The new normal: Stabbings, shootings and lulls
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The new normal: Stabbings, shootings and lulls

After a period of relative calm, Thursday’s five deaths marked the blackest day of Palestinian terror in the new upsurge. In prospect, more of the same

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 and rescue personnel at the scene of a drive-by shooting near the West Bank settlement of Alon Shvut, in the Etzion Bloc, November 19, 2015. (Photo by Gershon Elinson/Flash90)
Israeli security forces and rescue personnel at the scene of a drive-by shooting near the West Bank settlement of Alon Shvut, in the Etzion Bloc, November 19, 2015. (Photo by Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

The minute we felt a lull in the current violence, the terror attacks on Thursday shattered that illusion.

Thursday was the deadliest day since the outbreak of violence, or in Palestinian terms, the so-called “third intifada.” Five killed (four Israelis, an one Palestinian bystander) and another five injured in two separate attacks.

In the first attack, 36-year-old Raid Halil bin Mahmoud, from the Palestinian village of Dura near Hebron, exploited his Israeli work permit and killed two Israelis in what appears to be the first attack carried out by a Palestinian work permit holder inside the Green Line. The second attack of the day was a combined shooting and car-ramming attack, and ended with heavy losses, with 2 Israelis and a Palestinian bystander killed.

After almost two weeks of relative calm which saw a decrease in the number of stabbing attacks, the Hebron area has seen an increase in shootings attacks. This past week, Palestinian gunmen carried out three separate shooting attacks on Israeli targets.

Raid Halil bin Mahmoud, suspected in a stabbing attack in Tel Aviv on Thursday, November 19, 2015 (screen capture: Channel 2)
Raid Halil bin Mahmoud, suspected in a stabbing attack in Tel Aviv on Thursday, November 19, 2015 (screen capture: Channel 2)

While some young Palestinian men and women have approached IDF checkpoints in the southern West Bank city armed with knifes, bent on attacks, in at least three other incidents the would-be attackers thew their weapons to the ground and expressed their desire to die.

So how do we explain the calm on one hand and the fresh upsurge on the other?

On one hand, pressure exerted by Israeli security forces in the West Bank, and the practice of demolishing the homes of attackers, has made it difficult for young attackers to carry out their plans.

On the other hand however, its impossible to completely eradicate the motivation to murder Israelis. The sentiment exists, and is unlikely to disappear in the foreseeable future.

So despite the sporadic periods of calm, the new reality in the West Bank and its “third intifada” appears to dictate that attacks will not stop completely. This would seem to be the untenable new normal.

PA forces, shopkeepers thwart attacks

On Thursday morning, when Salma decided to carry out the attack on the Panorama office building in Tel Aviv, his hometown of Hebron was quiet, at least in the H-2 area under Israeli control. Perhaps an artificial quiet, but quiet nonetheless.

Last week, Hebron native Shadi Ahmad Matua opened fire on the Litman family near the Otniel Junction, and the week before, Jewish worshipers en route to the Cave of the Patriarchs were shot at by Palestinians.

The gun that the Shin Bet says was used in the November 13 terror attack in the West Bank that killed Rabbi Yaakov Litman and his teenage son Netanel. (credit: Shin Bet)
The gun that the Shin Bet says was used in the November 13 terror attack in the West Bank that killed Rabbi Yaakov Litman and his teenage son Netanel. (credit: Shin Bet)

In Hebron’s famous, once busy market, part of which is under Israeli control, only a handful of stores have been able to stay afloat.

When asked, one local business owner, Khader Shabaneh, told the Times of Israel the reason behind the lull in stabbing attacks: “We don’t want a mess, we just want the army to ease up on us a little bit.”

Shabaneh, who owns a bakery adjacent to the Tomb of the Patriarchs, said that he and some of the other shopkeepers nearby had begun stopping young Palestinians in the street they suspect could be planning a terror attack.

Shabaneh’s associate, “A,” said that many of the attackers hailed from a neighborhood called Bab Al Zawia. “PA forces dressed in civilian clothing are stationed there to stop anyone from making problems, and were able to stop several attacks,” he said.

Shabaneh said that recently when he saw children throwing rocks at Israeli security forces by his bakery, he approached them and told them to stop and explained to them that clashing with the IDF would result in a lock down of the neighborhood and be bad for business. “But I was trembling in fear that the soldiers would shoot at me, thinking that I was one of them,” he said.

He said that IDF soldiers’ lack of Arabic compounded the problem.

“Only recently there were Arabic-speaking troops stationed here, and they treated local residents with respect,” he said.

A Palestinian vendor displays food, including pickled vegetables and olives, in preparation for Ramadan at a market in the West Bank city of Hebron, Saturday, June 28, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Majdi Mohammed)
A Palestinian vendor displays food, including pickled vegetables and olives, at a market in the West Bank city of Hebron. (photo credit: AP/Majdi Mohammed)

The lull in stabbings is at least partly a result of the cooperation of PA forces and local businessmen.

In light of the uptick in violence, many family dynamics have changed, an IDF officer said, and parents are increasingly monitoring what their children are doing.

This could also be seen an effort to restore a sense of order to the traditional family unit, which has been weakened in Palestinian society.

According to the same IDF official, after fatally shooting Rabbi Yaakov Litman and his son Netanel last week, Matua returned home and told several family members what he had done.

“When his father found out about, he went to Hazayit intersection, approached a soldier patrolling there and explained to him that his son carried out the attack,” he said.

“Unfortunately, the soldier did not speak Arabic, so he called his commander to speak with him. He also didn’t speak Arabic, and thought the father was indicating he had a bomb he wanted to smuggle inside Israel. The commander had to call another officer who was able to understand what the man was saying. In less than an hour, security forces were at the family home, the suspect apprehended, and his gun and the car used to carry out the attack found,” he said.

Why would a father turn in his own son? Turns out, the father is a local businessman who realized the implications the incident would have on the family, and chose to give up his son for the sake of the family rather than pay price for his son’s actions.

The young stabbers

One of the biggest problems facing the IDF and Shin Bet in this new model of an intifada is the lack of intelligence pointing to the intentions of would-be Palestinian attackers.

“None of the recent attackers from the Hebron area was not known to the security establishment,” the officer said. “In fact, we don’t have anyone on our watch list currently.”

“One of the attackers who carried out an attack near the Tomb of the Patriarchs was sitting in a nearby internet cafe where he wrote a farewell message to his friends and family, asking for their forgiveness, but explained that he ‘had to act,'” he said. “Five minutes later, he walked out and attempted to stab soldiers. We have no early warning indicators here.”

The official said the impromptu attacks by young Palestinians were much harder to combat than those organized by known terror groups.

Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon visits the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron on August 11, 2015 (Ariel Harmoni/Defense Ministry)
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon visits the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron on August 11, 2015 (Ariel Harmoni/Defense Ministry)

“Actually, activities that take place within the terrorism infrastructure are more straightforward for us, because when a threat emerges we can make arrests,” he said.

“And while there is a certain calm now, we have no doubt that the motivation of Hamas, especially from the Gaza Strip, is to perpetrate more attacks.”

In recent days soldiers stationed in the area have seen a new troubling trend: young Palestinians coming to die at Israeli checkpoints. They don’t attempt to mount an attack, but simply show soldiers that they are carrying knives in the apparent hope that the troops will shoot them dead.

When the captured young suspects were asked their motivations, many said they just wished to end their lives. Most of them struggled with psychological or social issues.

Earlier this week, one young Palestinian man from Hebron approached a checkpoint and followed this routine. He later told investigators his father had harshly reprimanded him for receiving a 95 on a test instead of 100.

Hebron now and forever

Although Tel Aviv terrorist bin Mahmoud had a permit to work inside Israel, and although the government subsequently froze the entry of hundreds of permit-holders, its unlikely that it will halt the daily influx of ten of thousands of Palestinian workers as a punitive measure. Such a would escalate tensions, not abate them.

In the West Bank, especially in Hebron, it’s not only the IDF, some Palestinians and PA security forces that are attempting to restore calm. In recent days, Jewish residents of nearby settlements have posted notices informing Palestinian residents of armed community patrols in an effort to prevent future attacks.

Its unclear if this a publicity stunt or a genuine emerging phenomenon in mixed Jewish-Arab areas of the West Bank.

“Most of the Jewish settlers in the main blocks are supportive and willing to help,” the IDF officer said.

Still, he said, “they have their own demands. For example, now, there’a a campaign to close Route 60 to Palestinian motorists, and that’s probably not going to happen.”

In response to reports of the armed patrols of Jewish settlers, IDF Colonel Yariv Ben Ezra, commander of the Judea district, said any IDF weapons discovered on the civilian patrols would be confiscated by security forces.

The IDF official said the army was trying to avoid friendly fire incidents, saying “If they want to patrol in their cars without taking action, then by all means yes. But we cannot have people taking action with weapons on their own. It could end in a disaster.”

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