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.
Q: Eleven were killed by terrorists inside Israel in the space of a week. What happened?
A: A car-ramming and knifing attack in Beersheva by an Israeli Negev Bedouin claiming affiliation with the Islamic State (IS) killed four. A gun attack in Hadera by two Arab Israelis claiming IS affiliation killed two. And a gun attack in Bnei Brak by a West Bank Palestinian attached to Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) killed five. Two of the dead were Ukrainian guest workers. One was an Arab Israeli Police officer, and one a Druze police officer. The other seven were Israeli Jews.
The series of terrorist attacks--all deep inside Israel, none in Jerusalem, none targeting West Bank settlers and two involving Arab attackers who were citizens of Israel--shocked Israelis. The Shin Bet domestic security service was accused of a massive intelligence failure. Visions were conjured up by the media, both social and print, of the second Intifada (2000-2006) with its hundreds of Israelis killed in Hamas suicide bombings, and more recently the 2015-16 “Intifada of the knives” when Palestinians acting alone killed 50, including three non-Israelis. But those terror waves involved almost exclusively East Jerusalem and West Bank Palestinians; here three of the four terrorists were Arab citizens of Israel.
Q: What, in fact, went wrong?
A: The public very quickly understood that the Shin Bet had indeed been unaware that a handful of Arab Israelis who in recent years had served short jail sentences for trying to join IS in Syria, had after release continued to harbor IS sympathies and terrorist intentions. The West Bank PIJ attacker had actually driven a car through a break in the security fence. In terms of timing, all attackers had apparently been motivated by protest at recent Israel-Arab summit meetings in Sharm a-Shaykh in Egyptian Sinai and in the Negev, by the approach of Ramadan, and/or (the second and third attacks) were copy-cat attacks. Since all perpetrators were killed, we will probably never know precisely what their motives were.
This was clearly an intelligence failure by the Shin Bet. Spokespersons for the Israel Police (which includes the Border Patrol) took the opportunity to remind the public that Israel’s police force is chronically under-staffed, with less than half an OECD average of police-per-capita that is based on more tranquil countries. It does not have the manpower even to collect the tens of thousands of weapons held illegally by Arab citizens in their villages. Its dilemma reflects a prolonged public mentality that places all threats beyond Israel’s borders rather than in our midst.
The incredibly shoddy maintenance by the IDF of the Israel/West Bank border fence--the Bnei Brak attacker broke the lock on a gate and drove right through--was now understood to reflect a kind of informal arrangement between the IDF, Israeli employers in need of West Bank day-laborers, and Palestinians in need of a job in Israel to feed their families. West Bank settlers resent the fence insofar as it delineates a border between them and Israel proper. The fence had been constructed beginning in 2002 to keep out suicide bombers. The day laborers are shortcutting an established and time-consuming procedure for entering Israel daily through checkpoints. This informal system works--until abused by a terrorist.
Q: What’s being done about all this sloppiness and complacence?
A: The IDF, Israel Police and Border Patrol responded with massive reinforcements in the West Bank and in Israeli Arab villages to deter and restore confidence. The Shin Bet interrogated many hundreds of Arab citizens of Israel and arrested 200. A new cyber security unit was quickly established to thwart on-line incitement. The gaps in the fence were suddenly being patrolled and one billion Shekels were pledged to plug them permanently. Police reinforcements were also pledged.
The government, and particularly Prime Minister Bennett, confronting a precipitate drop in the polls that reflected a worried public, explained that this show of force would prevent another intifada or Operation Guardian of the Walls (the 11-day mini-conflict of May 2021). The current operation, still undergoing as I write, is dubbed Operation Breakwater.
Bennett, unusually, publicly appealed to gun-license holders to bear their weapons in public--a mistake insofar as most Israelis with pistol licenses are barely competent to be trusted with protecting their homes. His appeal reflected panic and generated, overnight, thousands of new requests for gun licenses in an instant and superfluous additional militarization of Israeli society.
At the same time, and wisely, no collective punishments have been invoked in the West Bank or in Negev Bedouin villages. Ramadan eve Muslim prayer on the Temple Mount/Haram a-Sharif last Friday was tranquil. Major employment (in Israel) and economic incentives for Gaza Strip Palestinians continue.
The idea is to prevent escalation with incentives rather than a heavy hand. The security establishment has already drawn encouragement from the relative quiet on the Palestinian street in Israel, East Jerusalem and the West Bank on Land Day (March 30, commemorating bloody protests by Arab Israelis against land expropriation in 1976) and the beginning of Ramadan.
So far there is no evidence of a massive plot to launch an organized intifada or uprising. Rather, the three attacks within a week were the work of individuals or small cells. Still, the fear of a copycat wave spreading, including to Diaspora Jews, is not being dismissed.
Q: What else could go wrong?
A: The Islamic State, if it exists at all among Arabs in Israel (other than as an aspiration among a few), is not seen as an escalatory threat. Palestinian Islamic Jihad, on the other hand, is, with Iranian financial backing (via Hezbollah), capable of escalating both from Gaza (rockets) and from the Jenin area of the northern West Bank, where it is traditionally strong. Israeli forces preempted on Friday by killing five PIJ terrorists there on their way to attack inside Israel. It is hoped that Hamas, whose Gaza leadership has benefited lately from Israeli economic incentives, will act to restrain its junior partner PIJ there.
Finally, the phenomenon of Arab citizens of Israel, heavily armed following years of neglect under Netanyahu governments, again spontaneously attacking fellow Israelis cannot be dismissed. For the Israeli Jewish majority, this is the ultimate nightmare. Following the three attacks that killed 11 Israelis, tensions were felt wherever Arabs and Jews mix, e.g., the marketplace and universities. Here and there, people stayed home from work and did not send children to school for a few days.
Q: What do the neighbors say?
A: Arab states with links to Israel all openly condemned the three attacks--a good sign. The sole exception was Qatar and its major media outlet, Al-Jazeera, with their Islamist tilt. Arab leaders in Israel condemned, including coalition member Mansour Abbas. Here we recall that Druze and Arab policemen were killed in the line of duty, and served heroically.
Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas condemned, in weak language, the sole attack of the three that emanated from the West Bank. Other West Bank Fateh branches and leaders, including PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, extolled the attacks. Hamas leaders in Gaza also praised the attacks.
Encouragingly, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an Islamist supporter of Hamas who is engaged in a rapprochement with Israel, openly condemned the attacks.
Q: Bottom line? Your strategic insights from a week of terror inside Israel and from Israel’s response?
A: On the positive side, the terrorists were apparently protesting basically successful developments in Israel’s relations with a number of Arab countries. These were reflected over the past two weeks in the Sharm a-Shaykh and Negev summit meetings with Egypt, the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco, with American blessings, and in an Amman summit between King Abdullah II and President Isaac Herzog.
Positive too is the stability under fire exhibited by the Bennett-Lapid government, particularly including its Arab Islamist component, the Raam party led by Mansour Abbas. The government’s decision to engage in a show of force yet avoid escalatory and punitive measures in the Palestinian sphere is smart and praiseworthy, albeit risky.
The money being invested in fixing the many gaps in the Israel-West Bank security fence is being wasted. Once the immediate danger is past, new gaps will open in accordance with the needs of West Bank Palestinians desperate for work, Israeli contractors desperate for workers, and an Israeli security community anxious to enable West Bank Palestinians to find gainful employment and feed their families in a disjointed and malfunctioning Palestinian Authority.
Until the next bloody incident. The long-term solution is political, not economic, and here neither Bennett nor PA President Mohammad Abbas (Abu Mazen) is investing energies.
Israel’s near-term security prospects regarding the Palestinians focus on the next two months of Ramadan, Passover, Easter, Independence Day, and Jerusalem Day. All these holidays provide inspiration, incentives and incitement to terrorism. Lockdowns during these holidays will only make matters worse and should be avoided.
If attacks against civilians inside Israel, as opposed to the West Bank, become more common, how will this affect Israeli attitudes toward the Palestinians? Here we cannot but recall the 2002 suicide bombings in Haifa, Netanya, Jerusalem and elsewhere inside Israel, at the height of the second Intifada, that soured the Israeli mainstream on a two-state solution and moved it politically to the right where it remains today.
Finally, the phenomenon of Arab citizens of Israel attacking fellow Israelis places Israel’s latest week of terror on a parallel with the events of May 2021, particularly the violence inside mixed cities like Acre and Ramleh. We find ourselves lurching, for the second time in a year, down a slippery slope toward a violent and conflicted binational Israeli-Palestinian reality.
It is beneficial that the Bennett government comprises an Arab and even Islamist element: Raam. This can hopefully facilitate solving local problems within Israel’s Arab and Bedouin sectors. But in the absence of any kind of political initiative at the broader Israeli-Palestinian level, this cannot even slow our slide down that dangerous slippery slope.