We can’t really be surprised by the wave of terror that erupted in Judea and Samaria. Anyone examining the figures in recent months could see a clear trend: Attempts to carry out terrorist attacks were steadily rising, and only widespread countermeasures by the Shin Bet security agency and the Israel Defense Forces have prevented mass casualties to this point.
The main reason for this wave is Hamas, which is making an immense effort to destabilize the West Bank and encourage terror. This campaign was launched more than a year ago, and includes directing dozens of terror cells and procuring weapons. One such cell, which had planned a series of mass terrorist attacks, was recently uncovered in Hebron, and it stands to reason that the investigation will reveal that the cell behind the attacks this week at Ofra and Givat Asaf also received instructions and money from outside the West Bank.
This activity, which is guided from Hamas headquarters in Gaza and abroad (in Turkey and Lebanon), runs parallel to the organization’s efforts to lower the flames in Gaza. Accordingly, Hamas hopes to achieve three goals: exact “revenge” for the situation in Gaza; undermine the Palestinian Authority and establish its status as an alternative; and perpetuate the jihad against Israel.
Hence the recent warnings that Judea and Samaria is at a boiling point, voiced by IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot and Shin Bet Director Nadav Argaman. They knew Israel would not be able to keep things calm in the West Bank for long, certainly not simultaneous to the concerted military efforts opposite Gaza and Lebanon, which required units from Judea and Samaria that must now be sent back.
It’s doubtful this will suffice, which is why the IDF on Thursday deployed massive reinforcements and adjusted its intelligence gathering efforts. While Hamas is certainly celebrating its recent success, the problem for Israel is much bigger: The recent string of attacks encourages others to do the same, including lone-wolf attackers who are still under the intelligence radar. Inspiration is an established component of terrorism—certainly for lone-wolf attackers and spontaneous cells without external guidance—and on Thursday, we already saw a sequence of attempts to exploit this momentum to harm Israelis.
Right now, the brunt of the defense establishment’s efforts will be to stem the tide and provide a few days of respite. Security forces must steel themselves and operate wisely to get through these next few days in one piece in the knowledge that the more the terrorists fail, the less their motivation will be.
This is a complicated task because of the considerable friction between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank. And still, Israeli leaders seemingly want to avoid collectively punishing the Palestinian population, for example by segregating roads and imposing comprehensive curfews (the siege around Ramallah is temporary and targeted due to the recent string of attackers from the city) because the Palestinian public is largely uninvolved in terror and is predominantly preoccupied with economic issues rather than diplomatic aspirations. The concern is that disrupting this fabric could spark widespread clashes and contradict the intended effect.
Israel likely won’t be able to avoid such measures entirely. If the attacks persist, harsher steps will be necessary. This, in turn, could lead to increasing friction with the Palestinian Authority, specifically with its security apparatus, which is combating terror, and with the Tanzim (the armed wing of Fatah), which is currently outside the circle of violence. For Hamas, the dream scenario involves Israel dismantling the Fatah government and Hamas exploiting the opportunity to seize control of the P.A.
To avoid this landmine, Israel will have to tread wisely, and mostly softly. The demands to launch a large offensive in the mold of “Operation Defensive Shield” are hollow. Security forces have complete freedom of action in the West Bank, and the only reason that every terrorist attack isn’t thwarted in advance is that there’s no such thing as perfect intelligence. Thus, reinforcements were deployed to fill the manpower gaps. The problem is that the forces themselves often become the target—as was the case at Givat Asaf. This is a micro-tactical matter that the IDF will have to resolve quickly to allow safe travel on the roads and peace of mind at the main junctions in Judea and Samaria.
Past experience indicates that Israel can stymie a wave of terror with a calculated operational and intelligence-gathering effort. We must hope this still applies and is accomplished more quickly than the last wave of terror, dubbed the “lone-wolf intifada.” But then, too, the fundamental problems in Judea and Samaria will remain: The Palestinian headache and the terror it produces will be a thorn in our side into the future
Yoav Limor is a veteran Israeli journalist and columnist for Israel Hayom.