Analysis

Forget Iranian Hacking: Israel Facing the Perfect Storm After West Bank Attack

Temple Mount tensions, protests against Hamas and a rise in attempted West Bank attacks create a potent mix that will shadow the three weeks left to the election

Israeli soldiers and police carry the body of an Israeli at the scene of an attack near the West Bank settlement of Ariel, March 17, 2019.
Sebastian Scheiner,AP

While Israel has been occupied with the scandal of the Iranian hack into ex-general and election contender Benny Gantz's cellphone, Sunday morning gave Israelis a quick and painful reminder of what real life is like.

The serious attack near Ariel in the West Bank, which claimed the life of an Israeli man and wounded two others, demonstrates that the Palestinian front is as heated up as ever: It will continue to affect the election campaign in the three remaining weeks till the ballots open. The escalation is already here; only its final dimensions and political impact have yet to be determined.

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Likud campaigners will likely continue to talk about the quietest decade in the history of the state. In practice, this is a relative matter, and what's more, the relative calm in effect dissipated several months ago. Furthermore, it is unclear whether the rivals from Kahol Lavan (Gantz's party) have better solutions, despite the fact that the political alliance is headed by three former army chiefs.

Meanwhile, the first politician to issue a statement – before the condition of the casualties was fully established – was Israel's culture minister. Miri Regev, as she is prone to do, was quick to point an accusatory finger at the immediate culprits she could find: Israeli-Arab Knesset member Ahmed Tibi and his "natural partners," the Kahol Lavan leadership.

Violence is flowing through the West Bank and Jerusalem these days, one that is contained for now but could quickly erupt into perfect storm.

Palestinians eat sweets in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 17, 2019, in celebration of the attack in the West Bank.
AFP

On the Temple Mount, the court ordered on Sunday the closure of the contested Bab al-Rahma structure that the site's Muslim custodian opened without authorization.

In the West Bank, there has been a rise in attempted attacks over the past several weeks. The security coordination with the Palestinian Authority could erode, as intelligence officials have warned, because of the row over payments that led President Mahmoud Abbas to cut down in half the salaries of public servants in the West Bank.

And yet the biggest bomb is ticking in the Gaza Strip.The Qatari money that was passed into the enclave was not enough to relieve the economic hardship, which is deteriorating further. The Qatari money could even be fueling the internal tensions to some extent between those who received some of it and those who didn't see a dime.

The protests against Hamas authorities, which began last week and are not slowing down, have the local leadership worried. It is not unthinkable that more rockets will be "accidentally" launched at Israel like the ones that were fired on Tel Aviv last Thursday. The Egyptian delegation, which arrived in Gaza again on Sunday, is trying to put out the fire by guaranteeing a series of gestures that  Cairo and Jerusalem hope would help restore the calm in the Strip until the April 9 election and maybe after that.

Israeli security forces gather next to a car close to the Israeli settlement of Ariel, in the occupied West Bank on March 17, 2019.
AFP

The attack in the West Bank on Sunday is similar to last October's attack not far from there, at the Barkan industrial zone. In October's attack, a Palestinian worker murdered two Israeli civilians with a "Carlo" improvised sub-machine gun. The assailant did not only manage to escape – he even evaded the Shin Bet security service and the Israel Defense Forces for more than two months. An investigation revealed that although the murderer acted alone, and not as part of an organizational hierarchy, he was assisted after the attack by family and friends who helped him hide. The assailant in Sunday's attack also went on a killing spree. He used a gun he grabbed from an Israeli man after he stabbed him.

Hamas – and to a lesser extent other Palestinian factions operating through their media outlets – have been consistently inciting to terrorism, in the backdrop of the crises on the Temple Mount and in Gaza. Though it seems Hamas is hesitant about a clash with Israel in Gaza for fear of a harsh Israeli strike (and it will not have billions of dollars ready for reconstruction, as it did after the 2014 war), it has no qualms regarding the West Bank. A deterioration in the West Bank, which would further harm coordination between Israeli and the Palestinian Authority intelligence services, would be a welcome development for Hamas.

Even if Sunday's assailant acted alone, this attack was perpetrated on the fertile ground of incitement. And as usual under these circumstances, the concern among the Israeli security services has to do with the combination of the specific crises and the possibility that a wave of copycat attacks will follow.