The recent succession of deadly Palestinian terrorist attacks in Judea and Samaria is a painful reminder of a bigger truth, and that is that the quiet that prevailed until recently was little more than an illusion.
The motivation of terrorists — whether backed by an organized armed faction or acting on their own — to attack Israelis remains high, and the relative quiet was not for their lack of trying.
The Israel Defense Forces and the Shin Bet intelligence service have thwarted a staggering number of attacks this year alone. A look at official figures confirms the scale of the threat and highlights just how deceptive the so-called quiet really was.
According to Shin Bet head Nadav Argaman, no fewer than 480 organized terror attempts based in the West Bank have been attempted (and prevented) this year. Those murder plots included 280 planned shootings, 76 attempted bombings, six suicide bombings and seven kidnappings. The intended Israeli targets were on both sides of the Green Line.
The number of unorganized attackers stopped in 2018 is approximately 400, and their arrest was made possible in part by technological breakthroughs in the collection and analysis of big data. New technology in the service of national security has helped drastically reduce such attacks, which were frequent just a few years ago.
Hamas has been instrumental in attempting to destabilize Judea and Samaria, which serves its jihadist siren call of violence against Israel as well as its goal of weakening its domestic foe, the Palestinian Authority. Hamas believes that it is entitled to incite violence in the West Bank, even as it keeps Gaza in a state of ceasefire most of the time.
The threat Hamas poses to both Israel and the PA has been the glue that has held together security coordination on the ground between Israeli and Palestinian forces. This glue has so far stuck, despite severe diplomatic clashes between the PA and Israel. The PA subtly recognizes that Israel’s anti-Hamas operations benefit it as much as Israelis.
Israel broke up more than 220 West Bank Hamas terrorist cells this year, including one that was ordered by Hamas’s military wing in Gaza to bomb crowded targets in the heart of Israeli cities in October. That cell was preparing bombs that were unprecedented in their quality of explosive materials, the Shin Bet investigation found.
In recent months, Israel quietly arrested hundreds of West Bank terror suspects, including students, and young men and women who were recruited into Hamas’s secret networks.
That has not stopped Hamas from trying, again and again, to turn Judea and Samaria into a hotbed of terrorism. Israel’s preemptive capabilities have served as a silent, life-saving safety net around the clock.
Harrowingly, however, no safety net is foolproof. It’s too soon to say whether Thursday’s deadly shooting attack on a bus stop near Ramallah was the result of organized terrorism or a local “initiative.”
Either way, the most immediate risk is that this shooting, as well as the attack that preceded it, will fuel a chain reaction of copycat attacks. The first signs of this risk came in a car-ramming attack that injured a soldier just a few hours after Thursday’s incident.
The Israel Defense Forces mobilized a number of back-up infantry battalions to the area, who will be tasked with defending Israeli communities, assisting offensive raids, and searching for the perpetrators.
In the past 24 hours, Israel’s Counter-Terrorist Unit conducted successful operations that resulted in the killing of the gunman behind the Barkan shooting attack and a gunman linked to the Ofra Junction shooting.
Israel’s ability to catch up with terrorists — no matter how they embed themselves in challenging urban settings — reflects a world-leading counterterrorism level that is unmatched.
It also reflects the fact that Israel can send forces to operate anywhere in the West Bank, at any time — a reality that did not exist during the Second Intifada some 15 years ago.
The commemoration of Hamas’s founding, which will be marked on Dec. 14, the risk of another Gaza escalation and the unending “bubbling up”’ of terror plots under the surface can all act as catalysts, accelerating a deterioration in the security situation in the coming days and weeks.
The IDF’s challenge in Judea and Samaria is in some ways more complex than its border protection duties on the fronts with Gaza, Lebanon and Syria. In the West Bank, the IDF protects some 400,000 Israeli civilians who live in the midst of 2 million Palestinians, with no obvious border separating them.
To pursue this complex mission effectively, the military offers both carrots and sticks, both aimed at preventing the situation from worsening. The sticks come in the form of nightly security raids targeting terrorists, while carrots are offered to noncombatants in the form of freedom of movement and increased economic opportunities.
The IDF’s analysis of past trends tell it that driving a wedge between Palestinian civilians and terrorists — and seeking to maintain normal life for ordinary Palestinians who are not involved in terrorism — drives down attacks and saves lives.
Yet this balancing act changed dramatically on Thursday, when the IDF encircled Ramallah and placed it under lockdown. Placing the de facto capital of the Palestinian Authority under such restrictions reflects the severity of the latest attack and the Israeli military’s urgency in locating the perpetrators.
Such a development could also act as a reminder to the wider Palestinian public that Israel can employ more disruptive sticks. A return to the days of mass violence, as many realize, will likely result in significant harm to Palestinian freedom of movement and economic stability.
Ultimately, the terrorism that has reared its head threatens both Israeli and Palestinian civilians. The coming weeks will see whether Israel and the PA will be able to contain the situation, or whether the region will slide into a new and dangerous phase, a development that Hamas will be sure to celebrate and exploit.