Twenty years ago, Israel was in the midst of the Second Intifada. March 2002 alone saw 133 people killed in terrorist attacks. Twenty years later, 11 Israelis have been killed in the last week.
The spate of attacks in Israel that claimed the 11 lives has stirred up memories of the Second Intifada, a time when nowhere was safe because suicide bombings were ripping through buses, markets and restaurants indiscriminately.
September 2000 to mid-2005 saw close to 1,000 Israelis killed and thousands more injured, when hundreds of Palestinian terrorists staged deadly attacks across the country during the Second Intifada.
The worst single day was March 27, 2002, on Passover Seder night. Hamas operative Abdel-Basset Odeh blew himself up in Netanya’s Park Hotel in the middle of the Seder, an attack that killed 29 and wounded 64.
It was the catalyst for then-prime minister Ariel Sharon to launch Operation Defensive Shield two days later – the country’s largest military operation in the West Bank since the 1967 Six-Day War, with 20,000 reservists called up. Troops and heavy weaponry were deployed deep into the heart of six major Palestinian cities, surrounding towns and refugee camps.
The goal was to stop the terror attacks that were plaguing the country by regaining control of the West Bank and cities in Area A that were under the sole control of the Palestinian Authority.
In the operation that lasted until the end of May, 29 Israeli soldiers died and another 127 were wounded. Palestinians reported at least 250 fatalities among their own, with an additional 400 injured and more than 5,000 arrested.
There is no set date or event marking when the Second Intifada ended, but the violence and deadly attacks waned around 2005.
Ten years later, the 2015 “stabbing intifada” began, with Palestinians – mainly youth – stabbing, running over and shooting Israeli soldiers, civilians and even tourists in a wave of violence in the West Bank and Israel. There were almost daily attacks in the winter of 2016 before the violence decreased.
There have been sporadic waves of violence since, all, if not most, being carried out by lone-wolf Palestinian youth.
The attacks of the last week are a concern for Israel’s security establishment, which was caught off guard and without any prior indication that attacks were being planned. They now have to play catch-up to contain and neutralize threats before more killers are able to carry out deadly attacks.
The attack in Hadera on Sunday was premeditated, and took place on the 20th anniversary of the Park Hotel bombing. With the attack in Bnei Brak occurring 48 hours later, Israelis are concerned that they are seeing the beginning of a Third Intifada.
Yoram Schweitzer, a senior researcher at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies and head of the institute’s Program on Terrorism and Low-Intensity Conflict, said there are two main differences between the violence Israel is currently seeing and the First and Second Intifadas.
“Now we have relative freedom of operation, if not total freedom of operation, if we need to operate in the West Bank,” Schweitzer said. “We have forces operating in Jenin and Balata refugee camp looking for suspects. And we have the support – whether quietly or not – of the Palestinian security forces.”
The first priority of Israel’s security forces, Schweitzer said, is to “obtain intelligence ahead of time in order to stop people or groups from operating,” and that to do that would require “more active engagement in order to obtain more intelligence. We have to be more aggressive in obtaining intelligence and operational steps by the police, Border Police and IDF – both inside and outside Israel. The PA might help that. And if intelligence doesn’t exist, then we need a higher presence of people who can stop attacks and prevent more casualties. We will see more troops, more police, more soldiers allowed to carry their guns.”
He said that while there is no way to prevent everything, “we should not lose our heads and address [the recent attacks] as if it’s something Israel hasn’t experienced in the past. A few successful attacks are creating such a sense of insecurity.”
Schweitzer, while acknowledging the possibility of copycat attacks, does not believe that Israel is facing another intifada.
“I don’t think we are in the same situation as the Second Intifada,” he said. “We are not in a reality of a Third Intifada.”
However, because of the events and possible copycat attacks, the security services have to re-evaluate their operations.
“Failures happen, and I am sure that the Shabak [Shin Bet Israel Security Agency] sees it as a failure, and is working to close those loopholes. They will check what happened, what gaps there were, and fix it.”
A generation of both Israelis and Palestinians who grew up in the midst of suicide bombings do not want to see a repeat of such a scenario. Both sides understand the catastrophe that they lived through during those violent years.
Because of that, Israel’s defense establishment only last week increased the number of work permits for Gazans to 20,000, in an attempt to reduce the tension that has been bubbling under the surface.
Officials from Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, Egypt and Qatar are also working to reduce the flames by holding an unprecedented number of meetings in public. Those meetings came as Israel tried to differentiate between terrorism from the West Bank and Gaza, and terrorism carried out by Arab-Israelis.
Nonetheless, despite the rush of diplomatic meetings and doubling of troops in flashpoint areas, 27-year-old Dia Hamarsheh was still able to illegally cross into Israel through a hole in the security fence and open fire with a military-grade assault rifle on unarmed civilians, mere minutes from Tel Aviv.
In order to prevent future attacks, including copycat attacks, security forces and Bennett’s government have a lot of work to do.
One issue that should top their list is to fix the holes in the security fence through which thousands of Palestinians cross to Israel daily – including the mornings after each deadly attack this past week.
Security forces must also ramp up their operations in combating the trend of illegal weapons that have flooded into Arab communities and continue to be smuggled in from Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan.
Combating the ideologies of the Islamic State and other terrorist groups like Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad is a struggle that will continue for years, and will be harder to deal with as long as Palestinians and Arab-Israelis feel they have nothing to lose.
Israel’s military does not want 2022 Defensive Shield 2.0. But in order to prevent that, the IDF, Shin Bet and Israel Police must get the situation under control.
They can no longer afford to play catch-up.