March 28, 2016 - Terrorism and the face of Israel today: Brussels, Hebron

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Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

This week, Alpher discusses why so many Israelis were gloating regarding last week’s ISIS terror attacks in Brussels; PM Netanyahu equating Islamist attacks in Europe with Palestinian attacks against Israelis; what’s wrong with that approach; why there is so much controversy in Israel regarding the shooting of a wounded and “neutralized” terrorist last week by an IDF soldier; how to summarize this Israeli behavior regarding both Brussels and Hebron;

Q. Why were so many Israelis gloating regarding last week’s ISIS terror attacks in Brussels?

A. Israel’s dominant political right wing resents the European Union and the European life style. The EU has imposed economic sanctions on the West Bank settlements. It allegedly doesn’t understand Israel’s tactics as it opposes Palestinian violence. The Swedish foreign minister accused the IDF of summarily executing captured Palestinian attackers. The Europeans are too soft on Islam and indifferent to the challenges Israel faces. They prefer to close their eyes, enjoy the good life, and ignore the looming dangers.

So when Brussels, the capital of the EU, suffered brutal attacks by Islamists last week, these same Israelis gloated and mocked. Minister of Transportation Katz told the Belgians that “if they keep eating chocolate they won’t be able to fight terror.” One internet poll (hardly accurate, but indicative) found that 39 percent of responders were glad the Belgians were attacked while only 13 percent expressed regret and compassion. When EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Mogherini burst into tears on live TV as she confronted the attacks, she was mocked by members of Netanyahu’s Cabinet as being too soft to deal with terrorism. A patronizing “we told you so” was the most prominent refrain--directed not just at Belgium but at Europe in general.

True, many Israelis, perhaps even a silent majority, felt sympathy for Belgium. And not a few Europeans, Americans and Russians also responded by gloating. Even many Belgians recognized that their intelligence establishment was grossly remiss in not rooting out the terrorists in their midst before they acted. But no one appears to have topped Katz’s disdainful chocolate remark. Or this: “moderate” right wing commentator and former Netanyahu spokesman Yoaz Hendel responding to right-wing gloating on the web (“I’m happy it happened”; “happy holiday to all”) by labeling it “stupid” since it causes “strategic damage to the State of Israel”. For Hendel the problem is not the content but the fact that someone translates this garbage and lets the world know what some Israelis are thinking, generating an image problem.

Perhaps the only response more stupid than that of the Israeli right last week was that of Palestinian Authority Security Forces Spokesman Adnan al-Damiri, who suggested that Israel was behind the Brussels attacks and was punishing Europeans for supporting a Palestinian state. Palestinian incitement? But who are we Israelis to complain?

 

Q. Indeed, PM Netanyahu last week equated Islamist attacks in Europe with Palestinian attacks against Israelis.

A. Netanyahu’s original ticket to electoral victory was to present himself as an expert on terrorism. His inability for some six months now to stop Palestinian knife, gun and vehicle attacks has in no way affected his own “I told you so” style or dimmed his ardor for exploiting a terrorist attack abroad in order to try to score points for Israel.

Accordingly, Netanyahu held a press conference last week to argue that recent terror attacks in Paris, Brussels, Ankara, Istanbul, Cote D’Ivoire, California, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem all fall into the same category of murderous Islamist ideology. Smugly, he suggested that Israel has the answers. And by implication, our Palestinian problem is no different than the world’s ISIS problem: “If there is one people in the world that knows what the Belgians are going through, it is the citizens of Israel who have stood heroically and courageously against terrorist attacks for many years. We are in a global battle against terror.”

 

Q. What’s wrong with that approach?

A. Let’s leave aside Netanyahu’s patronizing attempt to recruit international sympathy for Israel while the graves of more than 30 Brussels victims are still fresh. And leave aside his certainty that he is a world expert on terrorism when he can’t stop terrorism on his home turf. His tactic of focusing on Brussels seems to be intended to distract attention at home away from the 34 Israelis killed here by mainly teenage terrorism in the course of half a year. It grossly oversimplifies the motives of recent terrorist attackers here, who tend to be disgruntled youths who are not Islamists and lone wolf attackers whose politically-motivated scissors and kitchen-knife stabbings have little in common with the ISIS-inspired and trained terrorist teams infiltrated back into Europe from Syria.

In Paris and Brussels the attackers are second or third-generation North African immigrants who feel alienated from European society. In Israel-Palestine they are nth generation Palestinians who resent nearly 50 years of occupation. Where is Bibi’s common denominator? Even when Palestinian attackers are motivated by Hamas-style Islam, their goal is to eliminate Israel, whereas Islamist attacks in Paris and Brussels are meant to defend the new Levant khalifate and perhaps ultimately to Islamize Europe--but not to eliminate it.

Further, by equating Palestinian and European terrorism, Netanyahu is actually drawing attention to the current intifada and to the occupation, to the detriment of his own right-wing government. Will this translate into European understanding for Israel’s occupation policies? Or will European politicians now come down even harder on Israel, if only to pay Israel back in its own coin and perhaps appease their growing Muslim constituencies?

 

Q. Returning to terrorism in the Palestinian context, why is there so much controversy in Israel regarding the shooting of a wounded and “neutralized” terrorist last week by an IDF soldier?

A. The entire incident was filmed by a Palestinian from Hebron on behalf of Israeli human rights organization B’Tzelem. The terrorist, an Arab from Hebron, had stabbed and wounded a soldier and was in turn shot several times by soldiers. He lay, barely alive, on the road for 11 minutes. Officers on the scene had apparently made certain he was not wearing an explosive vest. The wounded soldier was evacuated. Then, as about a dozen Israelis, including emergency personnel and officers, stood around, a soldier shot the wounded Palestinian in the head at close range, killing him.

Those are the undisputed facts. From here, several controversies developed that have absorbed the Israeli public ever since.

First, why did the soldier execute the badly wounded terrorist (strictly speaking  not a terrorist, since he attacked a soldier, not a civilian)? The soldier stated that he thought the terrorist had an explosive vest and could detonate it; why didn’t he ask one of the officers who had been on the scene for 11 minutes before shooting? Another soldier heard him say that the terrorist had stabbed a fellow soldier and deserved to die. The shooter’s Facebook page was found to be loaded with radical right pro-Kahanist slogans, indicating a racist inclination. After the shooting, the soldier went to converse with a prominent far-right-wing activist based in Hebron.

Second, why did IDF Chief of Staff Eizenkot and Minister of Defense Yaalon immediately accuse the soldier of murder, even before an investigation--which took only a day--had been carried out by Military Police? Were they concerned about a violent Palestinian reaction to the killing unless they were seen immediately to be taking punitive steps against the shooter? Was the shooter’s family justified in protesting that he was being tried by the government and the public without a presumption of innocence? Why did PM Netanyahu back up the chief of staff within hours then, when confronted by right wing support for the shooter, soften his criticism?

Third, why did the far right, led by Education Minister Bennet, immediately jump to the soldier’s defense and proclaim, in a variety of more and less nuanced formulae, that, in view of the dangers faced in the West Bank by IDF troops, it was justifiable to kill this and all Palestinian terrorists regardless of whether or not they are suicide bombers?

Fourth--and here I appear to be one of very few concerned citizens--why is no one asking why a dozen Israelis stand around nonchalantly while a Palestinian is left to die, then react nonchalantly (a few covered their ears as the shooter approached) when he is shot, then remain nonchalant in the aftermath? Assuming this was indeed an unjustified execution, aren’t the bystanders culpable too? And if by chance it is a justified execution, why didn’t the bystanders, most of them armed, do it 11 minutes earlier?

Fifth, this incident went viral because it was filmed. But it suggests that there have been similar incidents--as alleged by Palestinians, by Israeli critics and by Israel’s critics--that were not filmed. So when the prime minister, defense minister and chief of staff all insist that the incident does not represent IDF values, what are we to think? How badly has the occupation, and particularly but not only the events of the past six months, brutalized us?

Sixth, on the other hand, what is new here? Past wars have witnessed similar aberrant behavior by isolated soldiers. In many cases it was covered up or whitewashed by sympathetic commanding officers. What seems to be new is, a) that this incident was filmed and put on the web in real time; and b) that in the current political atmosphere in Israel, it became part of the widespread confrontation between left and right--between human rights and rule of law advocates on the one hand, and messianic nationalists on the other.

Here are two more statements from last week to reinforce this dichotomy: Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef declaring that Goyim (non-Jews) have no right to live in the Land of Israel unless they serve Jews, and Deputy Minister of Defense Eli Ben Dahan of right wing religious HaBayit HaYehudi eulogizing a Druze IDF Brigadier General who died in a plane crash as a “true friend of Israel” then correcting his statement to “friend of the People of Israel”. Yosef and Ben Dahan are people from whom not a few soldiers and many settlers get their so-called “values” and take their marching orders. As liberal columnist Nachum Barnea wrote on Monday in lambasting Ben Dahan: people like the Druze officer are not “friends” of the country,  “they are the country.”

 

Q. So how do you summarize this Israeli behavior regarding both Brussels and Hebron?

A. It cannot be stated enough: the real problem, for nearly 50 years now, is the occupation. It has bred the messianics, the settlers, the entire growing “our values are superior” Israeli militant and largely religious right wing. The issues of violence and terrorism pale by comparison because they are byproducts of prolonged and increasingly arrogant occupation.

The Israeli right wants to exonerate the soldier shooter, brand the security establishment leaders as unpatriotic, and force them to back down or recant. It jumps on the opportunity to brand Europeans as wimps who should listen to us when it comes to dealing with terrorism. Correspondingly, it places all terrorists in the same boat.

It only feels uncomfortable when the Belgians protesting their government’s policies regarding the country’s ten percent Muslim minority raise the Nazi salute.

Incidentally, terrorist attacks in the West Bank and Jerusalem thus far this month total 104, down from 149 last month and 165 in January.

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