Unclear and present danger: Israel facing growing threat of non-organized terrorism


Friday, November 22, 2013
By  | Nov. 22, 2013 | 8:20 PM
A suspect in the killing of Col. (ret.) Seraiah Ofer, being arrested, October 2013. Photo by Gil Eliahu

A cartoon by Haaretz’s Eran Wolkowski, which was published in the paper several weeks ago ‏(on October 25‏), has since made regular appearances in presentations of GOC Central Command. The illustration depicts an Israel Defense Forces officer showing Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz a map of the West Bank. On it are a series of dots indicating the spots where terror attacks have been perpetrated recently. “They're all isolated incidents,” the officer says. But a closer look at the map reveals that the points connect into the likeness of a tiger with jaws open and teeth bared.

The fact that senior IDF officers are willing to laugh at themselves ‏(up to a point‏) doesn’t mean that the joke isn’t at their expense, or that the army and Shin Bet security service are somehow close to finding a solution to the problem.

Since the current wave of terrorism started in mid-September, there have been at least 12 such attacks, or attempted attacks − all of them in the West Bank, apart from one inside the Green Line. Four Israelis have been murdered in these incidents: three soldiers and a retired officer. In none of the cases has a known and systematic terrorist organization been clearly involved. Many of the cases were the result of a concatenation of the perpetrator’s very difficult personal circumstances, criminal intent and the broader background of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Only the attacks that ended with loss of life on the Israeli side − most recently, the murder last week of soldier Eden Attias while he was asleep on a bus in Afula − appear to have drawn much attention from the public and the media.

Actually, it’s some of the failed attempts that can perhaps provide more information about the nature of the renewed awakening in the West Bank. About two weeks ago, a Palestinian came from the Jenin area to Tapuah Junction, south of Nablus. When darkness fell, after a few hours of roaming around in the vicinity of the junction the man pulled out a pistol and shot at a few Israeli cars as they passed by. Two infantry soldiers and a border policeman who were posted at the junction, charged at the terrorist and killed him. ‏(The nature of protection at the site was changed a few months ago in the wake of a terror attack in which Evyatar Borovsky, from the settlement of Yitzhar, was murdered.‏)

The IDF’s investigation of the latest incident found that the security forces had responded properly. In the circumstances, there was no way of knowing that the assailant was using a nonlethal weapon ‏(a flare pistol‏). The three put a stop to the danger faced by Israeli travelers on the road. The terrorist had no prior record of security offenses. However, he was suffering from depression and taking antidepressants. A few hours before the incident, he had written on his Facebook page that he was “going to Paradise.”

It’s not clear why he availed himself of the flare pistol rather than a real weapon, which can be readily found in the West Bank.

In another recent incident, a Palestinian who tried to attack soldiers was shot to death. An inquiry by army intelligence found that the man had been exposed as a homosexual not long before and was under intense social and family pressure.

A few months ago, two young Palestinians were arrested when they climbed onto the separation barrier near Jenin. They said they were on their way to carry out a terrorist attack in a nearby Israeli settlement. When asked what their motive was, they explained that they were musicians but that their parents had forbidden them to go on studying music.

The alleged murderers of Col. ‏(ret.‏) Seraiah Ofer, in mid-October, originally came to his isolated farm in the Jordan Rift Valley to steal metal objects. Ofer was murdered when he confronted them. The different accounts they gave their Shin Bet interrogators finally merged into one version: True, we came to steal, but the murder of a former senior officer was “a gift to Hamas and to the Palestinian people.”

Economic advantage

The common denominator of many of the recent terror attacks is familiar from the period of the first intifada ‏(which began in December 1987‏). Personal problems intertwine with the broader political picture. It is also impossible to ignore the considerable economic advantage that accrues to the terrorist’s family. If the young depressive from Tapuah Junction had simply chosen to commit suicide, it would have been an embarrassment for his family. But a death in the name of the national struggle guarantees the family monthly support from the Palestinian Authority.

Just this week, it was reported that the PA is paying huge sums, in Palestinian terms, to the veteran prisoners whom Israel released when the political negotiations resumed.

Is the defense establishment capable of coping more effectively with the recent wave of attacks, which have put an end to three years of relative quiet in the West Bank? In a notably hawkish speech this week, delivered at the annual conference in memory of Moshe Dayan held at Tel Aviv University, Ya’alon stated that the Israelis killed recently are “victims of the political process.” In other words, according to him, the resumption of the talks with the Palestinians has radicalized the atmosphere in the West Bank and is inducing more individual terrorists to take an initiative.

But the IDF and Shin Bet are looking for more practical answers. Their working assumption is that such attacks are liable to continue at a fairly high frequency for the next few months. The number of victims is low compared with the suicide-bombing attacks of the previous decade, but every slaying of a soldier is considered a success in the territories, and every attack triggers copycat attempts.

A systematic examination of the latest incidents shows only minimal involvement by the veteran terror organizations. Hamas is still in retreat, under the dual pressure being exerted by Israel and the PA security units. The few Hamas military squads that are now active are engaged in planning more complex attacks, such as shootings and abductions of soldiers and settlers.

In general, they are acting under the directives of the organization’s headquarters in Gaza and in several neighboring countries, to which ranking Hamas members who were released in the Gilad Shalit exchange deal two years ago were sent. Because planning of that type leaves a more meaningful intelligence “signature” than the actions of individuals, most of those attempts have been thwarted. If someone rents an apartment in which to hide and rents a car or obtains a weapon, he leaves clues that can lead to his capture. There are also occasional cases of Fatah members reverting to terrorism on their own, without PA encouragement.

Impossible to detect

The difficulty faced by the security forces is clear. It is almost impossible to detect the intensions of a lone individual in advance, especially if he has no prior security record, when all that is required of him is an instantaneous decision and availing himself of whatever means are available, ranging from a knife to a bulldozer.

The Palestinian who was shot to death a month ago when he tried to crush soldiers under a bulldozer, in a base north of Jerusalem, was on his way ‏(with his brother‏) to bring back two bulldozers from the family business. At one point he “disappeared,” without saying a word to his brother, and drove to the base. The terrorist’s mobile phone rang for some time after he had been killed: His brother had heard about the incident and suspected it might be him. The two had a third brother, who was killed when he carried out a similar attack with a bulldozer four years ago.

Israeli intelligence officials are racking their brains in an effort to make surveillance more effective. Would it have been possible, for example, to intercept the announcement of the Tapuah Junction terrorist on his Facebook page that he was on the way to “Paradise,” locate him and prevent the attack?

It’s no secret that Israel is monitoring social networks in the neighboring countries − and even more intensively since the start of the Arab Spring − in order to better gauge the public mood. But in cases such as these, countless specific details need to be assimilated in order to produce real-time deterrence.

The other element is the correct tactical deployment of forces in the field and the meticulous maintenance of a high level of alertness over time. “I am on the soldiers’ case, so as to ensure that they keep up the readiness level at checkpoints and in patrols,” says the commander of a sector in the West Bank. “Better they should grumble about my toughness than leave weak points that could cost lives.”

Since the resurgence of the terrorist attacks, Israeli officials − Ya’alon, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Strategic and Intelligence Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz − have been heard leveling two major complaints against the PA: the ongoing incitement against Israel in the media and the education system, and the impotence of the Palestinians’ security units in dealing with terrorists.

The first complaint has been a favorite of Netanyahu’s since his first term as prime minister in the late 1990s. There is no dispute that under the current Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, as previously, the Palestinian leadership is doing very little to deal with the phenomenon. Still, the incitement issue looks mostly like a card Israel can play in arguments with the Palestinians and in meetings with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry − who, according to what a senior Israeli cabinet minister told Haaretz last week, can no longer be considered an honest broker in peace negotiations between the two sides.

However, in the face of Israel’s massive construction in the settlements and the ploy of announcing new building tenders by Housing and Construction Minister Uri Ariel last week, the Americans are probably not overly impressed by Netanyahu’s complaints.

When it comes to the question of the PA’s handling of terrorists, experts in Israel are divided. Shin Bet head Yoram Cohen tends to underscore the failures of the Palestinian security units in arresting wanted individuals about whom Israel has passed on warnings. Cohen also plays up the problems faced by the Palestinian authorities in imposing law and order in the refugee camps − notably the Jenin, Balata and Qalandiyah camps − where fear of the PA has faded.

In contrast, sources in the IDF tend to praise the day-to-day security coordination and note the dozens of occasions in which the Palestinian security forces have safely extricated Israeli civilians who mistakenly entered Palestinian territory. As for governance, a senior General Staff officer tells Haaretz, “We, too, do not necessarily excel everywhere − not in Lod and not in Yitzhar.”