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Israel's security establishment has learned to contend with lone wolf terrorism, but the public can't accept that terrorism is here for the foreseeable future • In the meantime, both the PA and Israel are fighting internal battles over national identity.
The renewed spate of terrorist attacks in recent weeks demonstrates that the announcements that the wave of terrorism that started in October 2015 had been defeated were overly optimistic. The deep-seated forces that caused violence to erupt a year ago are still here; without any fundamental change in the situation, which does not appear to be forthcoming, the reality of terrorist attacks of varying severity will be with us for the foreseeable future.
On the other hand, the declarations that Israel was in the throes of a third intifada were also exaggerated. After a year, we can say with certainty that while we are indeed grappling with something new, the lack of mass Palestinian participation in or support for the violence, and especially its lack of organization or direction, means this is no intifada [which means "popular uprising"]. Quite the opposite: This past year, almost all the established players in the Palestinian Authority have done everything possible to suppress the attacks. Not out of concern for Israeli lives, but out of fear for the future of the PA.
The main lesson from this year of terrorist attacks is that there is no quick fix. Without an organized entity to fight, and given that almost all the attacks were committed by individuals, most of whom did not disclose their plans to anyone, the way to win -- or more precisely, to contain the threat -- lies in a series of multidisciplinary actions: military, technological, economic, political, psychological, and media.
It took many weeks for Israel to understand that. From the moment the wave of terrorism began on October 1 of last year, when the Naama and Eitam Henkin were murdered near Nablus, there were times when it appeared that something else, something bigger, was about to be unleashed.
There's a good reason why the lion's share of the violence then and since has had two main focuses: Jerusalem and Hebron. Both are prominent religious symbols, both are the site of unusually volatile clashes between Israelis and Palestinians. The rest of Judea and Samaria was relatively subdued, with a few exceptions, contributing to the Israeli decision to stick to business as usual despite the uptick in terrorism -- allow the Palestinians freedom of movement to work, work their land, conduct business, and study, giving them a reason to get up in the morning and something to lose.
Imitation -- the notable element
The "profit and loss" approach was coalesced at a relatively early stage of the terrorism wave. In essence, it holds that Palestinians not active in terrorism will continue living their lives as usual, while anyone who does, will suffer. They will lose work permits, have money confiscated, and their homes will be demolished. When we're talking about an entire village or clan, this is a harsh price to pay. An example would be the village of Sa'ir near Hebron. A total of 12 terrorist attacks originated there in a short period of time, and it was clear that something other than applying military pressure -- surrounding the village, careful checks of residents, limiting access to employment -- had to be done. Officials from the Civil Administration met with village elders and made it clear that things could not continue in the same vein. The result: discussions with young people in all the village schools, and at the height of the efforts, students' bags were searched daily to ensure that they weren't carrying knives.
This is one example of the dozens of initiatives put into play this past year to tamp down terrorism. Without a guiding hand behind the violence, it quickly became clear that the most notable characteristic of the terrorists was imitation -- their actions were inspired by other attacks or terrorists and the desire to mimic them or avenge their deaths. Ten young people from the village of Qabatiya in northern Samaria set out one after the next to commit stabbings in Jerusalem -- nearly all were relatives or neighbors of the one who had gone before. It was obvious that to check the activity, it was necessary to do two things: Create long enough periods of quiet between attacks to allow the echoes to die down, and prevent as far as possible wounded and dead on the Israeli side, thus making the attacks ineffective.
"At the beginning, we didn't have enough tools to effectively deal with 'terrorism by inspiration,'" says Judea and Samaria Division Commander Brig. Gen. Lior Carmeli.
"Since then, we've improved. We've developed our views of operating and thinking, which allow us to achieve better results," Carmeli says.
What Carmeli is talking about is mainly operational: the attempt to end every encounter between a terrorist and a member of Israel's security forces (a soldier or police officer) without any wounded on our side and without the terrorist achieving anything. It was necessary to reduce the number of civilian targets as much as possible to ensure that it would be the security forces who came under attack, not only because soldiers and police are better armed and trained, but because of the simple understanding that it's their job to stand between terrorism and civilians.
So six "prime" locations were mapped out: Gush Etzion Junction; the Jewish community in Hebron; the Shaar Binyamin area outside Ramallah; the Dor Alon gas station on Route 443; the area that extends from the settlement of Tapuach to the entrance to Nablus; and the plaza at the entrance to the city of Ariel. Each of these was the focus of concentrated efforts that included increased security forces, additional security measures and fences, restrictions on movement by Palestinians, and carefully separating them from the Israelis. The result was a sharp drop in the number of terrorist attacks because the terrorists realized their chances of succeeding were slim.
Fear of chaos that could help Hamas
The operational improvements were just part of the picture. There were also deterrent elements (the terrorists' fear that their homes would be demolished, of dying, and of being sent to prison) and significantly improved intelligence. If at the start of the year of terrorism the security apparatus did not know how to locate and thwart lone wolf terrorists, the picture has changed dramatically. Through more focused searches and tracking, mainly on social media, the Shin Bet security agency and the IDF are managing to get to many young people before they set out to commit a terrorist attack. Expressing radical views is not grounds for arrest, but that combined with a declared intent to die and relevant personal circumstances is certainly grounds for a visit that includes a warning conversation with the parents and, if required, a preemptive arrest.
This past year has also seen a change on the Palestinian side. A year ago, the PA leadership was on the fence, and following events with interest. Despite claims to the contrary in Israel, the PA was playing an active role in the violence, but neither did it take action against it. Only when the violence threatened to get out of control following mass demonstrations in which people were wounded, as especially after the PA started worrying that Tanzim members would join the violence and really light things up, did PA President Mahmoud Abbas order a halt to the terrorist activity, an order that was followed to the letter and remains in place today. PA security forces are even currently working to find and shutter weapons workshops, weapons dealers, and illegal money changers. Sometimes, the activity is carried out in close cooperation with Israel, but the Palestinians' motive is clear -- they fear chaos that will strengthen Hamas or lead to a massive Israeli operation.
There is another thing that is of great concern to the Palestinian side and less well known to Israel: the terrorists' identity. Many of the people who wanted to try or who tried to carry out attacks this past year were minors, and almost all came from a troubled background. They were kids who had dropped out of school or been thrown out of the house, or women who had cheated on their husbands or whose fiances had canceled the wedding. As the numbers added up, it turned out that we weren't talking about the classic shahid (martyr) acting for the sake of his people or homeland, but people who wanted to take advantage of their personal problems to seek glory. That carries a lot of weight in a society that sanctifies its heroes and their sacrifice, and the shahids lost some of their status, leading to a drop in the number of people seeking to join their ranks.
Feeling among the Palestinian public reflected that change. According to surveys conducted by Khalil Shakaki's Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, in December 2015, 57% of the Palestinian public supported stabbing attacks, but in March of this year that number stood at 44%, and in June 2016 it had dropped to 36%.
The numbers show improvement
The Israeli security establishment divides this past year into three periods. The first was from the time the wave of terrorism started (or "exploded," as the Palestinians refer to it) in October 2015 until March of 2016; the second was from March until the festival of Ramadan this summer; and the third -- from the end of Ramadan in early July until mid-September. The first period saw a high rate of terrorism, with near-daily attacks. The second was much quieter, until Ramadan, when the rate of terrorist attacks once again escalated. They stopped when the holy month ended and began again just recently, as the Muslims marked the major holiday Eid al-Adha and the Jewish High Holidays approached.
Over this past year, 334 terrorist attacks and serious attempts to commit attacks were carried out. There were 192 stabbings, 100 shootings, 33 car ramming attacks and nine explosive devices detonated. A total of 39 civilians and members of the security forces were killed on the Israeli side (that number includes three foreign citizens and one Palestinian), and 199 Palestinians, 159 of whom were terrorists, were killed. A total of 3,570 Palestinians were arrested this past year, including 1,200 who were directly involved in terrorist activity. Approximately 340 attacks were thwarted, including 12 would-be suicide bombings, 10 planned abductions (including some for which weapons and safe houses had already been arranged), and 120 shootings. A total of 29 illegal weapons manufacturing operations were located and closed down and 317 guns were confiscated. Millions of shekels that were earmarked to fund terrorism were also located and confiscated.
These numbers tell us what happened and what was prevented from happening, and it's basically good news. The numbers from these past six months are not only better than the preceding six months, but also better than the numbers from the same period a year ago and two years ago. All of the actions taken by Israel, along with the increased activity by Palestinian security forces and cooperation between the sides, lowered the violence and created the impression that the wave of terrorism had been defeated.
But as we said, these past two weeks have given us some perspective. Terrorism isn't going anywhere. It ebbed and flowed, and just like last year, a little spark is all that is needed to start a major conflagration. This time, it was a rumor that started with the death of a young girl from the Bethlehem area in a car accident and the ridiculous claim that she had been run over deliberately. The first attack after that incident and the ones that followed it were nearly all motivated by vengeance and imitation.
Israel's immediate response was to deploy more security forces to Jerusalem and Hebron. When the wave of terrorism was at its height, 23 battalions were deployed in Judea and Samaria, compared to 17 when it was at its lowest point. In response to the renewed attacks, another battalion is being moved into the Hebron area, and in the next few days another battalion or two will be joining it, depending on the degree of escalation.
"We're in a tense period, that could turn out to be another hurdle," Carmeli says.
"Given the lack of stability, there are a number of factors that set the powder keg alight, even though by almost every parameter we're better prepared than we were a year ago," Carmeli adds.
It's widely believed that the consistent attention being focused on the Temple Mount during the holidays could create another upset, despite the Israeli attempts to keep things calm. The decision not to allow Israeli elected officials to visit the Mount, and the decision by controversial figures such as Agricultural Minister Uri Ariel and MK Yehuda Glick to stay silent on the matter, has been a great help. Another person who is playing a key role in preserving the calm is the new Israel Police Commissioner Insp. Gen. Roni Alsheikh, whose religious background and time in the Shin Bet help him keep dangerous actors on the Israeli side in check.
Making infiltrators legit
Still, terrorism is here, just like it has been the past 150 years. The Israeli public and its officials refuse to accept that as a fact and want it utterly defeated, a reasonable demand. It's too bad the same fervor doesn't exist when it comes to fighting car accidents (which kill 360 people per year) or sea drownings (50 people per year on average.)
Public opinion has zero tolerance for the circumstances that lie at the base of the complicated reality in the field, and are only expected to worsen. The instinct is to point out the frozen peace process that involves 2.8 million Palestinians and about 400,000 settlers in Judea and Samaria, but the Palestinians have plenty of national issues of their own: Unemployment in Judea and Samaria stands at about 20% (compared to less than 5% inside the Green Line), and the unemployment numbers are much higher among young people aged 15 to 40. Nearly 1 million Palestinians have completed college degrees, some have master's degrees, and are at best working as dishwashers, making an average of 60 shekels ($16) a day.
In this reality, the basic frustration among Palestinians is extremely high. This is also the reason why the security apparatus has been fighting not to apply a closure to Judea and Samaria and allow a reasonable standard of life to the greatest extent possible, including keeping the some 120,000 Israeli work permits for Palestinian laborers and traders in place. Statistics don't lie here, either: People who work don't commit terrorist attacks. The vast majority of terrorist attacks carried out within the Green Line were the acts of Palestinian infiltrators. The conclusion is to increase oversight of Palestinian infiltrators and turn them "legit" by issuing them work permits, with the understanding that anyone who has a good reason to get up in the morning won't, for the most part, turn to dangerous paths.
The majority of Palestinians' frustration isn't with Israel, it's with the PA, which is perceived as corrupt and useless. Opinion polls indicate that the public is tired not only of the leadership, but also of the ideas it represents. Most of the public does not believe that a peace deal with Israel is possible, and are not enjoying any benefits from the international campaign that Abbas is leading against Israel.
From the start, the PA has tried to preserve public opinion through incitement, but the moment it realized that by doing so it was holding a tiger by the tail, it changed its tune. Now senior PA officials are watching what they say, and incitement on official PA media channels has dropped quite a bit. Still, that doesn't change the fundamental reality: The PA has a budget of some 16.5 billion shekels ($4.39 billion), and devotes some 1.2 billion ($320 million) of it to payments to Palestinians prisoners in Israel and families of shahids. In other words, even if the PA is officially refraining from incitement, the fact that 8% of its budget goes to direct or indirect support of terrorists, is de facto encouragement of incitement.
The day after Abbas
As we mentioned, the assessment in Israel is that we're in for a few tense weeks -- another spike which Israel will have to take the same series of steps to quell. But even after that happens, the reality won't change, and it's the same reality we expect to face this coming year and possibly after that. Waves of terrorist attacks of various intensity will come and go, and the time between them will be longer or shorter.
This assessment is based on matters that will concern the Palestinians (and therefore Israel) this coming year: the possibility that Abbas will resign and the question of who will succeed him; a decision by Hamas to participate in the PA municipal elections; internal elections in Hamas; and the expected gain in strength of Hamas' armed wing following the resignation of Khaled Mashaal; and, of course, the constant erosion of the peace process and the ongoing instability of the region. And behind this all is the potential for a huge mess over the slated demolition of Israeli settler homes in Amona and Palestinian homes in Susya.
Two of these events might be especially volatile. The first -- Abbas' successor. As of now, there is no lack of possible contenders: Marwan Barghouti (who enjoys the support of the public); Mohammed Dahlan (who is currently in the Persian Gulf and supported by the Emirates); Jibril Rajoub (who is trying to drum up popularity through his roles on the Palestinian Olympic Committee and the Palestinian Football Association); Mahmoud al-Alul (a senior Fatah official who is considered very strong "in the field"); Nasser al-Qidwa (the nephew of PLO founder Yasser Arafat and who could be a compromise candidate because of his weakness); and former and current PA Prime Ministers Salam Fayyad and Rami Hamdallah, respectively, who both lack a political lobby but who could potentially enjoy the support of Western nations.
The battle for the PA leadership is likely to be fierce, and the only issue on which the candidates will agree is that Israel is the enemy. The race will include escalation in anti-Israeli rhetoric, which could in turn lead to escalation in the field. The second volatile issue is that Hamas, as usual, can be expected to stick its finger in the pie. Given its lack of success this past year in taking the reins of the wave of terrorism and turning it into a real armed intifada, Hamas has decided to go back and take over the PA from within, through elections, taking advantage of the public's admiration for it and the public's frustration with the PA and its leaders.
Of course, Israel will try to stay out of the fight, but will be hit with the fallout. The worst scenario is that Hamas gains control over PA institutions after Abbas resigns. Until then, currently policy will remain in place, especially the economic aspects: yes to Palestinians working in Israel, yes to trade, yes to freedom of movement, no to collective punishment -- all with the purpose of giving the Palestinian room to breathe and reduce its motivation to take part in violent activity.
In the background, the most important event of this last year of terrorism -- the trial of IDF Sgt. Elor Azaria, who is accused of manslaughter for shooting and killing an immobilized Palestinian terrorist -- is moving toward a decision. Despite the denials, both sides might try to talk and reach out to defuse the emotions and the dangerous gap between how the IDF sees Azaria's actions and how the public does.
The IDF General Staff Headquarters is convinced that the affair of the Hebron shooting caused short-term damage, whereas the legal, moral, and operational value of addressing it has long-term implications for the image of the military. The argument is that given the hundreds of terrorist attacks committed and thwarted, the fact that only one soldier has been put on trial highlights the extent to which the army backs up its soldiers, until they stray from the IDF norms.
But behind the scenes, there is a much bigger battle being waged over who directs the army -- the chief of staff, or MKs, rabbis, and various rabble-rousers. This issue encapsulates almost all the arguments that have existed lately: the dismantling of the "Jewish consciousness" department of the IDF Rabbinate and its transfer to the IDF Personnel Directorate; the protest over religious soldiers having to shave their beards; the harsh words of public officials toward the Military Advocate General and the Civil Administration; and of course, the Azaria case and its ramifications for the open-fire regulations.
For now, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot is refusing to buckle under. He is careful to stress that he answers to the top political echelon, but does not hide his dismay at the acts, remarks, and attempts to intervene from outside. Anyone who knows Eizenkot knows that his fuse has an end; the way things are going, he could soon move the battle over the military's image out into the open.
Original piece is http://www.israelhayom.com/site/newsletter_article.php?id=36859