Sunday’s deadly attack underlines relentless rise in West Bank terror attempts
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AnalysisSo far in 2019, almost 100 terror attacks have been thwarted

Sunday’s deadly attack underlines relentless rise in West Bank terror attempts

Hamas is doing its best to foment terror in the West Bank, in part to distract attention from Gaza, in part to hurt the PA

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.

Israeli security forces at the scene of a deadly attack near the Gitia junction in the West Bank, on March 17, 2019. (Flash90)
Israeli security forces at the scene of a deadly attack near the Gitia junction in the West Bank, on March 17, 2019. (Flash90)

After the terrible terror attack Sunday morning near the West Bank settlement of Ariel, in which IDF soldier Gal Keidan was killed and two other Israelis were seriously wounded, there is no positive news on the horizon.

The motivation of the terror groups, lone terrorists, or independent cells to perpetrate attacks in the West Bank is increasing. One of the main reasons for that is Hamas’s desire to set the territory ablaze. (As of this writing, it should be stressed, it is not at all certain that the latest terror attack was perpetrated by Hamas.)

The terror group’s current policy is in some ways ironically reminiscent of Israel’s in past years, which was essentially to create a complete separation between Gaza and the West Bank.

While Hamas is doing everything possible to prod the residents of the West Bank to perpetrate terror attacks, in the Gaza Strip, it is determined to maintain calm, even if it means falling out of favor in local opinion or the wider Arab world, and even if it means reaching economic or civil understandings with the “Zionist enemy.”

IDF soldier Gal Keidan, who was killed in a shooting attack in the northern West Bank on March 17, 2019. (IDF Spokesperson)

As Hamas fears a large-scale military conflict in the Gaza Strip, the terror group finds it easier to issue general orders in the West Bank to carry out terror attacks, mainly because it is aware that the current Israeli government, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, will place the blame on Ramallah, not Gaza.

In addition to Hamas’s ongoing, basic motivation for escalation in the West Bank, the purpose of which, along with targeting Israelis, is to weaken the Palestinian Authority, there are other motivations that are relatively new.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas speaks to Palestinian leaders at the Muqata, the PA headquarters, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on February 20, 2019. (ABBAS MOMANI / AFP)

The first and most volatile of them is the Israeli court’s decision to enforce the closing of the Golden Gate entrance to the Temple Mount, the place that has already succeeded in stirring up unrest in East Jerusalem.

The Gate of Mercy, or Golden Gate, known in Arabic as Bab al-Rahma, was sealed by Israeli authorities in 2003 because the group managing the area had ties to Hamas, and it has been kept closed to stop illegal construction work there by the Islamic Waqf, the custodian of the site on behalf of Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. Israeli officials believe the work led to the destruction of antiquities from periods of Jewish presence in the area.

Palestinian demonstrators break open the locked entrance to the Gate of Mercy compound outside the Al Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City, February 18, 2019. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

While Israel sent an emissary to Jordan — Shin Bet director Nadav Argaman — in an effort to resolve the crisis, there is as yet no agreement regarding the details of the arrangement that would lead to such a resolution. One of the proposals that the Israeli side raised was to announce that the location was undergoing “renovations,” thereby leading to its closure for several months. But the Wakf is still reluctant to adopt this proposal.

The second element contributing to the general ferment is the internal Gaza demonstrations against Hamas, which are pushing that organization to create more and more distractions, such as terror attacks in the West Bank.

A screenshot of video shown by the Kan public broadcaster of a protest in the Gaza Strip over the cost of living on March 15, 2019. (Screen capture: Twitter)

The third element is the money that the Palestinian Authority is refusing to accept from Israel, tax money that belongs to it, so as not to enable Netanyahu’s government to deduct from these funds the salaries paid to families of prisoners and terrorists who were killed.

All this suggests that calm will not be restored over the next several months. Israeli officials believe that a continued refusal by the PA to accept its tax money for four months will harm its functioning and also affect the security coordination.

A look at the curve of terror attacks or thwarted terrorist activity in recent years shows a persistent increase in motivation alongside an improvement in the ability to stop them (in part thanks to the security coordination with the PA). This means that the relative calm in the West Bank is profoundly fragile, if not a complete illusion.

Israeli soldiers carry out a a raid in the village of Bruqin near the West Bank town of Salfit on March 17, 2019 (Flash90)

For example, Israeli officials say that slightly more than 200 terror attacks were prevented in 2015, about 350 in 2016, roughly 400 in 2017, and almost 600 in 2018. So far in 2019, there have been almost 100 thwarted terror attacks — and these are only of the kind defined as severe: shootings, explosives, vehicle-rammings, and the like. In other words, terrorists are attempting to perpetrate more terror attacks each year, and their motivation remains high. On Sunday, they succeeded.

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