In the Etzion Bloc, no easy answers to terror
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Reporter's notebook

In the Etzion Bloc, no easy answers to terror

After second lethal attack at junction in under a week, security personnel struggle to secure major West Bank thoroughfare

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Soldiers respond to the scene of a stabbing terror attack at the Gush Etzion Junction on Sunday, November 22, 2015. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)
Soldiers respond to the scene of a stabbing terror attack at the Gush Etzion Junction on Sunday, November 22, 2015. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

There were gunshots. Four of them, maybe five. Loud pops that clearly came from nearby.

The army spokesman sitting across from me at the cafe adjacent to the Gush Etzion Junction initially thought it was shooting practice at a nearby base. But as security guards and soldiers began running through the parking lot, it became clear that there had been an attack. The gunshots were not practice.

We ran to the junction. A young woman, Hadar Buchris, was lying on the ground, her upper body and head were covered in blood. A few feet away, an Arab man was motionless on the ground, with a police officer standing over him — gun drawn and pointed directly at him.

Literally seconds had passed since the attack, but the junction was already filled with army personnel, Magen David Adom medics and police officers. A crowd of civilians gathered — workers from the area, people who had been waiting at nearby bus stops, drivers who had been passing by — ignoring police officers’ calls to keep away from the scene.

Soldiers respond to the scene of a stabbing terror attack in the Etziyon Junction on Sunday, November 22, 2015. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)
Soldiers respond to the scene of a stabbing terror attack at the Gush Etzion Junction on November 22, 2015. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

The medics made quick work loading the 21-year-old Hadar Buchris onto a yellow intensive care ambulance. She was still conscious as they placed her on the stretcher, her eyes scanning the scene. She died of her wounds a few hours later in the hospital.

Army medics, meanwhile, began checking the terrorist who had attacked her for signs of life. They began treatment, but after a few minutes pronounced the assailant, Wissam Tawabte, dead on the scene and covered him with a silver Mylar blanket.

The Etzion Brigade commander, whose base was just a few hundred meters away, quickly arrived on the scene. Shortly thereafter the head of the Etzion regional council, Davidi Perl, pulled up and began speaking with reporters.

‘The highway is a problem’

On Friday afternoon Perl had sent an email to his constituents, following Thursday’s shooting attack nearby in which a Palestinian man killed three people. In it he informed the residents of the Etzion Bloc that the regional IDF brigade would increase its presence at the junction, which has become a focal point of attacks in the ongoing violence.

In addition to Thursday’s deadly assault, in which a Palestinian man unloaded multiple magazines of ammunition into passing cars, the junction had also been the site of three stabbings and a car-ramming attack since October 1.

Security officers stand next to a car used in a shooting attack in the West Bank on Thursday, November 19, 2015 (Gush Etzion municipality)
Security officers stand next to a car used in a shooting attack in the West Bank on Thursday, November 19, 2015. (Gush Etzion municipality)

In response, army units in the area stepped up their activities both offensively and defensively, the IDF spokesman for the regional brigade had been explaining at the cafe just before the stabbing.

In terms of offensive actions, one of the IDF’s elite commando units had been brought into the area to carry out arrests and to send a message that the army would not tolerate attacks against Israelis, the spokesman said.

On Friday and Saturday, the unit ventured into the East Jerusalem village of Abu Dis, where a number of terrorists have come from, the army official said. They also entered Sa’ir, an Arab village near Kiryat Arba with close ties to Hamas which the IDF generally tends to avoid, as incursions into the area typically end in violence.

‘We just had a meeting to discuss what to do with the highway, and we didn’t find an answer’

In terms of defense, army engineers had installed a chain-link fence around the junction over the weekend. The fence wouldn’t protect against a car-ramming attack, but would prevent an attacker from sneaking up on soldiers or civilians at the junction and would also help prevent an attacker’s escape. Meanwhile the brigade commander had been meeting with other army officials to determine the villages and roads where IDF troops should set up checkpoints to both deter and catch would-be attackers.

Soldiers at the scene of a stabbing terror attack in the Etzion Junction on Sunday, November 22, 2015. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)
Soldiers at the scene of a stabbing terror attack at the Gush Etzion Junction on Sunday, November 22, 2015. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

But even before Sunday’s fresh stabbing the spokesman admitted that “the Gush Etzion Junction is a problem. The highway is a problem.”

The junction is situated on Route 60, the main highway running through the West Bank, north to south. It passes both Arab villages and Jewish settlements, and shutting it down or introducing tight security would harm the lives of everyone in the area.

“We just had a meeting to discuss what to do with the highway, and we haven’t found an answer,” he said.

The IDF could set up more thorough checkpoints in the vicinity, but that would interrupt the daily lives of Palestinians and Israelis alike, he said. Moreover, officials are loath to turn the junction, and the adjacent commercial center, into “a closed military zone.”

However, he said, “that’s a price we sometimes have to pay.”

Desperate measures

 

In response to Sunday’s attacks Perl, the regional council head, called for a complete shut down of the Arab villages in the area.

“Look at this,” he said, motioning to the cars with Palestinian license plates passing by the scene of the stabbing. “How can it be that after an attack they drive through here so easily? This area needs to be ‘clean,'” Perl, a lean, bespectacled man, said..

“We need to go after them. We need to attack them — attack them hard,” he said. “We should shut down the Arab villages in the area for a week or two.”

He suggested enacting a closure similar to the buffer created between East Jerusalem and the Jewish parts of the city in recent months in response to the wave of stabbing attacks.

Davidi Perl, the head of the Etzion Regional Council at the scene of a stabbing terror attack in the Etziyon Junction on Sunday, November 22, 2015. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)
Davidi Perl, the head of the Etzion Regional Council at the scene of a stabbing terror attack at the Gush Etzion Junction on Sunday, November 22, 2015. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

But approximately 57,400 Palestinians have legal work permits that allow them to enter Israel, and shutting off entire villages would hurt both the Palestinian workers and the Israeli economy.

Additional checkpoints and closures around Arab villages could also serve to further inflame the already bristling Palestinian population, the IDF spokesman said.

“Yes, it’s a complex situation, but look at what happened in Operation Defensive Shield,” Perl said, in reference to the large-scale 2002 campaign that saw tanks and ground troops enter heavily into West Bank towns. “Things calmed down after we went into Palestinian cities.

“What can we do?” Perl said. “We’ve tried being defensive, we’ve tried everything else.”

While the death toll in the recent wave of violence may be far lower than during the Second Intifada a decade ago, he said, the principle is the same. “It’s the same business, with these never-ending attacks.”

Some glimmer of hope

Eventually the scene of the attack began to clear. The victim had been taken to Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem. Witnesses, including a teenage boy who had been on his way to school, gave their testimony.

The curly-haired teen, still visibly shaken from what he had seen, described “the murder in the man’s eyes” as he carried out the attack.

Members of the independent emergency service ZAKA wait for permission to begin cleaning blood and remains from the scene of a stabbing attack at the Gush Etzion Junction on November 22, 2015. (Judah Ari Gross/ Times of Israel)
Members of the independent emergency service ZAKA wait for permission to begin cleaning blood and remains from the scene of a stabbing attack at the Gush Etzion Junction on November 22, 2015. (Judah Ari Gross/ Times of Israel)

The terrorist’s body was loaded into an ambulance. The Zaka crew, a group of ultra-Orthodox volunteers who clear away blood and remains for traditional Jewish burial, were finally allowed onto the scene. The men, in black suits and bright yellow vests, began rounding up bandages and digging up the dirt where Buchris’s blood had been spilled.

A short while later, I met with Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger, one of the heads of the Roots organization which seeks to foster change in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

In light of the ongoing violence Roots has recently dialed back its activities, which include speeches at Jewish and Arab schools, gatherings of Palestinians and Jews in individuals’ homes and discussion sessions with IDF soldiers and Palestinians.

“We are taking stock of what it really means to create change in this conflict,” said Schlesinger, an older man with a great gray bushy beard.

Schlesinger lives in the Etzion Bloc settlement of Alon Shvut and has a near constant and endearing smile, even when discussing the tough times at hand.

If the problem is based in humanity, maybe humans can solve it.

He helped start Roots along with other Jewish settlers and a number of Palestinians in the Etzion Bloc almost two years ago, and says the connections he formed with Palestinians “changed his life.”

During its short life the group has already hosted events for thousands of Israelis and Palestinians, and many of the people involved have noticeably changed after their encounters, Schlesinger said.

He was quick to say he was not an optimist about the situation in Israel and the West Bank. However, one of the roots of the current problem is fear, he said. And if the problem is based in humanity, maybe humans can solve it.

This reporter hopes so.

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