The explosion Sunday on a bus in Bat Yam didn’t come as a surprise; far from it.
The territories are generally heating up, with the feeling that the political process is going nowhere, the expanded building in the territories, and the relatively high number of Palestinian fatalities in clashes with the IDF — three last week in the West Bank and Gaza, and 28 from the beginning of the year in the West Bank — all amplifying the unrest against Israel.
Every week that goes by sees more and more attack attempts, most of which are foiled by Israeli and Palestinian security forces. But some of them are actually carried out, despite the significant effort of the security apparatuses on both sides. Last week Haaretz reported that Hamas had planned 80 different attacks since the release of Gilad Shalit in October 2011, most of them directed by former prisoners released in that deal who are living in Gaza or in places like Turkey. That figure is compounded by the many attacks planned either by other groups or by Palestinians acting independently.
But in contrast to the string of independent attacks that have taken the lives of five Israelis since the start of 2013, the Bat Yam bus bombing Sunday does not appear to be the private initiative of Palestinians who decided on their own to kill Israelis. This time, it appears, Israel is dealing with the product of an organized, if not especially sophisticated, infrastructure — at least based on what we can glean from the size and quality of the explosive device used in the attack.
It is unclear at time of writing if the attempted attack in Bat Yam is linked to Hamas or not, but the Islamist organization, which praised the bombing, has an interest in an escalation of hostilities with Israel — though only in the West Bank. In Gaza, where it is the governing power, Hamas attaches almost paramount importance to protecting the relative quiet.
Hamas doesn’t want progress in peace talks, and wouldn’t be happy over the news of a framework agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, reportedly to be presented by the end of the month.
The organization also senses the growing ferment in the territories, especially inside the refugee camps. On the one hand, this agitation is apparent during IDF operations, which immediately draw out hundreds of residents into violent confrontations. But it has also been directed at the Palestinian Authority, a trend that was apparent over the weekend, when dozens of youths took to the streets and burned tires in Tulkarm in protest over the plans of the PA and the municipality to put electric meters in the homes of the residents (which can give exact electricity usage readings, and allows users to be charged accordingly). The residents didn’t like the idea, and resorted to demonstrations, blocking roads for hours.
At least some of the refugee camps have become no-man’s-lands, with Palestinian security forces as well as the IDF understanding that entering these places will inevitably lead to complications.
The Israeli security establishment’s criticism of Palestinian security forces focuses mostly on the lack of meaningful operations inside the camps, from where most of the warnings about plans for attacks emanate. While in the big cities the PA has proven its abilities and motivation, it seems that the price of friction with the residents of the refugee camps has caused it to think long and hard about dispatching forces there. This hesitation has grown so pronounced that when this reporter visited the Balata refugee camp last weekend, one of the claims heard was that the absence of Palestinian police had facilitated a recent rise in crime.
This week, a third group of veteran security prisoners is slated to be released by Israel, as per its agreement with the PA and the Americans. Judging from the reports on the Palestinian side, it appears that the release will coincide, more or less, with US Secretary of State John Kerry’s presentation of a framework agreement for Israel and the PA. We wait to see whether these two developments will have a calming effect, or if they will stir up the already-restive territories.