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Analysis

Weekend’s surge in Palestinian terror shows ‘contagion’ is still at work

One attack sparks another, underlining the ever-present threat of escalation — even though Israel and the PA have had security success in recent months, and as economic ties have warmed

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 near the body of a Jordanian attacker at the scene of an attempt stabbing attack at Damascus Gate in Jerusalem on September 16, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Israeli security forces near the body of a Jordanian attacker at the scene of an attempt stabbing attack at Damascus Gate in Jerusalem on September 16, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

There is a sudden new uptick in the “wave” of terror attacks. Almost a year has passed since the beginning of the “Lone Wolf Intifada” and the feeling among the Israeli public — though less so among members of the defense establishment — was that it was all but finished. But then, on Friday and Saturday, came a spate of terror attacks starting, improbably, with a Jordanian national who decided to try and carry out an attack in Jerusalem’s Old City.

This was followed by a series of attacks in a familiar location — Hebron. Again, we saw a motif that has featured frequently in the context of the lone wolf attacks: contagion. Like a virus spreading among friends and family members, one terrorist inspires other friends and relatives to carry out an attack. They do not even need to be on Facebook or another social media outlet. Often, it is blood relations which inspire the attackers to go out and “avenge” the recent death of a relative killed in the course of attempting an attack.

This phenomenon had weakened over the past few months but it never totally disappeared. Rather, the Israeli and Palestinian security apparatuses have utilized better tools to deal with it. The IDF and Shin Bet security service, as well as Palestinian security, have been arresting on an almost weekly basis young men or women who planned to carry out attacks of this type. The motivation to carry out attacks is not what it was a year ago, in light of the failure of the previous attacks to effect any real change in the diplomatic situation. But it is still there. And one can assume that it will never go away completely in the period of the so-called “status quo.”

The weekend’s flare-up is fueled mainly by this phenomenon of contagion. There is no discernible rise in incitement or in the level of hostility between Israel and the Palestinians, nor is there any dramatic deterioration in ties between the Palestinian Authority and Israel. Quite the opposite. Over the past few weeks, we have been in an economic-security “honeymoon” of sorts in relations between the two sides.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman tours Bedouin villages in the Negev, southern Israel, on August 29, 2016 (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman tours Bedouin villages in the Negev, southern Israel, on August 29, 2016 (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Later this month, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York, Israel will detail a series of economic steps it intends to take in order to improve the economic situation of the Palestinian Authority — essentially the “carrots and sticks” program thought up by Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, with an emphasis on the “carrots” rather than the “sticks.”

These include an agreement between members of the Israeli and Palestinian governments to build a gas pipeline to Gaza. Representatives of the PA and Israel will jointly ask donor countries to fund the unusual project, which may help alleviate if not completely solve the continuous electricity crisis in the Gaza Strip.

The gas deal is one of a long list of agreements and understandings reached between Israel and the PA in the past few weeks. Another is the deal to reschedule the massive debt Palestinian electricity companies owe to the Israel Electric Corporation. This agreement amounts to nothing less than a transfer of authority from Israel to the PA. Money until now collected by the IEC directly from several Palestinian companies will now be collected by the PA’s energy authority.

Another deal was signed on the distribution of mail; there is also an agreement to lay down the network for third generation cellular phones, and a whole series of economic projects were approved by the Israeli government as part of the Liberman plan.

Tensions ahead

Meanwhile, Israeli-PA security coordination is being maintained all the time. Just this week, two female soldiers accidentally drove into the heart of the West Bank city of Tulkarm. The incident ended peacefully, with the soldiers rescued from a mob by PA cops and handed over to the Israeli Civil Administration unharmed. While not all attacks can be prevented, as those five (at time of writing) separate terror attacks since Friday morning attest, the Palestinian security mechanisms continue to foil attacks and arrest terror suspects, and there is an ongoing, mutual transfer of intelligence information.

Still, as we saw over the past two days, the sequence of positive developments can be cut at any moment by a Palestinian terror attack. And there is likely to be a further rise in tension ahead of the Jewish holidays next month. The atmosphere is far from relaxed, despite those economic agreements. Besides the lone wolf attackers, Hamas is trying by all possible means to carry out attacks in the West Bank in order to destabilize the situation there.

Furthermore, there is the potential for Jewish fuel to be thrown on the fire as right-wing politicians may seek to (ab)use the holidays via hyped visits to the Temple Mount. And in the months after the holidays, Israel will be facing other landmines, in the shape of West Bank settler evacuations.

The evacuation of the Amona outpost must take place before the end of 2016, and could be accompanied by attempts by Jewish extremists to hurt Palestinians. In February 2017, nine houses are expected to be evacuated from Ofra, and by April 2018 the illegal Netiv Ha’avot neighborhood in Elazar faces evacuation. It is a massive understatement to say that these evacuations will create an unstable climate.

Amona, an Israeli outpost in the West Bank, east of the Palestinian town of Ramallah, May 18, 2016 (AP/Oded Balilty)
Amona, an Israeli outpost in the West Bank, east of the Palestinian town of Ramallah, May 18, 2016 (AP/Oded Balilty)

The government, conflicted

Another question that needs to be examined is whether the future evacuation of these illegal Jewish homes may already be affecting the government’s policy and preventing it from taking additional conciliatory steps toward the PA, especially as regards changes planned in Area C of the West Bank, the 60 percent of the territory where Israel maintains security and civilian control.

It was only recently that the establishment of a hospital in Beit Sakhour was approved, as well as the building of soccer fields in Azoun and Idya and the widening of the access road from the Allenby border crossing to Jericho (funded by the Japanese).

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, left, and Education Minister Naftali Bennett arrive at the first cabinet meeting of the Israel's 34th government at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on May 15, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, left, and Education Minister Naftali Bennett arrive at the first cabinet meeting of the Israel’s 34th government at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on May 15, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

But some ministers and other officials say that the Jewish Home party and its representatives in the cabinet, ministers Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett, are blocking and delaying Palestinian projects intended for Area C. Those ministers and officials say that Bennett and Shaked are horrified by the possibility that the Palestinians will build in Area C at the same times Israel intends to evacuate Jewish homes (albeit illegal ones) there.

Several projects are said to have been stifled by the Bennett-Shaked duo. Among these are a sewage treatment facility intended to handle the sewage problem in East Jerusalem (in the Kidron area), an expansion of the Tarkumia industrial zone, and retroactively legalizing Palestinian homes built in Area C without approval. These projects were presented to the cabinet following intensive work by Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai and his staff.

Bennett and Shaked have declined to comment on these claims.

The representatives of COGAT seem to have recently been designated public enemy No. 1 as far as some Jewish Home MKs with no seat in the cabinet are concerned, including minister Uri Ariel, and MKs Moti Yogev and Bezalel Smotrich. These politicians are busy building up their status within the party and one of the ways to do so, it would seem, is to pounce on Mordechai and other IDF officers.

Israel's Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai in 2015 (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)
Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai in 2015 (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

If so, party politics within Jewish Home is influencing Israel’s relations with the Palestinians, and undermining economic projects aimed in the long term to help bring down Palestinian violence. Ironically, reduced Palestinian violence could help enable continued Israeli control of the territories — a central part of Jewish Home’s platform.

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