We Were Warned, Yet We Fell into the Islamist Trap (Hard Questions, Tough Answers- April 10, 2023)


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. Israel has been attacked in recent days on multiple fronts: Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, terror in the West Bank, terror in Tel Aviv. Was it warned?

A. Israeli intelligence had early warning of a multi-front rocket and terrorist attack. Defense Minister Yoav Galant recently issued the warning publicly when he called upon PM Netanyahu to cease judicial reform legislation--and was summarily fired by way of thanks. Many weeks earlier, former IDF chief of staff Gadi Eizenkot issued the warning. Israeli security officials met twice with counterparts from Jordan, Egypt, the Palestinian Authority and the United States, in Aqaba and Sharm a-Shaykh, to discuss preventive measures.

It was clear that, with Iranian encouragement and backing, Lebanese Hezbollah and Gaza-based Hamas were planning some sort of attacks for the month of Ramadan, which incidentally on Monday entered its final ten days, when Islamist sensitivities are at their highest.

What the Israeli security establishment apparently decided to do in anticipation of this Islamist offensive, in coordination with its neighbors, was to proactively invoke ‘economic peace’ measures in the form of economic incentives in Gaza and the West Bank and relaxed restrictions on movement in the West Bank. It once again fell into the trap of believing that Palestinian militants with full stomachs automatically become pacifists.

The events of the past few days reflect Israeli tactical weaknesses and institutional faults that, taken together, constitute a strategic warning for the future.

Q. Where were the Israeli public reassurances and preventive measures to persuade Palestinians that the biggest fear Islamists whip up at Ramadan--Jewish encroachment on the Temple Mount and particularly the Al Aqsa Mosque--is unfounded?

A. Two years ago, it was precisely such fears that catalyzed Hamas rocket attacks and subsequent unrest in mixed Arab-Jewish cities in Israel, producing Operation Guardian of the Walls in May 2021. So it seemed logical to expect reassurances and preventive measures this time around.

Two years ago, Itamar Ben Gvir of the Jewish Power party was a key figure in whipping up Jewish fanaticism over the Temple Mount. A lawyer, he even represented the fanatics in court. Now he is minister of national security in the Netanyahu government, Israel’s most right-messianic coalition in history. His followers are already engaged in ill-concealed prayer on the Mount, violating the status quo agreement with Jordan. These realities are understood by militant Islamists as a threatening message regarding the drive by messianic Jews to encroach even further on the Mount, where Ben Gvir himself visited shortly after taking office.

Q. How did the situation unravel this time around?

A. Alongside the ‘usual’ incitement by Temple Mount enthusiasts, a fringe group of messianic Jews paraded around Jerusalem last week with a kid (baby goat) ostensibly destined for sacrifice on the Mount as in days of old, two and a half millennia ago, when there was only a Hebrew Temple there. They provocatively advertised in the East Jerusalem Arab press for a place to temporarily board the kid until sacrifice day this week. They even publicly offered financial awards to Israelis who would volunteer to attempt the sacrifice on the Mount.

To many Israelis, this seemed comic and trivial. But at least some Palestinians took it seriously.

Israel did nothing. Place the fringe Jews under administrative detention? Declare in the same Arab newspapers that Israel had no sacrificial intention? Not Ben Gvir.

(Blame only Ben Gvir? Note this remark Friday by Yediot Aharonot columnist Nachum Barnea: “It is not Ben Gvir who is to blame. To blame is the man who appointed him minister of police, kept inflating his authority and his ego-trip. Everything has a price.”)  

By now the scene was set for extremist Islamists to barricade themselves, along with a supply of stones and similar weapons, inside Al Aqsa Mosque. They were “defending Al Aqsa”. Islamists in Israeli Arab towns like Umm al-Fahm were violently demonstrating on behalf of the Holy Mosque. It was the night of April 4-5, less than 24 hours before Jews celebrate the Pesach Seder. That Israel and Israelis had no intention of attacking Al Aqsa was immaterial. The Israel Police would see to peace and quiet on the Mount, as they had done exceptionally well since the start of Ramadan more than two weeks ago.

Or would they? Shortly after midnight on April 5 the Israel Police, alarmed by the unrest on the Mount and the failure of the Jordanian-appointed Waqf religious authority to restore order prior to Ramadan dawn prayers, stormed Al Aqsa Mosque and arrested 350 militants. Cell phone clips of the Police’s violent entry to the mosque and the subsequent humiliation of the arrested militants went viral throughout Gaza, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the entire Muslim world.

Hamas and Hezbollah now had exactly the provocation they sought. Their ambush inside the mosque worked. Their social media went to work: Al Aqsa is in danger! Time to fire rockets.

Q. Did the Israel Police have an alternative?

A. Judging by their repeat performance of the Al Aqsa invasion the next night, the Police obviously reasoned they did not have an alternative. But judging by the subsequent series of attacks on Israel and Israelis--rockets from Gaza into southern Israel and from Lebanon into northern Israel, rockets from Syria into the Golan, terror attacks in the Jordan Valley and Tel Aviv--it certainly could be argued that they did.

This was an instance of a police force using poor judgement at the strategic level, backed up by irresponsible government ministers, in a dysfunctional government.

It might have been less destructive and the attacks on Israel could conceivably have been avoided, had the Israel Police simply laid siege to the mosque but without invading it, until the militants inside came out, possibly with a pledge not to humiliate and arrest them. That might conceivably have avoided the Arab response of rocket attacks on three of Israel’s borders. If so, we could have avoided the Israel Air Force response to the Arab response: the bombing of targets in the Gaza Strip and southern Lebanon. Luckily, by this stage wiser heads prevailed on both sides: the Islamist rocket provocations were minor, and the IAF’s response was largely symbolic.

Q. Second-guessing the Israel Police on the Temple Mount is a post-facto exercise. Given all the background factors, and bearing in mind that thus far losses have been minimalized, one could also argue that this almost-ritual bloodletting could have been a lot worse.

A. True, the rockets from Gaza, Lebanon and Syria killed no one; most were aimed at empty spaces. The Israel Police and the IAF retaliatory attacks killed no one. The only fatalities registered thus far in this round, tragic in their own right, are the Israelis killed in the Jordan Valley ambush and the Italian tourist killed in Tel Aviv.

It can, in fact, be argued that none of the Islamist parties involved sought all-out war. All were looking to score points without inviting serious Israeli retaliation.

It is almost like the Had Gadya song sung at Pesach. Iran wanted to respond, but only indirectly, to the repeated night attacks on its forces and infrastructure in Syria that are attributed to Israel, so it encouraged Hezbollah and Hamas to do its dirty work. Hamas sought to wave the Islamist banner by citing a danger to Al Aqsa, but without inviting major Israeli retaliation in Gaza. Hezbollah, operating through a coordinated Hamas presence in southern Lebanon, needed to remind Lebanese of its status as their Islamist protector. The terrorist attacks in the Jordan Valley and in Tel Aviv may or may not have been sponsored by Hamas--or just spontaneous demonstrations of fealty to militant Islam. The rockets from Syria, the latest attack, Saturday and Sunday night, felt like an afterthought.

And Israel’s retaliatory bombings, too, targeted unmanned infrastructure in Gaza and southern Lebanon.

Q. You mentioned background factors. What is relevant?

A. First and foremost, the perception in the Arab world and Iran of a weakening of Israeli deterrence. This, in turn, has been caused by several factors. One is widespread anti-government protest inside Israel that has even affected the military and that has reminded the Arab world of the 2011 ‘Arab Spring’ that weakened it. Another is intense US disapproval of the Netanyahu government’s course of action on the judicial front, implying a weakening of American support. That is also the outcome of Washington appearing to distance its strategic military interests from the Middle East in favor of the Far East and Ukraine.

Q. A brief digression. Apropos the US interest or lack thereof, the current campaign of leaked classified American security documents contains an apparent US intelligence claim that the Mossad is encouraging its rank and file to join the anti-government demonstrations. Really?

A. This is blatantly wrong. If indeed this is an American intelligence assessment and not Russian-implanted fake news, it reflects a problematic US intelligence capability vis-a-vis Israel: another image of weakness. And lest you are troubled by US spying against Israel, you might want to know that the FBI once tried to recruit . . . me!

Q. Returning to background factors for the current Israel-Arab unrest . . .

A. The frequent air and missile attacks in Syria that are reliably attributed to Israel are another important background factor. That recent attacks apparently killed two senior Iranian al-Quds Force officers should also have been a signal to Israel: Iran, by means of Hezbollah and Hamas, would retaliate. Then too, lest we forget, the past week presented a confluence of key holidays of the three relevant religions: Judaism, Islam and Christianity. In one way or another, they all collide in Jerusalem. The steady and authoritative hand that Israel, as the responsible power, needed to display, was absent.

Escalating violence in the West Bank, by extremist Palestinians unbeholden to the Palestinian Authority or any organization, and by West Bank settlers, is yet another factor. The car-rammer who killed the Italian tourist and wounded seven others in Tel Aviv was from the Israeli Arab village of Kafr Kassem. Was he responding to “price tag” marauding there the night before by settlers who torched vehicles?

All in all, the first 100 days of this Netanyahu government, with its extremist-messianic component holding key ministries and its prime minister weakened by scandal and seemingly manipulated by his dysfunctional family, have sent Israel’s neighbors a message of vulnerability. That Netanyahu and his underlings have been actively disseminating talking-points that blame the current conflict on his predecessors, who had a good security and diplomatic record, merely underscores the point.

Q. Bottom line?

A. Israel’s Islamist enemies succeeded in coordinating attacks, however minor in nature, on multiple fronts. Hamas opened a third front (after Gaza and the West Bank) in southern Lebanon. Both developments are worrisome. So is Israel’s relative loss of deterrence against these neighboring Islamists. So is the poor strategic judgment demonstrated on the Temple Mount by the Israel Police.

Recall the only slightly tongue-in-cheek admonition occasionally bandied about in Israel intelligence circles, that World War III will start on the Temple Mount. Israel remains on high alert.

Most worrisome of all is the Netanyahu government. In its first 100 days, it has brought Israel nothing but chaos.