Analysis |

Hamas Seeks to Orchestrate West Bank Terror Attacks, but Is Missing Key Ingredient

'People are no longer standing in line to volunteer,' says a former top Shin Bet official

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Hamas militants take part in a funeral in the northern Gaza Strip, July 11, 2019.
Hamas militants take part in a funeral in the northern Gaza Strip, July 11, 2019. Credit: REUTERS/Mohammed Salem
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

News of the manipulative planting of an M-16 rifle in the home of a resident of Isawiyah with the aim of increasing the dramatic suspense of a television documentary series stirred extensive public criticism – and quite rightly. The move by the so-called police “docudrama” on the back of an occupied population, which was sketchy to begin with reached its wacko but inevitable denouement in the story exposed by Nir Hasson in Haaretz.

>> The real danger in Palestinians' threats to cut off coordination with Israel | Analysis

A few hours after the report on the scandal in Isawiyah, a joint press release was issued by the Israel Defense Forces and the Shin Bet security service about the discovery of other weapons – this time, it is to be hoped, more authentically. Hamas members from the Gaza Strip instructed terror cells of the organization in Hebron to trigger an explosive device in Jerusalem. Two members of the cell were arrested with a three-kilo operational explosive device in their possession. The investigation also found what was described as a terror lab with additional materials for preparing devices. This is the kind of story that flies right past the ear of the average Israeli media consumer, especially at a time when there is so much political twisting and turning, but under different circumstances it might have completely changed the way this summer plays out and made a far greater impression than even yesterday’s murder in Gush Etzion.

According to the Shin Bet, the explosive was ready to be triggered. The Hamas leadership in Gaza is continuing to pursue a complex strategy vis-à-vis Israel. In Gaza they are escalating the violence from time to time in a controlled way, with the aim of exacting progress in the form of easing the blockade and getting approval for infrastructure improvements. In the West Bank and East Jerusalem they are continuing to plan terror attacks with a dual aim – undermining the Palestinian Authority and damaging Israelis’ sense of personal security. The remote-controlled terror attacks are also liable to be too successful and drag the situation into broader hostilities, but it appears that this is a risk Hamas is prepared to take, considering the possible benefits, just as it has tried to initiate abductions, even at the price of escalating tensions with Israel.

Arik (Harris) Brabbing, formerly head of the Jerusalem and West Bank district and also head of cyber operations in the Shin Bet, has told Haaretz that the vast majority of terror attacks with which the Israeli security establishment has been grappling in recent years have been identified as “lone wolf terror,” in which individuals, or small local cells, carry out a stabbing attack or a vehicular attack – and infrequently – without any orders from above or any organizational affiliation.

“In the face of this threat we gradually learned to work better. However, the old, traditional threat of organized terror remains. A large number of these attacks are planned and funded from Gaza, mostly by people who were deported in the Shalit deal, who are acting there through a body called the West Bank Command,” Brabbing says.

Palestinian Hamas security force march with their rifles during a graduation ceremony for police officers, in Gaza City, Tuesday, July 16, 2019. Credit: AP Photo/Hatem Moussa

The heads of the West Bank Command, originally inhabitants of the West Bank, were deported to Gaza as part of the prisoner exchange deal to free captive Israel soldier Gilad Shalit in 2011. They are trying to reactivate the terror there that they themselves had led in the past, in the days of the Oslo agreements and the second intifada: organized cells that initiate attacks with explosive devices, suicide attacks or mass shootings.

Brabbing says that “Israel deals with terror of the second kind in a systematic and professional way. It gets help for this from the Palestinian Authority, because the PA also sees it as a threat to its rule – and it is indeed a target of some of the organization’s actions. There is an implicit conjuncture of interests, which has been going on for many years between us and the PA and it works very well indeed. The tremendous effort in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria that Hamas is directing from Gaza has culminated in nearly zero terror attacks.”

“Every activist works vis-à-vis the town or the village district from which he came originally, where he still knows people,” says Brabbing. “The West Bank Command people have integrated in recent years into the military wing of Hamas in the Gaza Strip and have learned from its people new, more military methods of action like conducting secret communications, encoding and more orderly hierarchical work. Iran is also involved in inculcating professional knowledge.”

However, the bottleneck in which Hamas is stuck is located on the ground in the West Bank. “The activists in the Gaza Strip have difficulty recruiting many people in the West Bank who are willing to endanger themselves by planning major terror attacks or committing suicide attacks themselves. A change has taken place on the ground since the end of the intifada. People are no longer standing in line to volunteer.”

The West Bank Command Center sends money to the Hamas cells on the ground, mainly in the guise of humanitarian aid organizations. The professional instructions for building explosive devices are transmitted in various ways, inter alia by means of the internet. Currently, insofar as is known, Hamas in the West Bank does not have engineers of murderous devices like the people who led the deadly attacks on buses until the middle of the last decade. Its devices are less sophisticated and apparently also less deadly.

The only time in recent years in which a Hamas terror attack plan was relatively successful was in April 2016 when the activist who was riding the number 14 bus in Jerusalem was killed, and a number of Israeli civilians were wounded. In retrospect, it turns out that the activist was apparently fiddling with the detonator and had not intended to commit suicide.

The modes of action developed by the Shin Bet and the IDF for dealing with relatively organized terror have been given a somewhat brutal nickname: “the lawn mower.” This is a mechanism in which dozens of Palestinian are arrested throughout the West Bank and handed over to the Shin Bet for interrogation. Some are innocent; others are interrogated on suspicion of relatively minor offenses, like participating in demonstrations where stones are thrown at IDF soldiers. But this is also a method which in the absence of any mutual willingness to come to a diplomatic solution ensures relative security calm to a great extent and prevents a return to the days of attacks on buses with multiple casualties.

Brabbing says “Israel is conducting an aggressive campaign. We aren’t standing on the goal line and waiting for them to kick towards us. It isn’t a struggle between forces of equal strength. We have the advantage. That said, Hamas is operating quite an effective system of investigating hitches and learning from mistakes. The security coordination with the PA is also part of the story. It’s true that Abu Mazen” – PA President Mahmoud Abbas – “threatened last month to end the coordination but in fact it has never been stopped in the past decade, despite the threats. This isn’t because they love us – the connection with us was based on considerations of their own interests.”

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