The wave of indiscriminate lone-wolf terrorist attacks plaguing Israel and the West Bank over the past three weeks is unlikely to end soon.
A new and violent force has stirred – the lone Palestinian attacker, programmed to kill by years of incitement on social media and by Hamas, the Islamic Movement and Fatah.
Armed with a knife, a car or a handgun, the lone attacker or small groups of terrorists head out on murder and suicide missions, convinced they are defending the Aksa Mosque and furthering the Palestinian goal of terrorizing and humiliating the Israeli people, whom they have dehumanized in their minds as demons.
These attacks undermine the sense of security for Israelis all over the country, which is why they are lionized by Palestinian leaders who have nothing to offer their people besides hatred, baseless conspiracy theories revolving around the Temple Mount, Islamist supremacy ideology, foolish fantasies of overcoming Israel, and the religious glamorization of dead terrorists.
The attacks have claimed 10 Israeli lives; more than 150 have been wounded.
Put in the perspective of the second intifada, in which highly organized Palestinian terrorist groups dispatched human bombs and vehicles laden with explosives into the heart of Israeli cities, causing mass-casualty scenes of carnage, the current violence is significantly less of a threat to national security, despite the fear it causes to ordinary people.
After the IDF retook Palestinian cities in Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, it never left. These days, more than 70 percent of terrorism is thwarted due to Israel’s security and intelligence coverage of the West Bank, enabling nightly raids that stop terrorist cells from maturing into imminent threats.
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These raids stop the large majority of the worst and most dangerous kind of terrorism, the organized variety, which once ravaged Israeli cities and could claim tens of lives in a single attack. In order to be able to do this, the IDF’s Central Command has more military forces than the Northern and Southern Commands put together.
But when it comes to thwarting unorganized terrorism, unfortunately, there is virtually no known way to currently create intelligence that will warn security forces about imminent threats ahead of time. Lone attackers do not usually call co-conspirators or leave an electronic footprint behind, and they do not usually discuss their plans with sufficient amounts of people to leave behind an intelligence trail.
They mimic one other’s attacks, setting off a domino chain reaction of murders and attempted murders.
No one in the defense establishment knows when it will end. The IDF has taken several initial measures to reduce the attacks, such as making its field intelligence units available to the police in east Jerusalem, to try to intercept the movement of lone attackers, and sending soldiers on patrol in city centers together with police for rapid armed response forces.
At the same time, the IDF is wary of any measures that would harm the noncombatant Palestinian population, or threaten its livelihood, including the 120,000 Palestinians whose daily earnings depend directly on the Israeli economy.
Any such actions would be counterproductive, as they would turn workers into rioters, exacerbating the situation, according to the IDF’s logic.
Unfortunately, the IDF has no highly effective operational or intelligence tools to deal with lone attackers, though senior army planners have gone back to the drawing board to search for those. Military Intelligence could scour Palestinian social media accounts to create a list of individuals who appear to be “ticking time bombs,” but the effectiveness of such tactics have yet to be proven. An increase in human intelligence capabilities in east Jerusalem also seems in order.
Most importantly, so long as the threat is posed by lone attackers, the IDF does not feel the need to draft reserves to deal with the attacks. But should Palestinian terrorist factions – such as Fatah’s Tanzim militia in the West Bank or Hamas in Gaza – become involved, the situation would escalate dramatically, and reserves would be called up.
This year, the IDF called up around 40 reserve battalions. During past security deteriorations, that number shot up to as much as 200 reserve battalions.
If the IDF begins calling up large numbers of reserves to the West Bank, it would be to enable its standing army to continue its chief mission – namely, training for, or mobilizing for, full-scale war, and the reserves would relieve them of the grinding, daily security missions in the West Bank, which include protecting roads, settlements, dispersing riots and going on nightly security arrests.
The IDF is concerned about the prospect of wider escalation, which could precipitate the disintegration of the Palestinian Authority.
Continuing ongoing security coordination between the PA and Israel is an Israeli interest, allowing Israel to exercise its crucial operational freedom in the West Bank.
Although neither are remotely stable arenas, Gaza is even less stable than the West Bank. Although Hamas has not fired a single rocket at Israel since the August 26, 2014, truce with Israel, it continues to allow Gazan rioters near the fence, and any deadly border clash could trigger a rapid deterioration, leading to rocket fire and another military operation in Gaza.
So long as the established Palestinian terrorist groups stay out of the current violence, limiting their involvement to contributing incitement but not gunmen, the IDF will stick to its policy of measured, firm responses that seek to minimize harm to Israelis, while preventing a wider conflagration.
Should the Palestinian organizations intervene, however, the result would likely be so explosive that it could reshape the region for years to come.
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