Israel is tense, in the midst of a deadly terror wave that has seen 14 Israelis killed in four attacks in Israeli cities since late March, and many others injured.
The wave began with attacks against civilians in Beersheva (March 22) and Hadera (March 27) by Israeli Arab terrorists sympathetic to the Islamic State (IS) movement, followed by two further attacks by Palestinian terrorists from the Jenin area in the northern West Bank, targetting Bnei Brak (March 29) and Tel Aviv (April 7).
Israeli security agencies report that during this period until today, many other terrorist attacks were foiled.
The five killed in Bnei Brak represented the worst toll from a single terror attack inside Israel proper since November 2014, when Palestinian terrorists killed six people in a synagogue in Har Nof.
And while no direct link has been found between the attacks, the four incidents together have nonetheless sparked widespread fears in Israel of a major new terror wave, and much debate about how to best respond.
While the revival of IS-inspired terrorism in Israel may have been surprising, especially after the decline of the IS from its peak last decade, it’s not unheard of, as seen by the June 2016 Sarona market attack in which Palestinian gunmen inspired by IS killed four people.
Also, in 2017, then-Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu attributed a car-ramming attack in Jerusalem in which four soldiers were killed and over a dozen others injured to IS.
IS’s claim of responsibility for another deadly attack in Jerusalem in 2017 was disputed by Israel and Palestinian terrorist groups.
The more recent attacks, however, have revealed an apparent serious intelligence failure from Israel’s Shin Bet security service. Abu al-Qia’an, who killed four Israeli civilians in the ramming and stabbing attack in Beersheva, had previously been imprisoned in Israel until 2019 for attempting to join IS in Syria. One of the two Hadera terrorists had reportedly been arrested by Turkey in 2016 for trying to join IS.
These March attacks were reportedly the first inside Israel officially claimed by IS since the contested 2017 claim, but Shin Bet may well have been underestimating sympathy for IS among Israeli Arabs.
In a 2015 report, Shin Bet noted a growing number of young Israeli Arabs eager to travel to Syria to fight alongside IS members – indeed several dozen had done so. By late 2016, around 50 Israeli Arabs had been arrested for joining or attempting to join IS.
It’s possible we may be witnessing a dangerous new threat, one more difficult to track than established Palestinian terrorist groups. IS and its sympathisers have for some time certainly constituted by far the most dangerous terrorist threat inside the Green Line, and IS successes inside Israel will likely bring it new adherents among both Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and Israeli Arabs. To head this off, Shin Bet will likely be scrambling to account for all previously known IS sympathisers among Israeli citizens and ensure they are monitored more closely.
Beyond the IS threat, even before the Bnei Brak attack, Israeli security agencies voiced concerns that IS terror would encourage attacks by Palestinian terror factions determined not to be upstaged by IS on what they regard as their home field.
Fatah claimed Tel Aviv terrorist Raad Fathi Zidan Hazzam, from the Jenin Refugee Camp, as one of its own. While Hazzam had no prior record, his father had served time in Israeli prisons on terror offences and is a commander in the Palestinian Security Forces (PSF). He is, at the time of writing, being pursued under suspicion of having advance knowledge of the attack.
Fatah also claimed association with the Bnei Brak terrorist, Diaa Hamarsheh, a Palestinian from a town near Jenin. Hamarsheh is an alleged member of Fatah’s Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade but had reportedly been imprisoned in Israel for offering to carry out a suicide bombing for Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Israeli security forces have focused in recent days on arresting known armed terrorists in the Jenin sector, including in the Jenin Refugee Camp itself – a no-man’s land patrolled by gangs of armed jihadists that represent a raised tactical danger to Palestinian forces and the IDF alike.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas issued a rare condemnation of the Bnei Brak and Tel Aviv attacks. Yet at the same time, his associates in Fatah glorified Hamarsheh’s attack, issuing a poster celebrating his “martyrdom”.
The head of Fatah in Jenin and longtime Abbas confidante, Ata Abu Rmeileh, who attended a rally in front of the terrorist’s home celebrating the attack, proudly claimed Hamarsheh as Fatah’s own.
“This hero who died a martyr’s death in the heroic act murdered five Zionists and is one of the heroes of the Fatah movement. When Fatah carries out terrorist attacks, it is carrying out high-quality attacks against the accursed Zionists,” Israeli news site Kan quoted Rmeileh as telling a crowd waving yellow Fatah flags.
Meanwhile, there is some consolation that the terrorists have largely failed to turn Israeli Jewish and Arab society against one another in animosity or fear. In fact, the effect has been largely the opposite, especially as two of the murdered victims were Israeli Arab security force officers.
In Hadera, Yazan Falah, a young border police member from the Druze village of Kisra-Sumei, was gunned down after dining, while Amir Khoury, a Christian from Nazareth, was killed as a first responder to the Bnei Brak attack as a member of an elite motorcycle-mounted counter-terror unit.
Stories of their heroism were amplified across Israeli media and thousands of Israelis, Arab and Jewish, attended their funerals.
That said – whether the terror wave ends soon or not – it is clear that terrorism against Israelis remains, as ever, a popular currency used to rapidly build support among certain radical sectors of Palestinian society. As long as this remains the case, members of Israel’s Jewish and Arabs communities that mostly coexist peacefully will unfortunately continue to be asked to pay the ultimate price, no matter how vigilant Israel’s security services are.
Ahron Shapiro (senior) and Oved Lobel are policy analysts at the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council.