L. was appointed to head the Shin Bet Security Service’s research division at the start of 2022. In her previous position, she headed the research department that dealt with the West Bank. In light of the recent terror attacks, she will need to reinforce the units in her division that deal with the Israeli Arab community. Shin Bet chief Ronen Bar, who is also relatively new in his position, should ensure that this happens.
In recent years, the research department has undergone organizational changes involving various upgrades and downgrades. None of these changes have strengthened the Shin Bet’s ability to understand the processes underway in Israeli Arab society, nor have they helped identify the formation of terror groups and terror infrastructure. Bar and other top Shin Bet officials must take pains to recruit people who grew up speaking Arabic, know the culture and the society, as well as being familiar with Islam – from more than just intensive language courses. In today’s Jewish-Israeli society, parts of which are contaminated with racism and hatred of Arabs, this is no easy task.
But that doesn’t justify the hysterical criticism of the Shin Bet in the wake of the current spate of terror attacks. Time and time again, the Shin Bet and Israeli army have defeated Palestinian terrorism. They did so during the violence of the first intifada (1987-1993) and the suicide bombings of the second intifada (2000-2004), and also in combating the wave of stabbings and lone wolf attacks in 2015-2016.
Though the Shin Bet failed to collect the necessary information that could have prevented the last three attacks, which resulted in the death of 11 Israelis, this is an isolated and temporary failure. Over the last 30 years, particularly since the second intifada, the Shin bet has greatly improved its capabilities – especially technological and cyber capabilities – and continues to provide Israelis with a level of security that allows them to lead normal lives.
The Shin Bet is not without fault. It makes mistakes. But, for the most part, it is an efficient organization that learns from setbacks and applies those lessons. The hysteria and fear currently sweeping across Israel, irresponsibly bolstered by the media, are unwarranted. There is no rush to declare that we are on the brink of a new intifada. Nor is there any solid information to indicate that we are on the verge of a new wave of terror. We are experiencing an unusual and worrying series of events, but it is still unclear if they are connected.
If there’s one thing these attacks tell us, it’s that the Shin Bet must keep closer tabs on Israeli Arabs who are suspected of trying to join ISIS by traveling to Turkey between 2013-2017 with the intention of joining the fighting in Syria and Iraq. The Shin Bet has identified most of them upon their return to Israel, and they were sent to prison for relatively brief periods. This may be the vulnerable point.
On the other hand, it’s important to remember that these are Israeli citizens, and Israel cannot keep every potential suspect under surveillance. Intelligence is not the end-all and be-all, and it also requires luck. Further, the time has come to close all breaches in the fence and wall separating Israel and the West Bank where Palestinians illegally enter Israel, even if most only do so to earn a living. The media repeatedly reveals these breaches, and the authorities routinely ignore them. This time, the issue cannot be dismissed with excuses about bureaucratic disputes or divisions of responsibility and authority.
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Reinforcing the research division is the obvious lesson here. However, the agency’s intelligence-gathering and operational capabilities among Israeli Arabs must also be examined. The Shin Bet must review its geographic coverage of the few hundred potential ISIS adherents among Israeli Arabs, and conclude whether it has sufficient sources and agents to identify when specific suspects undergo a process of radicalization.
The attacks will likely continue, mostly through copycat attacks. One successful terrorist attack inspires others to follow suit. Such attacks do not require coordination, guidance from above, or affiliation with any organization. All it takes is the right atmosphere and incitement on social media, which the Shin Bet has been very effective at monitoring, until now. This avenue for escalation must be cut off as much as possible.
Though it is two weeks before Passover, this terror bears no resemblance to the terror we saw during the second intifada with the horrific bombing of the Park Hotel in Netanya where guests were at the Seder table in April 2002. Most Israelis have too-short memories. Fueling hysteria and panic only stirs things up and benefits those who use these attacks for political gain.
The government must continue its current policy of coexistence, Jewish-Arab civil partnership and aspiring to improve socioeconomic conditions for the Israeli Arab community, the vast majority of which is opposed to terror.