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After Brussels attacks, Israelis and others urge better Belgian anti-terror tactics

Click photo to download. Caption: A memorial in Brussels for the victims of the March 22 terror attacks in that city. Credit: Miguel Discart via Wikimedia Commons.
Click photo to download. Caption: A memorial in Brussels for the victims of the March 22 terror attacks in that city. Credit: Miguel Discart via Wikimedia Commons.

Belgium and all of Europe are reeling from the March 22 terror blasts at Brussels’s Zaventem airport and Maelbeek subway station. The latest counts say that 31 people were killed and 270 were injured in the Brussels attacks, for which the Islamic State terror group has claimed responsibility.

In Israel—a country long accustomed to dealing with terrorism like rocket attacks from Gaza as well as the current wave of Palestinian stabbing, shooting, and car-ramming attacks—several politicians have harshly criticized Belgian authorities for what they see as insufficient security protocols across Europe and the continent’s lax policy on allowing in Middle Eastern refugees.

If “in Belgium they continue eating chocolate and enjoying life, and continue to appear as great democrats and liberals, and [have] not decided that some Muslims in their country are organizing terror, they won’t be able to fight them,” Israeli Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz (Likud) told Israel’s Army Radio.

Dr. Amira Halperin, an expert on radicalization in Europe and researcher for the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told that European governments “have been able to predict” that more attacks like last November’s six coordinated Islamist attacks in Paris could occur across Europe, because they have “information about terrorists’ cells in Europe.” But at the same time, explained Halperin, many “legal, political, and policy” reasons have prevented European nations from acting as thoroughly as they could have on terror threats.

The European continent has been dealing with a large wave of Middle East refugees, primarily—but not exclusively—from civil war-torn Syria. According to the United Nations’ refugee agency, UNHCR, the number of applications for asylum received in the European Union (EU) in 2014 was already 25 percent greater than the same period in 2013. Eurostat also reports that during the first three months of 2015, the number of asylum-seekers who applied for protection in the EU was up 86 percent from the first quarter of 2014.

While many of the refugees are genuinely escaping the harsh regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as well as Islamic State, which now controls large parts of Syria and Iraq, some Islamic State terrorists have reportedly been passing as refugees to get into Europe.

“We have repeatedly seen that terrorists…have slipped in camouflaged or disguised as refugees,” Hans-Georg Maassen, the head of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, the BfV, told the German public broadcaster ZDF in February.

“This is a fact that the security agencies are facing,” he added.

Along with the issue of Mideast refugees, the Associated Press reported this week that Islamic State has trained at least 400 fighters to target Europe in deadly waves of attacks. Belgian citizens, in particular, have been traveling back to the Middle East to join radical groups. The International Centre for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence (ICSR) estimates that in 2015, about 500 Belgian nationals traveled to Syria or Iraq with that intention, making Belgium’s figure the highest per capita in all of Europe.

“If you’d spoken to intelligence people or police people in Belgium, they would have been the first to admit that their agencies were not built for the number of people that they’re supposed to monitor,” Peter Neumann, a professor at King’s College London and the director of ICSR, told Vox.

In fact, some European officials had warned that the arrest of Saleh Abdelsam, a suspect in last November’s Paris attacks, could lead to further retaliatory attacks.

“Paris was a warning. [Last November’s] attacks were in Paris, yes, but they were essentially prepared in Belgium. So Belgium is at the top of the list for everyone who studies this phenomenon in Europe,” Neumann said.

Europeans were also reportedly forewarned by Turkey, whose country saw its own deadly bombing in Istanbul on March 19. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has claimed that one of the alleged Brussels bombers was deported from Turkey, and that Turkish warnings to Belgian officials about his terror ties were ignored.

Bruce Riedel, a former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) official and White House advisor who now works for the Brookings Institution think tank, told CNN that Belgium has problems of “two languages (French and Flemish), lack of Arabic speakers, and weak coordination between national and local government,” which leads to “a huge discrepancy between threat and response.”

Given that situation, Israeli Member of Knesset (MK) Nava Boker (Likud) blamed Belgium’s “policy of appeasement” for the Brussels attacks.

“Belgium must close its borders immediately, eject from itself the inciters, and stop Muslim immigration into the country. Rather than point to radical Islam as the number one cause of global terror today, Belgian Interior Minister [Jan] Jambon chooses to claim that more must be done to make young Muslims ‘feel at home,’” she said.

On the other side of the Israeli political spectrum, left-leaning Zionist Union MK Kesenia Svetlova said that “European multi-culturalism has failed” and that Europe “must come up with a continent-wide plan for a war on extreme and destructive ideology and a holistic approach to deal with all of the negatives entering the continent in the name of extremist Islamic ideology.”

After the Brussels attacks, Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riyad Maliki told European parliamentarians in Brussels that they should differentiate between Islamic State terrorism and the Palestinian attacks against Israelis in recent months. He blamed Palestinian terror on Israeli “occupation” and “youngsters driven by despair,” the Jerusalem Post reported.

But at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference on March 22, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said regarding terrorists around the world, “It’s not as if we can offer them Brussels, or Istanbul, or even the West Bank…because what they seek is our utter destruction and their total domination.”

“The only way to defeat these terrorists is to join together and fight them together. That’s how we’ll defeat terrorism, with political unity and moral clarity,” said Netanyahu. The prime minster’s call was echoed by Israeli opposition leader MK Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union), who called for unity in order “to defeat terrorism.”

In other comments about the Brussels attacks, Netanyahu said, “Terrorism does not come from the ‘occupation’ or from despair, but from the hope of the Islamic State terrorists to establish an Islamic caliphate throughout all of Europe. The hope of the Palestinian terrorists to establish a Palestinian state on Israeli territory…If there is one nation in the world that knows what they are going through, it’s the people of Israel.”

Israeli officials are not the only ones criticizing Belgium’s response to terror in the wake of the Brussels attacks. U.S. counterterrorism officials have also expressed their frustration, with one official likening Belgian security forces to “children.” An intelligence official in France, meanwhile, told AFP that “the Belgians just aren’t up to it.”

Given the widespread criticism, Belgian Interior Minister Jan Jambon and Justice Minister Koen Geens have reportedly offered to resign, but Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel has refused their resignations.

“Our country is in shock, but we are strong and confident,” Michel tweeted, stressing that his country will continue defending its democratic values.

Other Belgian officials, such as Ambassador to Australia Jean-Luc Bodson, said that it is dangerous to lump the European refugee crisis with terrorism because “it’s precisely what ISIS wants—that we would make a confusion between terrorism and migrants and between terrorism and Islam,” Australia’s SBS News reported.

But Hebrew University’s Halperin told that going forward, “the [European] policy on immigrants and asylum-seekers might change” with a reconsideration of the balance between the values of human rights/freedom of speech and the issue of security.

While Halperin does not believe “all refugees should be stopped from entering” Europe, she argued that “certainly there should be much more control and inspection.”

As far as Belgium’s Jewish community is concerned, Belgian security officials asked Jewish leaders to keep their Purim festivities of March 23-24 small.

That was not a surprising request, said Halperin, because “Jewish communities are amongst the primary targets for jihadi terrorists.”

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