not suppress the probable explanation of the Dizengoff St. attack, similar to the immediate aftermath of the attacks in Toulouse, Brussels and San Bernardino. Young Muslims in the West are undoubtedly influenced by ISIS' incitement via the internet. In Israel's case, this is combined with the constant fire fueled by the conflict with the Palestinians.

There is no longer a need to travel to Syria to join the ranks of a murderous jihad organization as a fighter. Radicalization can occur over the Internet, and can even be inspired by coverage on TV channels established in the Arab world. Since it is relatively easy to carry out attacks, and obtaining weapons in Arab communities is not an unsolvable problem, the Israeli defense establishment faces the same general difficulty as all of the Western security services: the unbearable ease of lone wolf terrorists.

The Israeli media published the growing threat of ISIS-inspired organizations on the Syrian border, largely due to 600 local factions in the Golan Heights pledging allegiance to ISIS leadership. The more immediate risk, however, is most likely related to ISIS' possible impact on Israeli Arab youth. The trend is already apparent, albeit in smaller dimensions, among Bedouin in the Negev and Muslims in the Galilee.

The bad news from Tel Aviv arrives at the end of a week where the government approved a budget including an intensive five-year program providing economic assistance to Arab communities. Despite this praiseworthy and necessary move, the lone wolf terrorist from Wadi Ara will likely test the relationship between Israeli Jews and Arabs, overwhelming both sides with mutual fears, and later spurring more aggressive measures from the police and Shin Bet regarding the monitoring of potential suspects in terror activities.

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