Analysis |

Not Just Palestinian 'Lone Wolves': Israeli Teen's Murder Points to Organized West Bank Cells

Attack attests to a level of preparation, familiarity with the scene and proficiency in crafting explosive devices. It also signifies an uptick in grave incidents

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Israeli army forces searching after the perpetrators of Friday's attack, August 24, 2019.
Israeli army forces searching after the perpetrators of Friday's attack, August 24, 2019.Credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Friday’s killing of Rina Shnerb, in an attack that also wounded her father and brother, was apparently the work of a remotely-activated explosive, with the assailants viewing the scene from afar. This is the conclusion of a preliminary investigation into the incident, which occurred at a spring near the settlement of Dolev, west of Ramallah.

The way the attack was carried out suggests prior planning, knowledge of the area and its security arrangements, as well as skills in putting together the device. It seems the weapon wasn’t an improvised pipe bomb easy to activate, but a more sophisticated one, possibly put together in an explosives workshop.

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Several similar attempts have been made over the past year across the West Bank. Earlier this month the Shin Bet security service revealed that it had uncovered a Hamas cell in Hebron that was planning to set off such a device in Jerusalem. Last year the Palestinian security services twice uncovered attempts to place such explosives on roads patrolled by Israeli soldiers.

The attack at the spring is a sign of the recent significant increase in more serious attacks. In a little more than two weeks, the soldier Dvir Sorek was stabbed to death in the West Bank’s Gush Etzion bloc by two Palestinians, one of whom was linked with Hamas, a brother and sister were injured when a car rammed into them at a hitchhiking stop in the same area, a policeman was stabbed by two Palestinian youths at the Temple Mount (they were shot and killed), and Rina Shnerb was killed.

There is no obvious common denominator to these events but it’s hard to think of them as lone-wolf attacks any longer. In some of these cases, including the foiled attack by Hamas members from Hebron, there is a clear organizational affiliation. In some attacks, apparently including the murder of Shnerb, more than one person appears to have been involved in the planning.

It seems this isn’t just a spontaneous wave of individual terrorists, but a sign of local cells getting together, some of them associated with terror groups and operating with the avid encouragement of the West Bank division of Hamas headquarters in Gaza.

The reasons for these attacks, such as hatred of Jews wherever they are or the struggle against the occupation, are always present. But the usual tension is aggravated by the heating up of events around the Temple Mount. The incidents on Tisha B’Av, which coincided this year with Eid al-Adha, added a religious component to the mix, which makes it that much harder to calm things down. The West Bank, and to some extent East Jerusalem, have been seething with violence in recent weeks.

Rina Shnerb.

These worrisome signs were identified by both sides early on. In recent days, the army has warned about a possible increase in attacks in the West Bank. The daily Yedioth Ahronoth published a report by Palestinian security agencies that included similar warnings.

In the background to all this is the Palestinian Authority’s dire economy. Israel has been reducing tax money it transfers to the PA by an amount equivalent to what the PA transfers to Palestinian prisoners in Israel, and the Palestinians have been refusing to accept this sum in alternate ways – which has deteriorated the situation in the West Bank. Thus, over the past six months, the salaries of Palestinian government employees (more than a third of whom are part of the security apparatus) have been cut by almost half.

On Thursday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas threw a blanket over this blazing fire. The two sides reached a convoluted deal that would allow the transfer of almost 2 billion shekels ($570 million) to the PA’s coffers. The details are complex and sufficiently vague so as to let both sides claim they haven’t compromised on principles. The agreement shows that both sides realized that situation on the ground is too volatile to be left alone.

The financial arrangement didn’t prevent the attack near Dolev, and recent successes will certainly lead to imitations in the near future. On the other hand, the PA’s financial situation will be stabilized at least until November and, in turn, its forces are expected to increase their efforts to foil such attacks.

Rina Shnerb's funeral, August 23, 2019.Credit: Meged Gozani

Meanwhile, Friday’s demonstrations on the Gaza border were relatively restrained. Hamas deployed a large contingent of supervisors, who prevented people from approaching the fence, sometimes using force to do so. On the other side of the fence, the army’s sharpshooters were also asked to show restraint. Reports from Gaza mentioned five people seriously wounded, but no fatalities.

In light of Israel’s warning to Islamic Jihad and the army’s defensive measures such as the deployment of Iron Dome batteries in the south, it appears that tensions in the Gaza area have not yet abated. A Qatari envoy, Mohammed al-Emadi, is currently in Gaza with another cash shipment to Hamas. The money will start being distributed Sunday.

This should provide a further incentive for Hamas to maintain the calm, but the atmosphere in Gaza is fraught with tension due to the slow implementation of measures meant to ease the situation. Right now, attaining a long-term agreement seems like a difficult prospect, and a military escalation is still a possibility.

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