JERUSALEM — The recent terror attacks in Beersheva, Hadera and Bnei Brak featured several significant characteristics distinguishing them from other terror surges since the 2015-2016 “knife intifada.” These new characteristics surprised the Israeli government, security organizations and public, despite expectations of a spike in terror on the eve of Ramadan. Indeed, the spate of attacks has exposed misperceptions and made shockingly clear that the “rules of the game” the other side was believed to be playing by are no longer in effect.
First, the attacks were perpetrated within the Green Line (pre-1967 Israel). Israel has become accustomed to sporadic terror attacks in Judea and Samaria, and east Jerusalem. At the same time, the rest of the country enjoyed relative calm and was considered more or less safe. Hence, the recent attacks undermined the sense of security of many Israelis, who wanted to believe that, according to the unwritten rules of the game, they were not targets.
Terror from the Gaza Strip, in the form of periodic rounds of rocket fire, is expected; a threat against which the Iron Dome air-defense system provides a sense of protection. However, the face-to-face stabbings and shootings in the streets of cities within the Green Line created a feeling of insecurity and helplessness. Israelis also realize that the attacks could have resulted in horrific mass casualties had the terrorists not been gunned down so rapidly – in two of the three instances, by civilians.
Israeli Arabs as terrorists
Second, three of the four terrorists were Israeli Arab citizens, one from the Bedouin village of Hura and the other two from Umm el-Fahm. In light of many Israeli Arabs’ participation in the violent riots that erupted across the country during the Israeli military’s May 2021 “Operation Guardian of the Walls” in Gaza, January’s violent protests against the planting of trees in the Negev and the enthusiastic welcoming celebrations for freed Israeli Arab terrorists and agitators, the emergence of domestic Arab terror should not have shocked Israelis.
Nevertheless, it did – Israelis, including the security services, did not expect Israeli Arabs to go that far. Terror acts are “supposed” to be carried out by Palestinians living in the territories. This unwritten rule has now been broken as well.
The Islamic State
Third, while Israelis have become accustomed to terror attacks carried out by members of Palestinian terror groups or by individual Palestinian terrorists, Islamic State (ISIS) has not been considered a direct threat. Israel is not high in its order of priorities, and it has no organized structure among the Palestinians and Israeli Arabs. Hence, the affiliation of the Israeli Arab terrorists, especially the two from Umm el-Fahm, with ISIS was a surprise even to the security forces.
Although ISIS probably did not order the attacks, it immediately capitalized on the terrorists’ adoption of the organization and launched an incitement campaign, hoping to inspire more Palestinians and Israeli Arabs to engage in terror. It is worth noting that at the peak of the organization’s power (2015-2018), several dozen Israeli Arabs sought to join the group in Syria. Some managed to do so, some died and some were forced to return to Israel, where they were arrested but subsequently released.
Fourth, the Israeli government and security services wanted to believe – and convinced themselves – that by improving the economic situation in the Palestinian Authority and Gaza, they could achieve at least temporary quiet, and muddle through the sensitive period of the religious and national holidays in April and May. They believed that the P.A. would fight terror in the areas under its control, while Hamas would preserve calm and restrain the other factions in Gaza.
Pouring money into Israeli-Arab society was also considered to be a way of bolstering their interest in integrating into wider Israeli society and keeping them away from violent and criminal activities.
Correct or not, these assumptions miss the point. The P.A. and Hamas, as well as the pragmatic elements of the Israeli Arabs’ leadership, may take advantage of the economic gestures and deliver what is expected of them – but they are not in full control of the terror threats.
In addition, more disturbingly, the P.A. and Hamas continue to stoke terror and hatred, and Hamas calls for terror from the areas not under its control, including Judea and Samaria and within Israel. The distinction between the different components of the Palestinian people with regard to violence and terror is becoming less distinct. This may be attributed mainly to Hamas and its supporters in Israel, who promoted that message in May 2021 and ever since have made it a central plank of their propaganda, including the March 26 gathering in Gaza aimed at spurring Israeli Arabs to confront Israel.
To sum up, most of the Palestinian people, including the many Israeli Arabs who consider themselves Palestinians, are committed to the Palestinian narrative of an ongoing struggle against Zionism. Economic benefits to the general public are not going to stop them from taking action when they see fit.
The Israeli public’s frustration also stems from the gap between reality and their expectations of the security services and the judiciary system. The current impression is that the security services are ill-prepared to deal with the new circumstances. Two of the three Israeli Arab terrorists were known to have had an affiliation with ISIS and had been arrested in the past and released after short prison terms, yet they were not under any surveillance.
Just a week after the attack in Beersheva by an ISIS supporter, the two Umm el-Fahm terrorists were still able to acquire a large arsenal of weapons without being noticed. Even after the government promised to improve security measures, the terrorist from the Jenin area managed to drive through the security fence, with an automatic rifle, without being noticed. Although the security system clearly cannot guarantee zero failures in thwarting terror attacks, this string of attacks eroded the public’s trust.
The Israeli response was an attempt to ensure as much as possible that the wave of attacks would end. An intensified effort to monitor the attempts to carry out attacks, along with increased presence and activity of security forces in the Palestinian cities and along the security fence, enabled security forces to thwart at the last minute an attack by a Palestinian Islamic Jihad cell from the Jenin area. Three terrorists were killed and a fourth apprehended, and arrests were made in P.A.-controlled areas. The number of Palestinian workers entering Israel without authorization was also curtailed. Parallel efforts directed at Israeli Arabs suspected of affiliation with ISIS led to many arrests.
While late in coming, these efforts, accompanied by an increased police budget, have helped restore public trust in the security services.
However, it is still not clear to what extent the government comprehends the meaning of the game’s new rules; some of those changes happened almost a year ago, but prompted no change in the government’s policy and attitude. If the new reality is fully grasped, then the counter-terror efforts should persist and include a wide-ranging campaign to seize illegal weapons, apply severe measures against inciters and adopt a harsher approach by the courts to those involved in terror, reassert control in ungoverned areas and more.
Finally, there is the question of why this terror wave is happening now. There appear to be many contributing factors, from ongoing incitement by the P.A. and the other terror groups, to Ramadan and Palestinian “Land Day,” to the “success” of the initial attacks and growing frustration over the marginalization of the Palestinian issue on the international and regional stages. Last week’s Negev Summit, attended by foreign ministers from Egypt, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and the United States reflected that phenomenon. The condemnation of the attacks by the participating Arab foreign ministers and later even by President Erdoğan of Turkey highlighted the depth of the change in the region.
P.A. leader Mahmoud Abbas is responsible for much of the incitement, including his insistence on paying salaries to arrested terrorists and monthly stipends to the families of killed terrorists. His expenditures will now include payments to the families of the terrorists killed in the latest attacks and confrontations with the security forces, and to arrested terrorists. Yet, Abbas avoided any reference to the first and second attacks, and only under Israeli and American pressure did he issue a very feeble condemnation of the third. Meanwhile, the Fatah movement, which he leads, and its terror arm, the Al-Aqsa Brigades, praised the attacks.
What really infuriated the P.A. was the Israeli success in foiling the attempt at a significant terror attack by Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Indeed, Abbas’s spokesperson and other P.A. dignitaries harshly denounced the Israeli preemptive raid. While Abbas appears to be aware that the terror campaign is steadily eroding his power, he does nothing to stop it.
What comes next? The terror groups supported by Iran, such as PIJ and Hamas, may launch more organized attacks and call upon Arabs in the territories and Israel to participate in the terror campaign. If they fail, terror attacks and rocket barrages from Gaza may be in the offing, as well. Israel must maintain a very high alert on all fronts for the foreseeable future. Israel must also bear in mind that if the United States and Iran reach an agreement on restoring the nuclear deal, the Iranian resources available to the radical terror groups will grow substantially.
IDF Brig. Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser is director of the Project on Regional Middle East Developments at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He formerly served as director general of the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs and head of the research division of IDF Military Intelligence.
This article was first published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.