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Reporter's notebook

Riding the ‘terror wave’ as it washes over the West Bank

Israelis want to stick to their routines while the Palestinian territories seethe, but things could get a lot worse before they get better

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

[Illustrative] Israeli security forces at the scene of a shooting attack at a checkpoint near the Beit El settlement in the West Bank on Sunday, January 31, 2016 (AFP / ABBAS MOMANI)
[Illustrative] Israeli security forces at the scene of a shooting attack at a checkpoint near the Beit El settlement in the West Bank on Sunday, January 31, 2016 (AFP / ABBAS MOMANI)

I was on my way to Beit El on Route 443, a little after 11 a.m. on Sunday, when the first reports came in about a shooting at the District Coordination Office checkpoint, one of the places I was slated to visit that day. It’s the checkpoint used by diplomats, Palestinian Authority officials, journalists and others in order to enter and exit Ramallah – allowing us to avoid the impossible traffic at the Qalandiya checkpoint north of Jerusalem.

Three IDF soldiers were injured, two seriously. The terrorist, a 35-year-old member of the Palestinian security forces entrusted with protecting the PA government offices, came from Ramallah by car. He slowly approached the soldiers at the checkpoint, like hundreds of vehicles do every day, and when the soldiers asked him for his ID he drew a pistol and shot them.

One resident of Beit El, who at the time still didn’t know how exactly the attack was carried out, hinted Sunday that Palestinians should be barred from traveling on the main highways in the West Bank. He didn’t know that the terrorist, Amjad Sakari, came from within Palestinian Authority territory, and could have carried out a similar attack at any other checkpoint.

The attack raises no shortage of concerns. An employee of the Palestinian security forces used a PA-issued gun to carry out a terror attack – not for the first time and probably not for the last. In fact, it was the sixth attack or attempted attack in the past four months involving a member of the Palestinian security forces.

A second infamous incident featured a member of the PA intelligence service, the nephew of the senior PA official Saeb Erekat, who opened fire at the Hizme checkpoint and was shot dead by Israeli security forces in early December. Sunday’s attack, like its predecessors, raises legitimate fears that we’re on the brink of a precipice and that we’ll be seeing more and more Palestinian security personnel joining in the attacks and turning PA weapons on Israelis.

Israeli security forces and forensics transport the body of Mazen Aribe, who was shot following an attack at the Hizme checkpoint, north of Jerusalem, on December 3, 2015. (AFP/Ahmad Gharabli)
Israeli security forces and forensics transport the body of Mazen Aribe, who was shot following an attack at the Hizme checkpoint, north of Jerusalem, on December 3, 2015. (AFP/Ahmad Gharabli)

But we’re not at that point yet. On the contrary: Aside from those six instances, the commanders of the PA security forces have demonstrated an impressive ability to control their cadres. The question is how long this discipline will remain in place. Unfortunately the long-term prospects are bleak.

Now, with the introduction of the “French proposal” — Paris’s threat to recognize a Palestinian state if peace talks fail — tensions are likely to increase between Israel and the PA, and this will not diminish the motivation to carry out attacks. The “intifada of knives” will in all probability continue, alongside Hamas attempts to carry out suicide bombings and further attacks by PA security force members.

Car ramming attack?

Later in the day, at about 2:30 p.m., again on Highway 443 but this time on the way to the Tel Aviv region, I see reports of a suspected vehicular attack only several kilometers away, at a checkpoint between the Palestinian villages of Beit Ur al-Tahta and Beit Ur al-Fawqa.

The suspected attacker was being loaded into the ambulance, still alive despite having been shot several times by Israeli soldiers. His car was riddled with bullet holes and covered with bloodstains. Paramedics and security forces were at the scene and, like everyone else, were trying to figure out exactly what had happened. The commander of the IDF’s Binyamin Brigade, who had just been busy investigating the morning’s shooting attack, rushed to the scene. Soldiers manning the checkpoint said the driver, Ahmed Othman, 19, tried to run over one of them, then, failing to do so, turned his car around and tried to ram into another group. The soldiers opened fire on the driver and shot him mid-attack. He later died.

The damaged windshield of the car belonging to a Palestinian man the IDF said attempted to ram into soldiers at a checkpoint on Route 443 on January 31, 2016. (Screen capture: YouTube)
The damaged windshield of the car belonging to a Palestinian man the IDF said attempted to ram into soldiers at a checkpoint on Route 443 on January 31, 2016. (Screen capture: YouTube)

Several meters away from the checkpoint and the car that was used in the apparent attack stood a yellow taxi van packed with Palestinians.

“What happened there?” I asked the passengers.

“We were stopped at the checkpoint for inspection,” one of them responded. “Suddenly [the driver] crashed into us from behind and then the soldiers opened fire on him.”

So you were in front of him in the line for inspection?

“Yes, he crashed into us from behind and then they shot him. This wasn’t a terror attack or anything like that. Forget about it.”

IDF sources reported that during the suspected attempts to ram into the soldiers, the driver hit the van. “At this stage we’re treating the incident as a car ramming attack, but the investigation is ongoing,” a source said.

A short time later, everything was back to normal on the road. The same happened in the media. Nobody seems to be terribly concerned with the latest in the relentless stream of individual events that have marked this “lone wolf intifada.” For Israeli politicians, it’s just a “wave of terror.”

Perhaps they mean to reassure the public that it will just quietly fade. This “wave,” however, refuses to go away, even if it has slowed a little. On the radio they go on about celebrities in Tel Aviv, and it doesn’t seem as if anybody cares what is happening only 30 minutes’ drive away.

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