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The Current Terror Wave in Israel: Main Characteristics and Implications

 
Filed under: Israel, Palestinians, Terrorism
Publication: Jerusalem Issue Briefs

The Current Terror Wave in Israel: Main Characteristics and Implications
The three Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorists from Jenin killed when they were intercepted on their way to an attack by Israel’s Border Police’s Counterterrorism Unit on April 1, 2022. (Watanserb)

Institute for Contemporary Affairs

Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation

Vol. 22, No. 6

  • The recent terror wave of shootings and stabbings in the large Israeli cities of Be’er Sheva, Hadera, and Bnei Brak shows several significant characteristics that distinguish it from previous terror surges such as the wave in 2015-16 (known as the “Knives Intifada”). The attacks were all perpetrated within pre-1967 Israel, undermining the sense of security of many Israelis who wanted to believe they were not targets of terror.
  • Three of the four terrorists were Israeli Arab citizens, one from the Bedouin village of Hura and the other two from the town of Umm al-Fahm. Israelis, including the security services, did not expect Israeli Arabs to go that far. The affiliation of the two Israeli Arab terrorists from Umm al-Fahm with the Islamic State was a surprise since terror against Israel is not high on its order of priorities, and it has no organized structure among the Palestinians and the Israeli Arabs.
  • The Israeli government and the security services wanted to believe that by improving the economic situation in the Palestinian Authority and Gaza, they could gain at least temporary quiet. Pouring money into Israeli Arab society was also considered a way of bolstering their interest in integrating into Israeli society and keeping them away from violent and criminal activities.
  • The Palestinian Authority and Hamas, as well as elements of the pragmatic leadership of the Israeli Arabs, may take advantage of the economic gestures and deliver what is expected of them, but they are not in full control of the terror threats. In addition, the PA and Hamas continue to stoke terror and hatred, and Hamas calls for terror from the areas not under its control, including by Arabs in Judea and Samaria and within Israel. Most Palestinian people, including many Israeli Arabs who consider themselves Palestinians, are committed to the Palestinian narrative of an ongoing struggle against Zionism.

The recent terror wave of shootings and stabbings in the large Israeli cities of Be’er Sheva, Hadera, and Bnei Brak shows several significant characteristics that distinguish it from previous terror surges since the one in 2015‒16 (known as the “Knives Intifada”). These new characteristics surprised the Israeli government, security organizations, and the public, even though there were expectations of a spike in terror on the eve of Islam’s holy month of Ramadan. Indeed, the spate of attacks exposed misperceptions and made shockingly clear that the “rules of the game” the other side was believed to be upholding are no longer in effect.

The Terror Attacks Were Perpetrated within the Green Line (pre-1967) Israel

Israel got used to sporadic terror attacks in Judea and Samaria and east Jerusalem. At the same time, the rest of the country enjoyed relative calm and was considered more or less safe. Hence, the attacks undermined the sense of security of many Israelis who wanted to believe that, under the unwritten rules of the game, they were not targets in the ongoing terror against the Israelis living in the territories occupied since 1967. Terror from Gaza in the form of periodic rounds of rocket fire is expected and the Iron Dome provides a sense of protection against it. However, the crueler face-to-face terrorist stabbings and shootings in the streets of cities within the Green Line were unexpected and created a feeling of insecurity and helplessness. Israelis also realize that the attacks could have resulted in horrific mass casualties if the terrorists had not been gunned down so rapidly. In two of the three instances, the quick response happened by chance or by civilians.

Israeli Arabs as Terrorists

Three of the four terrorists were Israeli Arab citizens, one from the Bedouin village of Hura and the other two from the town of Umm al-Fahm. In light of many Israeli Arabs’ participation in the violent riots during the May 2021 Operation Guardian of the Walls in Gaza, January’s violent protests against the planting of trees in the Negev, and the enthusiastic welcoming celebrations for freed Israeli Arab terrorists and agitators, the emergence of domestic Arab terror should not have shocked Israelis. Nevertheless, it came as a blunt surprise; Israelis, including the security services, did not expect Israeli Arabs to go that far. Terror acts are “supposed” to be carried out by Palestinians living in the territories. Instead, this unwritten rule of the game was challenged and broken as well. (For an in-depth analysis of attitudes toward violence among different categories of Israeli Arabs, see An In-Depth Analysis of the Forces Driving the Israeli Arab Riots of May 2021.)

The perpetrators of the Hadera terrorist attack
Cousins Ayman Ighbaria and Ibrahim Ighbriah, the perpetrators of the Hadera terrorist attack on March 27, 2022, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. (Screenshots)

The Islamic State (IS) Daesh Role

Israelis got used to terror attacks by members of Palestinian terror groups or by individual Palestinian terrorists after being motivated by the ongoing incitement and hate indoctrination of the Palestinian Authority and the other terror organizations. IS was not considered a direct threat, since terror against Israel is not high on its order of priorities, and it has no organized structure among the Palestinians and the Israeli Arabs. Hence, the affiliation of the Israeli Arab terrorists, especially the two from Umm al-Fahm, with Daesh was a surprise that not even the security forces were prepared to deal with. Although Daesh most probably did not order the attacks, it immediately capitalized on the terrorists’ adoption of the organization and launched an incitement campaign in the hope of gaining popularity and inspiring more Palestinians and Israeli Arabs to engage in terror. It is worth noting that at the peak of Daesh’s power (2015‒18), several dozen Israeli Arabs sought to join the group in the fighting in Syria. Some managed to do so, some died, and some were forced to return to Israel and were arrested for a relatively short time.

The Totality of the Palestinian Struggle against Zionism and the Faulty Economic Assumptions

The Israeli government and the security services wanted to believe, and they convinced themselves that by improving the economic situation in the Palestinian Authority’s areas and Gaza, they could gain at least temporary quiet and muddle through the sensitive period of the religious and nationalist holidays in April and May. They believed that the PA would fight terror in the areas under its control, and Hamas would preserve calm and restrain the other factions in Gaza. Pouring money into the Israeli-Arab society was also considered a way of bolstering their interest in integrating into Israeli society and keeping them away from violent and criminal activities. Although these assumptions may be correct, they miss the point.

The PA and Hamas, as well as elements of the pragmatic leadership of the Israeli Arabs, may take advantage of the economic gestures and deliver what is expected of them, but they are not in full control of the terror threats. In addition, more disturbingly, the PA and Hamas continue to stoke terror and hatred, and Hamas calls for terror from the areas not under its control, including by Arabs in Judea and Samaria and within Israel. The distinction between different components of the Palestinian people regarding violence and terror is becoming less relevant. This may be attributed mainly to Hamas and its supporters in Israel, who promoted that message in May 2021 and ever since have made it a central plank of their propaganda, including the March 26, 2022, gathering in Gaza aimed at spurring Israeli Arabs to confront Israel. To sum up, most of the Palestinian people, including many Israeli Arabs who consider themselves Palestinians, are committed to the Palestinian narrative of an ongoing struggle against Zionism, and the economic benefits to the general public are not going to stop them, from time to time, from taking action when they see fit.

The Israeli public’s frustration also stemmed from the gap between their expectations of the security services and the judiciary system on the one hand, and the reality on the other. The current impression is that the security services were ill-prepared to deal with the new rules. Two of the three Israeli Arabs were known to have had an affiliation with Daesh and had been arrested in the past and released after short prison terms. Yet they were not under any surveillance. A week after the first attack by a Daesh supporter in Be’er Sheva, the two Umm al-Fahm terrorists were able to acquire a large arsenal of weapons without being noticed. Even after the government promised to improve the security measures, the terrorist from the Jenin area managed to drive a car with a gun through the security fence without being noticed. Although the security system clearly cannot guarantee zero failures in thwarting terror attacks, this string of attacks eroded the public’s trust.

The Israeli response was an attempt to ensure as much as possible that the wave of attacks would end. An intensified effort to monitor the attempts to carry out attacks, along with increased presence and activity of security forces in the Palestinian cities and along the security fence, enabled security forces to thwart at the last minute an attack by a Palestinian Islamic Jihad squad from the area of Jenin and Tulkarm. Three terrorists were killed, and a fourth was apprehended, and arrests were made in areas controlled by the PA. The number of Palestinian workers entering Israel without authorization was also curtailed. Parallel efforts directed at Israeli Arabs suspected of affiliation with Daesh led to many arrests. While late in coming, these efforts, accompanied by an increased police budget, have helped restore public trust in the security services.

However, it is still not clear to what extent the government comprehends the meaning of the changed rules of the game; some of those changes happened almost a year ago but, although they were well-known, they prompted no change in the government’s policy and attitude. If the new reality is fully grasped, then the counterterror efforts should persist and include a wide-ranging campaign to seize illegal weapons, apply severe measures against inciters, and adopt a harsher approach by the courts to those involved in terror, reassert control in ungoverned areas, and more.

Why Now?

Why did this terror wave happen now? It appears to stem from the ongoing incitement by the PA and the other terror groups, the heightened Islamist devotion to Ramadan, nationalistic emotions on “Land Day,” inspiration from the “success” of the initial attacks, and the growing frustration over the marginalization of the Palestinian issue on the international and regional stages. The Negev Summit with foreign ministers from Egypt, Morocco, the UAE, Bahrain, and the United States reflected that phenomenon. The condemnation of the attacks by the participating Arab foreign ministers and later by President Erdogan of Turkey himself highlighted the depth of the change in the region.

Foreign ministers of Israel, the United States, UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Egypt delivered statements to the press.
Foreign ministers of Israel, the United States, UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Egypt delivered statements to the press. (Screenshot from Yair Lapid’s official Twitter account/GPO)

PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas is responsible for much of the incitement, including by his insistence on paying salaries to arrested terrorists and monthly stipends to the families of killed terrorists. His expenditures will now include payments to the families of the terrorists killed in the latest attacks and confrontations with the security forces, and to arrested terrorists. Yet, Abbas avoided any reference to the first and second attacks, and only under Israeli and American pressure did he issue a very feeble condemnation of the third. Meanwhile, the Fatah movement, which he leads, and its terror arm, the Al-Aqsa Brigades, praised the attacks.

What really infuriated the PA was the Israeli success in foiling the attempt at a significant terror attack by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad operatives. Indeed, Abbas’ spokesperson and other PA dignitaries harshly denounced the Israeli preemptive raid. While Abbas appears aware that the terror campaign is steadily eroding his power, he does nothing to stop it.

What comes next? The terror groups supported by Iran, such as the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas, may launch more organized attacks and call upon Arabs in the territories and Israel to participate in the terror campaign. If they fail, the option of terror attacks and rocket barrages from Gaza may be in the offing, as well. Israel must maintain a very high alert on all fronts for the foreseeable future. Israel must also bear in mind that if the United States and Iran reach an agreement on restoring the nuclear deal, the Iranian resources available to the radical terror groups will grow substantially.