Gun attacks in West Bank bring back memories of worse to come

The latest wave of attacks has included shootings, but there are other attempted attacks that take place in the background, and have continued to take place over the years, often hidden from view.

IDF and Magen David Adom at the sceneof the terror shooting in the Barkan industrial Zone (photo credit: HALLEL MEIR/TPS)
IDF and Magen David Adom at the sceneof the terror shooting in the Barkan industrial Zone
(photo credit: HALLEL MEIR/TPS)
A decade ago, US Lt.-Gen. Keith Dayton warned that Palestinian expectations for statehood could boil over if statehood wasn’t realized. Dayton, who served as the head of the office of the US Security Coordinator, which was training Palestinian Security Forces, said “There is perhaps a two-year shelf life on being told that you’re to create a state.” However, his pessimistic view has not come to fruition. Instead, the Palestinian Authority and its security forces have largely kept the peace in their parts of the West Bank while Israel’s security forces have been able to prevent hundreds of terrorist attacks. This week things seemed in danger of unraveling with two drive-by shootings.
Both took place on the same section of Route 60. As with the Barkan terrorist, who was found hiding not far from where he had perpetrated his attack, the terrorist in the Ofra drive-by that killed a baby, was found nearby in a suburb of Ramallah. This could lead one to conclude that these localized attacks will be solved locally, with security force sweeps and raids in order to find the perpetrators.
But there are larger issues at stake. PA President Mahmoud Abbas is entering his 14th year in office. He came to power through a series of appointments and elections, becoming prime minister in 2003 while the Second Intifada was approaching its bloody denouement, served as chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization since 2004, and president of the PA since 2005. His tenure was rocked early on by the rise of Hamas which led to the PA and Fatah being chased out of Gaza in 2007. Since then, Abbas has presided over his Ramallah-based fiefdom, while Hamas rules in Gaza. During that period there has largely been a kind of cold peace with Israel, punctuated by rounds of violence.
In June 2014, three Jewish teenagers were kidnapped from a bus stop in Gush Etzion and quickly murdered. That triggered a terrible summer of violence resulting in the third Gaza war. In 2015 and 2016, there was a spate of stabbings and ramming attacks. According to a report by the Foreign Affairs Ministry, in 2015 there were 100 stabbings, 38 shootings and 22 vehicular attacks. Worse came the following year, creating a wave of mostly lone wolf terrorism, which was fanned by social media incitement. Route 60, which bisects the country from Beer Sheba to Nazareth, has been a particular target of terror with 25 people killed in 22 years on just one 16-km. stretch of the road, according to a study by The Jerusalem Post.
The latest wave of attacks includes shootings, but there are other attempted attacks that take place. They have continued to do so over the years, and are often hidden from view. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel prevented 500 attacks in 2018. In 2017, 400 attacks were foiled. In 2016, another 400 were also prevented, and the Shin Bet said it stopped 2,000 attacks overall using cybertechnology. We don’t know what types of attacks these were, but it appears most were not that sophisticated as the large suicide bombings that were an emblem of the Second Intifada. During the period from 2000 to 2005, one study found that there were 138 suicide attacks, which murdered 509 people.
But Palestinian terrorism has found other ways to target Israelis. Hamas launched 460 rockets in one two-day period in November. Hamas has also fomented nine months of riots along the Gaza border since March 2018 leading to the deaths of more than 200 people and thousands injured in Gaza by Israeli fire. In addition, more than 1,364 fires have been started due to the launching of arson balloons from Gaza.
This puts the recent drive-by shootings in perspective. In general, the era of Palestinian shooting attacks using rifles and handguns has decreased due to IDF raids and the confiscation of weapons in the West Bank. In recent years, the Palestinians have increasingly used homemade “Carlo” submachine guns.
Many of these guns have been found over the years in raids. In July 2018, 18 Palestinians were detained in the West Bank. In June 2017, eight were detained. In August 2016, dozens of illegal handguns and other weapons were found, including a half dozen gun workshops and machines for making guns. One report said that 39 handguns and several rifles were confiscated during that summer. But this is the tip of the iceberg. There is low level conflict in the shadows in the West Bank that consists of raids to find firearms, clashes in different areas involving stone throwing, and reports of attempted attacks that are interdicted.
The IDF has warned that there is a chance for escalation in the West Bank. According to the Shin Bet, there were 109 attacks in October and 80 in September. This is on top of the attacks that were prevented. This isn’t a small number, but rather since there are a small number of casualties on both sides, it leads to the perception that there is little ongoing terrorism in the West Bank.
Hamas has celebrated the recent attacks. It released a statement celebrating the “resistance” on December 13, after one of its members involved in the Ofra attack was tracked down and killed. It wants to boast its role and it is also seeking – through social media – to demonstrate its popularity on the ground. In Ramallah, next to the Christmas tree which was erected in Manara Square downtown, rallies have taken place. Additional rallies took place in Bir Zeit and Gaza, where sweets were distributed.
Thirteen years have passed since the end of the Second Intifada in the West Bank. Since then, every year brings with it warnings of a new “explosion” in violence, a new “spark.” It remains unknown when that spark might ignite. The First Intifada was not predicted until it began. Already more people have been wounded in the clashes in Gaza over the last nine months than during a similar period in the first Intifada. In fact, our understanding of what constitutes an “intifada” may be warped by perceptions of what constitutes a large number of terrorist attacks. The actual numbers are staggering, in terms of the potential death toll from the 500 prevented attacks and those that don’t cause mass casualties due to better security. This is also the case with rocket fire from Gaza. The aforementioned November rocket fire was fiercer than any single day of rocket attacks during the 2009, 2012 or 2014 operations. However, the perception of its seriousness was to a lesser degrees due to Israel’s ability in intercepting the rockets.
Israel is also focused on Operation Northern Shield to expose Hezbollah tunnels and preempt escalation along the Lebanese border. This is something the current government has fully concentrated on. In November, Netanyahu sought to downplay the Gaza conflict potential by largely choosing to focus on the North, according to reports. Similarly, no side has any interest in a conflict in the West Bank. But serious drive-by shootings are a major escalation. At present, the security forces of the PA have continued to play a key role in keeping some of the percolating violence from bubbling over. But just as Dayton warned, it’s never clear when the shelf life of this quiet security may expire.