Explanation for Tel Aviv Shooting Extends Far Beyond ISIS

In the search for an all-encompassing meta-theory to explain the motives behind such attacks, the debate automatically turns to ISIS rather than facing the facts.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Policemen searching for the assailant who killed two and wounded seven at a central Tel Aviv bar, January 1, 2016.
Policemen searching for the assailant who killed two and wounded seven at a central Tel Aviv bar, January 1, 2016. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The banal division between attacks “motivated by nationalism,” also known as terror attacks, and “criminally motivated” attacks, has been disrupted by the addition of a new subcategory dividing terror attacks into ones motivated by nationalism and ones inspired by Islamic State. Friday’s attack in Tel Aviv is being subjected to this test: Was the shooter influenced by Islamic State or did he act out of “nationalist” motivations? As if personal motives were not enough, as if it were important for there to be a theory that explains everything.

The perpetrator admitted in 2007, when he was tried for tying to snatch a soldier’s gun, that he sought to avenge the killing of a cousin by police the year before. No one had heard of Islamic State then, nor was anyone seeking additional motives. The link between the act and the reason was obvious, as it is for the shooting on Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Street and for the knife attacks of the past few months.

The search for an all-encompassing meta-theory is willing to ignore facts and contradictions, as long as a universal explanation can be found, even if it is useless. After all, what is the connection between 16-year-olds and a 72-year-old woman, between a girl with mental illness and an inexperienced, 45-year-old female driver? They are all Palestinians, they all committed acts of terror against Jews, or tried to. There is no pattern. They do not even share the usually cited common denominator, the Israeli occupation.

Thus there is no choice but to turn to Islamic State to provide the ideological cover. The problem is that religious radicalism existed in Islam (as in other religions) long before Islamic State. Islamic State knew very well how to take advantage of political and military circumstances to take over areas of Iraq and Syria and suppress opposition in horrific ways. Islamic State has no monopoly or copyright on the vision of the Islamic nation, and the threat it presents is not in ideology but in its modus operandi.

The intelligence battle against West Bank or Israeli Palestinians who join Islamic State is no different than the fight against those who join Hamas or Islamic Jihad. So it is unclear what the intelligence community finds special about the rising number of Arabs (especially Bedouin) who identify with Islamic State, as if someone who supports that organization is somehow a greater threat than a knife-wielding attacker who is not affiliated with any organization and who, of course, cannot be identified in advance.

Israel’s Arab citizens have a unique problem in this regard. As members of a suspect population, with whom romantic attachments are frowned upon as posing a threat to Jewish identity (see under Dorit Rabinyan’s “Borderlife”), they are not “allowed” to identify with the Palestinians under occupation. Nor may they express opposition to Israel’s policy on the Temple Mount or East Jerusalem, for fear of being accused of incitement or of being outlawed, like banned, like the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel.

On the other hand, attacks stemming from “personal motives” get no sympathy. Arab assailants cannot use an insanity defense or claim revenge as a motive. It’s not possible, we say, that an Israeli Arab would carry out an attack due to psychological distress. After all, the precise planning involved demonstrates sanity and cool self-control. Serial killers and perpetrators of mass shootings in American schools who planned their crimes in advance can be considered insane. But Israeli Arabs, especially the relatives of an attacker who are shocked by his actions, must represent some idea. They require incitement, preferably by Islamic State, in order to act.

But if the assumption that young Arabs are under the influence of Islamic State is correct, it constitutes a colossal failure of that organization. Compared to thousands of citizens of France, Britain, Russia and Germany — countries with far fewer Muslims than Israel — who actually joined Islamic State, the “Arab Israeli representation” is an insult to the cause.

The Israeli insult is the very need to explain that “not all Arabs are terrorists” and give 20 percent of the population a seal of approval explaining that even the best “products” sometimes have flaws. Israeli Arabs do not need the collective purification system provided by Israeli Jewish society every time an Arab carries out an attack. They would settle for being seen as a community with equal rights that also has some terrorists and other criminals, just like Israeli Jewish society.

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