The cumulative impact of sporadic West Bank terror

The cumulative impact of sporadic West Bank terror

Lone Palestinian killers, who murdered two soldiers in past week, present a nightmare challenge for the security forces — to the delight of Hamas and other extremist groups

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.

Tomer Hazan (photo credit: Facebook)
Tomer Hazan (photo credit: Facebook)

BEIT AMIN, West Bank — Nidal Amar, 42, the Palestinian from this town who murdered Sergeant Tomer Hazan last Friday, was a ruthless killer but not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Though he managed to convince Hazan to accompany him to the Shaarei Tikva settlement area, then lured him to a secluded site near Kfar Saniriya where he murdered him, his actions between the time of the murder and his arrest at 3:30 a.m. on Saturday morning were amateurish, to say the least.

He did not carry a “conventional” weapon that would indicate meticulous, calculated planning. He disposed of the body by tossing it into a well, and then returned to his family home located a mere 40 meters from the security barrier. No “classic” terrorist would behave this way.

The most dangerous terrorists that the IDF and the Shin Bet pursued during the exacting years of the Second Intifada acted completely differently. Amar didn’t bother to hide or flee, cover his tracks, or dispose of anything that the authorities could use to track him down. On the contrary, Amar, who had been employed in Israel since age 17 — as his father, Abdullah, told this reporter on Sunday — did the last thing that could be expected of a murderer: He simply went to sleep in a small room in his family home.

It took the soldiers from Israel’s elite counterterrorism unit, who closed in on the family compound in the village, only a minute or two to arrive from Shaarei Tikva. The fleeting hope that Amar was holding Hazan hostage in his home was the reason that this elite unit was chosen to raid the compound. But Hazan was no longer alive.

Amar surrendered immediately, with no resistance at all. Seven of his brothers were arrested in an attempt to understand whether they knew of the murder, or were involved in any way. Their father firmly denied such accusations, of course. He claimed that he would have shot his son if given the opportunity, though fears of Israel destroying his family’s home or punishing his other sons most likely caused him to react so harshly.

Nidal Amar (photo credit: Israel Security Agency spokesperson/Flash90)
Nidal Amar (photo credit: Israel Security Agency spokesperson/Flash90)

Amar’s initial interrogation ended with many unanswered questions. Why did Hazan accompany Amar to the outskirts of Shaarei Tikva? How did Amar lure the off-duty soldier there? Was any criminal activity involved, as was hinted, or not? How did Amar murder Hazan? He wasn’t carrying a gun or a knife. Why did the murderer decide to go to sleep in his family home in Beit Amin instead of attempting to flee for his life? What exactly was going on in this terrorist’s mind? Did he really believe that he would be able to negotiate for his brother Nur ad-Din’s release from Israeli prison in exchange for the soldier’s body, as the Israel media has claimed?

What’s been said thus far is nothing more than a preliminary version of the events that may have been given by the murderer in an attempt to make his actions seem “patriotic.” The interrogators have been careful to avoid declaring Amar’s motive for the murder, though the subtle hints that were leaked sufficed for nearly the entire Israeli media to adopt this version of the events, and to excite certain Israeli politicians. A chorus of right-wing ministers and Knesset members from the Likud and Jewish Home factions referred to the killing in order to attack the government’s decision to release Palestinian prisoners as part of the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Naftali Bennett, Israel Katz, Uri Ariel and others all rushed to explain how releasing prisoners to the PA encourages terrorism. Seven of them even went so far as to sign a letter to the prime minister, demanding that he stop the phased release of prisoners. The ministers never thought to wait until the investigation teams presented their final, official findings. Neither did they make any attempt to explain the connection between releasing prisoners and the murder of the two Israeli soldiers this week. Not a single minister resigned in protest at the Israeli government’s ostensibly appalling decision on the releases, which they claim encourages terror and murder. So far, they have been content to give interviews and make statements that have been quoted repeatedly, earning them another few minutes in the spotlight.

Gal Gabriel Kobi (photo credit: Facebook)
Gal Gabriel Kobi (photo credit: Facebook)

The attack near the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron this week, in which Givati Brigade Staff Sgt. Gal Gabriel Kobi was killed, was not a “classic” terrorist attack either. A single shot, aimed directly at Kobi, is atypical of previous attacks in Hebron or anywhere else. Terrorists usually fire multiple shots or an entire round at their target.

Such a precise shot seems to be the work of a skilled sniper. There have been attacks in the past that were so precise that the gunman was mistakenly thought to be a sniper, such as the attack in Wadi Haramiya, north of Ramallah in March 2002, in which 10 Israelis were killed. One of the initial speculations then was that this attack was carried out by an IRA sniper. The shooter, Thaer Hamad from the nearby village of Silwad, was arrested only two-and-a-half years later. He had practiced shooting alone for several months using an old Mauser rifle that exploded in his hands during the attack.

Despite the fact that Gal Kobi was killed so soon after Tomer Hazan, there has been little indication of a rising wave of terror in the West Bank. Though no Israelis were killed in terrorist attacks in Judea and Samaria in 2012 and three have already been murdered since the beginning of 2013, at this stage, the attacks in Hebron, Tapuah Junction (in April) and Beit Amin appear to be the work of individual terrorists who acted alone, not that of organized terrorist networks.

This relatively new type of attack, initiated by individuals who bypassed the organized terrorism infrastructure, presents new challenges for Israel’s security forces. The lack of clear infrastructure makes it more difficult to detect potential terrorists of this kind. In many ways, tracking down this new species of terrorist is a much greater challenge than apprehending known activists. They do not depend on known collaborators and often manage to obtain their weapons without outside assistance, occasionally even settling for “cold” weapons, like the knife used in the lethal attack at Tapuah Junction.

Unlike the arch-terrorists and murderous minds of the Hamas infrastructure during the difficult years of the Second Intifada, these terrorists are sometimes not very sophisticated. Yet they manage to attack and kill Israelis, and are generating an increasing numbers of threats that demand additional efforts from Israel’s security forces.

The PA’s response

The Palestinian Authority has not taken a clear-cut stance on the recent attacks.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas, who met with US President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York on Tuesday, failed to condemn the murders of soldiers Hazan and Kobi in the media for nearly three full days.

After he met with representatives of American Jewish organizations on Monday, several of those who attended tweeted that Abbas had denounced the attacks and demanded that Israel condemn the murder of four Palestinians during the last month, but this somewhat unusual condemnation received no mention in the Palestinian media. The following day, Abbas finally published an official statement in which he explicitly denounced the attacks.

Meanwhile, Fatah leader Abbas Zaki, no great supporter of Abbas, blamed Israel for recent developments, adding that “Israeli soldiers were killed while they trod on Palestinian soil and attempted to massacre Palestinians.” Zaki is not considered a popular leader and does not have influence among the Palestinian people, but Abbas’s hesitant response presented an opportunity for second-class Palestinian politicians to voice their inciting, bitter opinions.

On the ground, however, the PA seems to be attempting to prevent the region from igniting. Immediately after the killings, PA security forces began to arrest Hamas activists, some apparently in relation to the murder of Hazan.

Hamas reported, for example, that the PA arrested four of its activists and interrogated three others. Among those held were three residents of Kfar Saniriya, near the site of Hazan’s murder. A key Hamas activist was also arrested outside one of the mosques in the Balata refugee camp.

In other words, some in the PA and Fatah have used an impassioned, occasionally inciting tone against Israel, while at the same time the PA is arresting anyone suspected of wanting to escalate violence. The problem here is similar to the challenges that Israel faces — the authorities arrest anyone known to be related to Hamas and Islamic Jihad, but the new potential terrorists are not necessarily affiliated with these organizations.

Hamas, on the other hand, is constantly attempting to escalate violence in the West Bank. Just this week, Hamas leader Moussa Abu Marzouk wrote on his Facebook page that “we are on the verge of a third Intifada.” Abu Marzouk, like many of his companions, knows quite well that this is not exactly true, but the recent unrest in the West Bank can help serve their objectives. Hamas is currently very weak in Gaza and the West Bank and lacks effective political and military leadership. Its financial resources are dwindling due, in part, to its reduced income as the tunnels in Rafah are shut down by Egypt. The majority of its leaders are held in PA or Israeli prisons, while those that remain in the Gaza Strip are trapped and unable to travel to Egypt, due to restrictions placed by the authorities in Cairo.

This helps explain the increased attempts by Hamas activists to capture Israeli soldiers and civilians in the West Bank. Success would escalate violence in the region and likely cause Israel to halt negotiations, which would humiliate the Palestinian Authority and put Hamas back on center stage. Even unsophisticated terrorists can have a significant impact.

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