Israel and the West Bank are experiencing a wave of Palestinian terrorism, consisting of knife attacks, violent disturbances and a horrific shooting attack that claimed the lives of two young parents, Eitan and Naama Henkin, near the settlement of Itamar last week.
Jerusalem has been a focal point of Palestinian attacks in recent days, culminating in the murders of Rabbi Nehemia Lavi and Aharon Banita in the Old City, and the wounding of Banita’s wife and infant son.
The IDF has shifted four additional battalions to the West Bank, stepped up defenses on roads and around communities, and increased security raids on suspects.
But the violent attacks continue, and many Israelis are concerned that the wave could morph into a tsunami of violence, under the headline of a third intifada. These concerns are well founded, in light of the ongoing domino effect that each attack seems to have on the next, and the spate of lone-wolf knife attackers across Israeli cities over recent days.
As of now, however, when viewed through the lens of the defense establishment, the security deterioration does not qualify as a full-blown intifada, due to several factors.
An investigation of the Nablus Hamas cell behind the murder of the Henkin couple found that the cell had no outside instructions, funding or training.
It did not qualify as a Hamas sleeper cell; rather, it was made up of Palestinians who identified with Hamas. Only one member – Ahmed Aliwi, 36 – is a bona fide Hamas military wing operative.
Military perspective - Not an intifada yet
It is more difficult for Israeli intelligence to track smaller, localized terrorist cells such as this, which succeeded in maintaining a low profile and carried out a total of three attacks in recent months, the last of which resulted in the double murder.
In general, Hamas in Gaza and its headquarters in Turkey, led by Salah Arouri, continue to struggle to remotely set up terrorist cells. Cell members must communicate among themselves, get vehicles, set up lookouts, and acquire weapons – activities that leave behind tracks for the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) to follow.
Once every few months, a cell manages to emerge despite all of Israel’s preventative efforts, and it launches a few attacks – mostly without succeeding in causing casualties – before being apprehended or killed.
Overall, the proportion of organized terrorist cells thwarted by the Shin Bet and IDF remains very high. After intelligence is gathered, the Shin Bet directs IDF infantry units to nightly arrest missions across the West Bank.
Most of these raids nip terrorist plots in the bud. They target suspects who attempted to recruit others or acquire weapons. This is what Israel’s operational control of the West Bank makes possible. The arrests make sure that most of the cells never mature into imminent security threats in the first place.
In the background, the false conspiracy theory – peddled by Hamas, the Islamic Movement and elements in Fatah – of an Israeli plot to destroy the al-Aksa Mosque continues to keep tensions high. Unfortunately, large sections of the Palestinian public have adopted this falsehood, which is pumped into Palestinian minds by a well-oiled propaganda machine that mainly serves the interests of Islamist elements. Anyone who publicly disputes the rhetoric is perceived, almost automatically, as an Israeli collaborator, meaning that even those who do not buy into the propaganda feel the need to publicly go along with it.
Adding fuel to the fire is continued unrest in Jerusalem and the increasingly weak position of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his security forces, whose popularity is dwindling. The PA’s deteriorating standing among Palestinians is affecting the willingness of its security forces to carry out coordination with the IDF in some areas.
Abbas returned from the UN in September with a weaker grip on power, after Palestinians perceived his diplomatic bid to be a failure, and after he delivered a speech pleading with the international community to send a protection force, a request seen as weak and desperate by many Palestinians.
This has also contributed to the wave of violence.
Meanwhile, the surge in security incidents in Jerusalem have spilled over into neighboring areas of the West Bank, and IDF territorial brigades in Binyamin, Etzion, and Judea have been dealing with the aftermath.
There is, however, no operational connection between terrorist cells and unorganized rioters, other than the violent atmosphere they all operate within.
The IDF remains concerned about growing friction between Palestinians and settlers; these clashes can be explosive.
Despite all of the above, Military Intelligence does not believe the wave is an intifada.
What would have to happen for the defense establishment to conclude that a third intifada has erupted? First, Palestinian masses would have to join the rioting. If tens of thousands of Palestinians – not the current few hundred – join disturbances, that would be one marker that a new intifada is upon us.
To avoid this, the IDF is ensuring that members of the Palestinian public are kept out of the violent cycles, that their livelihood and freedom of travel and work are not disrupted.
Second, the intervention of Fatah-Tanzim militia gunmen, who are currently avoiding engagements with the IDF in the territories, would be an ominous sign.
The Tanzim are highly armed and could start challenging Abbas’s rule and the PA. They maintain a localized, decentralized presence in some Palestinian districts. Any involvement by them would dramatically increase the level of violence.
Military Intelligence bases a chunk of its West Bank assessments on the figures at its disposal. According to these, in 2014 there were more terrorism casualties, 14, than in 2015, in which eight Israelis have been murdered.
In the West Bank, there were 15 shooting attacks in 2014, compared to 11 in 2015 so far. Four Israelis were murdered in such attacks this year, compared to one casualty last year.
There were three stabbing attacks in 2015, compared to nine in 2014.
The year 2014 saw 22 bomb attacks, compared to three this year. There were three vehicular attacks in 2014, compared to five in 2015 thus far.
Drive-by shooting attacks during the High Holy Days occurred four times 2014, and the same number occurred this year.
There were five bomb attacks last year, compared to one this year, and 11 improvised grenade attacks in 2014, compared to five this year.
Last year’s September holiday period saw one shooting, as opposed to four in 2015.
Rioting during the High Holy Days rose slightly this year (247 violent disturbance) compared to last year (206). Firebomb attacks on Israeli vehicles this year occurred 13 times, compared to 14 in 2014.
Rock-throwing attacks on Israeli vehicles this year stood at 197, compared to 177 in the previous year.
This year, Palestinian rioters hurled 276 firebombs at security forces, compared to 437 in 2014. There were 384 firebomb attacks on civilians last year, compared to 189 in 2015 so far.
Rock-throwing incidents have not risen; 3,042 incidents were recorded in 2014, compared to 1,861 in 2015.
It is such figures that lead the defense establishment to refrain from reaching hasty conclusions about a third intifada.
But in the absence of steps to calm the situation from several directions, no one in the intelligence community can rule out the prospects of a further security deterioration.