Terrorism in Israel and the West Bank

Terrorism in Israel and the West Bank


Howard Adelman

(My apologies in advance if I failed to get Schneeweiss’s comments accurately.)

Yesterday evening, CIJA organized a conference-call across Canada to discuss the current state of terrorist attacks in Israel. DJ Schneeweiss, originally an Australian who made aliya to Israel in 1987, was introduced by the CIJA representative.  DJ took up the post of Consul-General in Toronto in 2012 as the most recent posting in a long and distinguished career in the Israeli Foreign Service. After obtaining his masters degree from Hebrew University, he served as Policy Assistant to Foreign Ministers Ehud Barak (1995-1996) and David Levy (1996-1998). He was the Press Secretary at Israel’s London Embassy from 1998-2002 during which time he was recognized by Diplomat as the most effective Embassy spokesman in London. From 2003-2006, DJ served as Policy Advisor to Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom. From 2006-2009, he was Israel’s Deputy Ambassador to China. Before coming to Canada, DJ was Director of Civil Society Affairs in Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

DJ offered the initial briefing and then opened the presentation to questions. His talk as well as his answers to questions were precise, clear and avoided any obfuscation. At the same time, in such a context, one could not consider alternative characterizations of the situation than the one he depicted, so I will have to fill in that gap.

DJ did not give a specific designation to the terror that has been going on in Israel since Rosh Hashanah, but it has been variously described as the “Third Intifada,” “The Wave of Terror” or the “Knife Intifada.” The latter seems a misnomer since some of the attacks have been shootings and others car rammings, though most have been knife attacks. Nevertheless, it seems to be the one favoured in yesterday’s Ha’aretz. “We are looking for a name for this intifada as well, which has already claimed 23 victims. It’s time to stop the foolishness which keeps calling it a ‘wave of terror.’ Those who really insist on avoiding the word ‘intifada’ can choose ‘a war of terror.’ But it’s an intifada, and there is no reason not to adopt the term which is repeating itself for the third time, even if there is no name to define this type of intifada, as the weapons range from a knife and scissors to cars and firearms.” For example, the initial attack that set off this spate of violence was a shooting by Hamas operatives that killed Eitam and Na’ama Henkin on 1 October.

According to DJ, there have been 72 stabbings, 10 shootings and 12 car rammings thus far.  Contrary to a belief that this was a new outbreak of violence, DJ characterized it as part of a pattern that will continue further, well beyond yesterday’s phone call. DJ held that, although these attacks, certainly near the beginning after the Hamas initial deliberate one, seemed to be the product of lone-wolf-initiated violence. He did not concur at leaving the depiction this way. He contended that, although not perhaps centrally organized and controlled, the violence was manipulated and used for propaganda purposes that almost certainly celebrated that violence and lent it some political and moral authority.

The attackers all denied that Jews had rights to the land. The effect of the campaign is like listening to the horror of a dripping tap, a sound which you cannot get out of your ears. The metaphor seems inappropriate because this tap cannot be simply repaired. Further, one cannot know where the next drip will hit. The attacks, though random and seemingly all over the place, according to DJ, seem to have been exacerbated if not orchestrated by social media that have played such an important part in this wave of violence and used to whip up and incite Palestinians.

Part of the stimulus has been the repeated lies and misrepresentations, such as the calumny that the Israeli government is intent on changing the arrangements for governing the Temple Mount. Instead of Israeli responses being portrayed as self defence, they are misrepresented as intentional cold-blooded murder. Thus, yesterday a piece appeared in Al-Monitor written by Aziza Nofal. Farag Ibrahim Abdul Rahman who owns an antique store in the Old City, noted that after Muhannas al-Halabi stabbed two Jewish settlers and injured another in October, the Old City market has been almost empty. He, and East Jerusalem youth, all saw the responses as efforts to terrorize and intimidate Jerusalemites. He accused Israeli police and the IDF of shooting and attacking women and children in response to a call on their Facebook pages to quietly and peacefully protest the increased police and military presence. Israeli soldiers are using extreme measures, he said, “shooting directly and killing anyone they suspect.”

In the article, reference was made to the shooting of 1-year old Marah Bakir as she was leaving school on 18 October in Sheik Jarah. According to the article, she was shot directly because Israelis suspected that she was involved in an armed attack. Mohammad Majid al-Zaghl, 14, was also arrested on 28 October on his way back from school in the town of Salwan for carrying a wooden ruler. Jerusalemites know, he claimed, that their presence in the Old City is their means of confronting Israel. Jerusalemites refuse to be forced to leave their homes.

This narrative does seem to turn the Consul-General on its head while seemingly confirming his contentions, Yuval Aviv wrote that the efforts to build the Third Temple will destroy the Jewish state while DJ was adamant that the Israeli government insisted on maintaining the status quo on the Temple Mount and was not trying to make any changes whatsoever. He did not mention that a group of Israeli extremists believed that the rule of the priests and kings would be restored while ultimate authority remained in the hands of God.

At the opposite end of this extremist Jewish rhetoric is a dovish one. The violent actions of the Palestinians must be understood as, if not justifiable, at least comprehensible responses to years of frustration and upset over the years of occupation and a genuine fear of settlement expansion making the West Bank too disfigured to make self-determination feasible. DJ did not acknowledge or criticize this alternative opposing narrative from the dovish side that claims that the Palestinian violence has been provoked by Israeli insensitivities to justifiable grievances. However, if the terrorism of the Parisian suicide ISIS militants and the activities of Hamas and Hezbollah all stem from the same root, then such an argument is at least partially undercut. However, like DJ’s story, the dovish story of the oppressed resorting to violence because of the heavy weight of oppression is also a universal tale told from Mumbai to Paris, Israel to Mali and Nigeria.

One may think that the term “oppression” is totally inappropriate in depicting Israeli control over the West Bank. Control is the correct term. This is omitted from DJs narrative, which suggests that the PA is an independent power in total control of the situation on the ground, whereas the PA has only very limited administrative control and Israel is the de facto sovereign, certainly in terms of security and financial self-determination. The Israeli shekel is the monetary unit used by Palestinians. Israel controls the external borders and air space. Further, though Israeli Palestinians have most of the rights of any Israeli citizen – and produced only three knife terrorists – most Palestinian residents in Jerusalem (300,000) only have residence cards. Palestinians in the West Bank are ultimately subjects, not citizens.

DJ did accuse the Palestinian Authority (PA) of being unwilling to stand up and fight the upsurge in violence and, in fact, was playing a double game by supplying a degree of covert coordination with winks and nods rather than direct commands. The PA had chosen not to confront the upsurge in violence and had to be held accountable for its actions and inaction. Moral accountability was needed instead of the West absolving the PA of any responsibility. Israelis were to be commended for their fortitude and perseverance. The IDF and border police were to be congratulated for the steps they have taken to stem the violence. Included in those steps have been house demolitions, restrictions on work permits and resistance to the militant pressure. Most of all, Israelis were to be praised for adopting an attitude that, “Life goes on.”

The violence, DJ contended, was not the result of Israeli untoward political or otherwise militant responses, let alone initiatives, or even a role of tit for tat as depicted in some media. The issue was not one of inappropriate Israeli actions and reactions. Israeli responses inhibit violence in the first instance and then prevent it becoming lethal in the second sense. What Israel would not do was offer concessions that would be perceived as rewarding violence or that Israel would remain passive in the face of violent confrontation and deliberate misrepresentations.

This interpretation ignores the fact that the IDF had strongly recommended that a number of steps be taken to ease restrictions on the West Bank to decrease the tensions building up, but the government did not act on them, and now will not act lest the government be perceived as giving in to terror. However, when Israel does respect Palestinian rights to due process, freedom of movement, representation on zoning decision-making bodies, Israel earns considerable goodwill. This was the conclusion of both the IDF and the intelligence services, but the government did not act on that evaluation. Of course, those who refuse to accept the Palestinians as having any sovereign or self-governing authority, those so-called “concessions,” simply straightforward recognition of a partnership between two people sharing and dividing a piece of land, with the Palestinians still only netting 22%, those gestures are simply perceived as another step in the surrender of Israeli authority over all of Palestine – which, of course, they are.

DJ’s main thesis concerned the identification of the violence in Israel with the wave of extremist violence around the world rooted in an ideology of the supremacy of Islam, the exclusive rights of Islam, and the repression or even elimination of infidels. The immediate terrorist acts were intended to sew fear, wreck havoc and spread that fear through the population using, not simply violence, but the slick use of social media. DJ contended that the Iranians were complicit in this terrorism as Shia fought Sunni, as old regimes contended with new and younger challengers, and as the West refused to put boots on the ground to confront the scourge. In contrast, Israeli security forces, police and intelligence were on the front lines. For DJ, it must be understood that Palestinian terrorists and ISIS or al-Qaeda all drank from the same ideological well. Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda and ISIL, were at their foundations similar in glorifying death as a presumed moral ideal.

Amjad Iraqi wrote that, “Suggestions that terrorism springs from the same well as terrorism in Israel are misleading and dangerous. Erasing complexity may be a comfort in difficult days like these, but conflating the varying causes of violence won’t help us end it.” He went on to decry the comparison further. “Under the guise of attempting to arrange the current wave of global violence into some kind of cohesive narrative, and with the debate on terrorism at saturation point, many observers of the Israel-Palestine conflict have seized on the opportunity to situate the bloodshed here as springing from the vaguely-defined, amorphous phenomenon of ‘global jihad’ or ‘militant Islam’. This line of reasoning posits Islamic State, Hamas and lone-wolf attackers on the streets of Israel-Palestine within the same nexus of expansionist religious fanaticism and has been adopted enthusiastically in Israel, from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu downward.”

In the case of Israel, the nationalist-political dimensions were ignored in the equation. The killings were simply attributed to Islamist extremism. Peace talks may not be on the agenda for a number of reasons, but whitewashing the occupation does not help tackle the problem. Further, it allows Israeli leaders to position the settlements as the frontline in the fight against terror instead of attempts at expanding the territorial acquisitions by Israel. Saying this does not mean one condones or justifies the killings or even blames the killings on the so-called oppressors. On the other hand, the equation of various types of terrorism in this way allows us to forget George W. Bush’s war against Iraq that played such an important part in destabilizing the Middle East.

Context is important. Different trajectories are important. To sweep everything up into an overarching grand simplistic narrative leads us, not only to bad explanations, but to ill-fitting solutions. It is certainly true that the successes of Israel and Western governments in countering these threats cannot simply be based on dealing with direct challenges. Many plots and attacks have been thwarted. Look at the list in Israel alone – over 100 attacks and attempted terrorist initiatives by over 100 Palestinians and even three Israeli Palestinians. Just yesterday, a Palestinian male was shot after stabbing an Israeli man in the West Bank in the latest incident in a two-month spate of attacks that has left 19 Israelis, 1 American and 89 Palestinians dead. However, only 57 of those deaths were reported to be attackers; the rest were allegedly killed in clashes with police, suggesting that some innocent Palestinians have also been killed.

In the meanwhile, as DJ contended, Israelis are determined to go on and not only survive, but to live well. They will continue to do so as the government attempts to balance the protection of individual rights with measures needed to be taken to protect its citizens. Israel continues to have a thriving democracy. We are all in for the long haul, DJ insisted. The terrorists will not be defeated either easily or quickly. More assets and resources need to be put into this battle by all democratic governments. However, the peace process will not proceed until the violence ceases.

Even concessions, such as raising restrictions on road access, easing travel and work permits or releasing prisoners will not be contemplated as long as the violence continues. In any case, there is no silver bullet and DJ rejected suggestions by at least three callers that Israel take more forceful actions against Palestinians in general as advocated by Naftali Bennet. This possibility was firmly and unequivocally rejected. All actions have both intended and unintended consequences that all have to weighed lest the decisions made increase rather than decrease insecurity.

Thus, generally, there are two basic conflicting narratives, and two versions of each. All four have their own corresponding response strategies. For the right, the violence is totally the fault of extremist, unrepentant violent killers propelled by an ideology of both death and triumphalism (Naftali Bennett). Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked joined Bennett in launching a campaign to initiate “Operation Defensive Shield 2.” They argue that the only appropriate response is the one akin to that launched by Former Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, after the attack on the Park Hotel in Netanya that killed 30 Israelis. In six weeks, that violent insurrection was totally smashed. Use overwhelming force. Crush the insurrection. Netanyahu, they claim in an appeal to their settler backers, is weak and ineffectual.

Other right-of-centre proponents, like DJ, moderate their responses and do not opt for an all out war and extermination of the scourge. Rather, they advocate managing the problem rather than exacerbating it by an approach that insists on a dramatic and much more robust military response.

Similarly, the left or dovish narrative also has a more moderate position than the views of those dubbed “grievance freaks” by the right. It suggests combining gestures, both symbolic and real, with initiatives that will enlist Mahmoud Abbas more actively in suppressing the violence in recognition that Abbas is not complict in abetting the violence. This interpretation is endorsed by many if not most in the IDF leadership and the intelligence corps. Instead, Abbas is only hanging onto his diminishing authority by a thread and refuses to take initiatives that would sever that thread altogether. Demolishing homes of families of attackers, shooting to kill, a greatly increased military presence in the lives of the Palestinians, only enhance rather than calm the raging waters. The response must be appropriate to the type of terrorism, for it is violence without a central address or a central headquarters by youth bent on killing or wounding Israelis on their, the attackers’, path to self-destruction. No known intelligence system can anticipate such acts, making them all the more frightening.

Certainly, the killers are greeted as heroes and martyrs after they die, even as the Palestinian leadership ostensibly disagrees with the tactics. For their cause is applauded, not the specific action. On the other hand, in Israel, DJ was correct in saying that the majority of Jewish Israelis have no stomach for further negotiations with the Palestinians without some real movement from the other side. Any concessions would benefit the Palestinians and reduce the power, authority and influence of Israel over territories without anything concrete in return, for piecemeal concessions do not bring peace. So Israelis elect a leader who promises to do everything to see that nothing is done on this front.

The result: ignoring IDF advice and building up explosive pressure that erupts in a really violent outbreak which, unfortunately, is akin to the first intifada which resulted in Oslo, and the second which resulted in withdrawal from Gaza. Failing to take small preventive steps ends up requiring much larger ones. We know that from the treatment of diseases. The lesson also applies to social maladies.


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