The senior officer from Central Command who spoke to reporters Thursday morning sounded more perturbed than usual. Although the security forces chalked up two successes Wednesday night in the hunt for the perpetrators of terror attacks in the West Bank, the officer was making an obvious effort to explain the sensitive nature of the situation on the ground.
For people who have known the officer for years, since his days as an outstanding battalion commander who had many encounters with the enemy during the second intifada, it wasn’t hard to discern a note of concern in his voice.
At the end of the discussion, without the words being said outright even once, the bottom line was clear: The West Bank is facing another wave of violence. The ability to stop this trend in the coming days, before it spreads, depends mainly on the forces in the field – on whether a wave of copy-cat attacks will translate into another success for terror.
And the outcome, certainly in a shooting attack, is often a matter of the speed of the response and even a bit of luck. There’s a commander of a regional brigade in the West Bank who often says to his soldiers: “Give me 15 good seconds. We’ll take care of the rest.” In other words, disrupting the attack, or at least harming the attacker immediately, depends on the alertness of the first soldiers at the site.
The reason for concern became clear less than two hours later: An armed Palestinian opened fire at soldiers and civilians at a hitchhiking stop near the Givat Assaf outpost east of Ramallah. Two soldiers from the Netzah Yehuda Battalion (the ultra-Orthodox Nahal unit) were killed. Another soldier and an Israeli woman were seriously wounded. The gunman fled.
This looks like a direct Palestinian reaction to previous events. On Wednesday evening, north of Ramallah, members of Yamam, a Border Police counterterrorism unit, killed the Hamas member suspected of the shooting attack at the settlement of Ofra this week that killed a newborn baby and wounded six other Israeli civilians.
Several others involved in the attack were arrested. A few hours later, in the Askar refugee camp outside Nablus, another Yamam force killed the man who murdered two civilians in an attack in the Barkan industrial zone in early October.
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Both of the terrorists who were killed were armed. In both cases, the assessment is that they intended to carry out similar attacks in the near future. The two were nabbed by members of the most highly skilled unit that carries out operations of this kind. We can assume that the country’s political and security leaders didn’t shed tears because what began as an arrest operation ended with killings.
A few hours later, another shooting attack took place, similar to the one that took place near Ofra on Sunday. The incident may have been an attempt to exact revenge for the killings, but the timing was meaningful too – a day before the anniversary of Hamas' founding.
The recent series of incidents is a recipe for escalation because there could be copy-cat attacks that generate a cycle of revenge attacks. The army has decided to reinforce its presence in the West Bank for the second time this week; the idea is that the additional forces will serve as a firewall.
At the same time, the army has sealed off Ramallah. The sensitivity is particularly high because the city is the capital of the Palestinian Authority and the place where most of the Palestinian security forces are centered.
The investigation of Thursday morning's incident has only just begun. And the Shin Bet security service hasn't released extensive details on its investigations into the two terrorist attacks that have been among the most serious recently in the West Bank.
In recent weeks, there has been an increase in the number of highway shootings in the West Bank. On average in recent months, between four and eight shootings, stabbings or car-ramming attacks have been committed there per month. In at least some of the cases, it appears these attacks reflect a growing hybrid phenomenon that's harder for the security forces to deal with.
During the second intifada, which broke out in late September 2000, the Israeli army and the Shin Bet learned how to deal well with the decently organized terrorist infrastructure of groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The endless string of arrests (and in the peak years of the conflict, sometimes assassinations) created an effect that was dubbed “mowing the lawn” – systematically hitting at this terror infrastructure, which prevented the groups from developing and/or reestablishing their expertise.
In the autumn of 2015, a different phenomenon hit the West Bank and East Jerusalem on an unprecedented scale: attacks by lone-wolf terrorists. Hundreds of young people, both male and female, acting on their own and without an organizational network behind them, set out to commit attacks with kitchen knives, or in the case of ramming attacks, the steering wheel of the family car.
But Israel also gradually learned how to act against these methods. Intensive monitoring of social media used by Palestinians, in addition to effective warning talks from the Palestinian Authority's security forces, headed off many of the cases in which young people would have set out on attacks.
Another phenomenon is a kind of hybrid of the two other categories. It involves local cells, usually without any declared ideological affiliation, that organize based on personal or family acquaintance. Such cells are responsible for some of the recent attacks. In these cases, the acquaintances provide the terrorist with cover, as apparently happened with the gunman in the Barkan industrial zone.
But the main risk from recent events in the West Bank relates to Hamas’ conduct. A Shin Bet statement at the end of last month about the arrest of a Hebron-area resident who had been trained as an explosives “engineer” attracted little attention in Israel. What was new in the disclosure was how the engineer had been deployed.
In recent years, hundreds of attempts by Hamas leaders in Gaza and abroad to carry out attacks in Israel and the West Bank using West Bank cells have been foiled. The hierarchy in these cases has been clear. Saleh al-Arouri, of Hamas' military wing, has led the operations. Arouri currently splits his time between Lebanon and Turkey.
Meanwhile, two entities have worked under Arouri, known as the West Bank headquarters and the West Bank region. Some of their operations have relied on terrorists from the West Bank who were expelled to the Gaza Strip as part of the 2011 prisoner swap for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
Hamas hasn't given up on the effort, but it appears to have switched approaches. The engineer who was arrested, Awis Rajoub, was deployed directly by people in the Gaza Strip, without a connection to Arouri and the Shalit deportees.
The organization appears to be seeking to streamline the command hierarchy and improve its operational results. These efforts are sufficiently important for Hamas to continue to pursue them as it tries to reach a long-term cease-fire agreement with Israel in the Gaza Strip. Gaza and the West Bank are separate matters.
Hamas’ approach remains unchanged. A resumption of lethal terrorist attacks from the West Bank would make things difficult for Israel, impeding security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority’s security services, undermining the stability of President Mahmoud Abbas’ rule, and certainly damaging an orderly transfer of power to Abbas’ successors.
In the Gaza Strip, based on Israeli intelligence assessments, Hamas is wary about a war. The continued flow of fuel and funds to pay salaries in Gaza, financed by Qatar, is designed to help maintain relative calm, but the possibility of an escalation in the West Bank could also seep into Gaza.
But Hamas won't achieve a long-term agreement if it doesn't achieve its goals: a substantial easing of the blockade of the Gaza Strip, considerable improvements to the civilian infrastructure there, and a maintaining of its military power.
Hamas doesn't view a deal on the return of two Israeli civilians and the body of two Israeli soldiers as an essential part of the process. From its standpoint, that’s a separate question that should be considered in the contacts regarding a long-term cease-fire.