(December 13, 2018 / JNS) The succession of deadly Palestinian terrorist attacks in the West Bank in recent days is a painful reminder of a bigger truth, and that is that the security quiet that prevailed until recently was little more than an illusion.
The motivation of terrorists—whether backed by an organized armed faction or acting on their own—to attack Israelis remains high, and the relative quiet that existed was not for their lack of trying.
The Israel Defense Forces and Shin Bet intelligence service have thwarted a staggering number of attacks this year alone. A look at the official figures confirms the scale of the threat and highlights just how deceptive the so-called quiet really was.
According to Shin Bet head Nadav Argaman, no fewer than 480 organized terror attempts based in the West Bank have been attempted (and prevented) this year. Those murder plots included 280 planned shootings, 76 attempted bombings, six suicide bombings and seven kidnappings. The intended Israeli targets were on both sides of the Green Line.
The number of unorganized attackers stopped in their tracks in 2018 is approximately 400, and their arrest has been made possible due in part to technological breakthroughs in the collection and analysis of big data.
The threat Hamas poses to Israel and the Palestinian Authority has been the glue that’s held together security coordination on the ground.
New technology in the service of national security has helped drastically reduce such attacks, which were frequent just a few years ago.
Hamas has been instrumental in attempting to destabilize the West Bank, both because this serves its jihadist siren call of violence against Israel and because it serves its goal of weakening its domestic foe, the Palestinian Authority, which it seeks to replace, just like it did in Gaza. Hamas believes that it is entitled to set the West Bank alight with violence, even as it keeps its home turf of Gaza in a state of ceasefire most of the time.
The threat Hamas poses to both Israel and to the P.A. has been the glue that has held together security coordination on the ground between Israeli and Palestinian forces. This glue has so far stuck, despite severe diplomatic clashes between the P.A. and Israel. The P.A. subtly recognizes that Israel’s anti-Hamas operations benefit it as much as it does Israelis.
Israel broke up more than 220 West Bank Hamas terrorist cells this year, including one cell that was ordered by Hamas’s military wing in Gaza to bomb crowded targets in the heart of Israeli cities in October. That cell was preparing bombs that were unprecedented in their quality of explosive materials, the Shin Bet investigation found.
In recent months, Israel quietly arrested hundreds of West Bank terror suspects, including students, and young men and women who were recruited into Hamas’s secret networks.
That has not stopped Hamas from trying, again and again, to turn the West Bank into a hotbed of terrorism. Israel’s preemptive capabilities have served as a silent, life-saving safety net around the clock.
Shifting the balance
Harrowingly, however, no safety net is fool-proof. It’s too soon to say whether Thursday’s deadly shooting attack on a bus stop near Ramallah was the result of organized terrorism or a local “initiative.”
Either way, the most immediate risk is that this shooting, as well as the attack that preceded it on Dec. 9, will provide the fuel to light a chain reaction in the form of copycat attacks. The first signs of this risk came in a car-ramming attack that injured a soldier just a few hours after Thursday’s incident.
Anticipating this trend, the Israel Defense Forces mobilized a number of back-up infantry battalions to the area, who will be tasked with both defending Israeli communities and assisting the offensive raids, and searches for the perpetrators.
In the past 24 hours, Israel’s Counter-Terrorist Unit conducted successful operations that resulted in the killing of the gunman behind the Barkan shooting attack and a gunman linked to the Dec. 9 Ofra Junction shooting.
Israel’s ability to catch up with the terrorists—no matter how hard they try to hide or embed themselves in challenging urban settings—reflects a world-leading counter-terrorism level that is unmatched and should not be taken for granted.
It also reflects the fact that Israel can send forces to operate anywhere in the West Bank, at any time—a reality that did not exist during the dark days of the Second Intifada some 15 years ago.
A dangerous period ahead
The commemoration of Hamas’s founding, which will be marked on Dec. 14, the risk of another Gaza escalation and the unending “bubbling up”’ of terror plots under the surface can all act as catalysts, accelerating a deterioration in the security situation in the coming days and weeks.
The IDF’s challenge in the West Bank is in some ways much more complex than its border-protection duties on the fronts with Gaza, Lebanon and Syria. In the West Bank, the IDF protects some 400,000 Israeli civilians who live in the midst of around 2 million Palestinians, with no obvious border separating the two populations.
To pursue this enormously complex mission effectively, the military offers both carrots and sticks; both are aimed at preventing the situation from worsening.
The sticks come in the form of nightly security raids targeting terrorists, while carrots are offered to Palestinian noncombatants in the form of freedom of movement and increased economic opportunities to push them away from the calls to violence, which are issued by the armed Palestinian hardline factions and fill social media.
The IDF’s own experience and its analysis of past trends tell it that driving a wedge between Palestinian civilians and terrorists—and seeking to maintain a normal fabric of life for ordinary Palestinians who are not involved in terrorism—drives down the number of attacks and saves lives.
Yet this balancing act of attempting to isolate the terrorists from the civilians changed dramatically on Thursday, when the IDF encircled Ramallah and placed it under lockdown. Placing a city that is the de facto capital of the Palestinian Authority under such restrictions reflects the severity of the latest attack and the Israeli military’s urgency in placing its hands on the perpetrators.
Such a development could also act as a reminder to the wider Palestinian public that Israel can employ more disruptive sticks. A return to the days of mass violence, as many realize, will likely result in significant harm to Palestinian freedom of movement and economic stability.
Ultimately, the terrorism that has reared its head threatens both Israeli and Palestinian civilians. The coming weeks will see whether Israel and the P.A. will be able to contain the situation and roll back the violence, or whether the region will slide into a new and dangerous phase, a development that Hamas will be sure to celebrate and exploit.