Israel has seen three attacks in three months in which Arab Israelis from East Jerusalem used vehicles as weapons. No single group has claimed responsibility for all three attacks, but their similarities suggest that Palestinian militants have discovered a new tactic that, while not thus far as deadly as suicide bombing, could prove more difficult to prevent.
An Israeli Arab man from East Jerusalem drove his BMW into a group of soldiers in central Jerusalem at approximately 11 p.m. local time Sept. 22. The attack injured 15 people; the only person killed was the driver, Qassem Mughrabi, who was shot by an off-duty Israel Defense Forces officer. Mughrabi's is the third case in as many months of an Arab from East Jerusalem using a vehicle to target Israelis. The previous two cases involved construction equipment. Only one of the attacks —a July 2 incident involving an earthmover — led to Israeli deaths. July 2: Husam Tayseer Dwayat, an Arab Israeli from the Sur Baher neighborhood of East Jerusalem drives an earthmover along Jaffa Road in West Jerusalem, tipping over a public bus and smashing cars. Four people are killed and another 45 injured. An off-duty IDF soldier shoots and kills Dwayat.July 22: Ghassan Abu Tir, from the Umm Tuba neighborhood of East Jerusalem, drives an earthmover into traffic on King David Street, crashes into a bus and rams several cars. Sixteen people are injured but only Tir dies, killed by an off-duty border guard. Sept. 22: Qassem Mughrabi from the Jebl Mukaber neighborhood of East Jerusalem drives his BMW into a group of soldiers in central Jerusalem, near the Jaffa gate to the entrance of the Old City. Fifteen people are injured, but only Mughrabi is killed, shot by an off-duty IDF soldier. No single group has claimed responsibility for all three incidents — but based on the fact that all three men came from the same area, were in similar circumstances and used similar tactics, it is worth considering the idea that Palestinian militants have found a new tactic. It is not yet clear whether Palestinian militant groups really are behind these attacks. Several well-known groups — al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, Galilee Freedom Battalion and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine — claimed responsibility for the first attack, whereas nobody claimed the second (though Hamas praised it), and Hamas' militant wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, took credit for the third. Even so, claiming responsibility does not mean that they actually carried it out. It is possible that the two later attacks were lone-wolf copycat incidents. However, the similarities and timing of these unconventional attacks raise the possibility that they might not be isolated. Compared to suicide-bomb attacks, using vehicles as weapons is much easier to plan and carry out without being detected beforehand. The tactic requires no smuggling in or production of explosives — as with a suicide bomber. The weapon (a perfectly legal earthmover or car) is already in the country and can be moved around freely. When it is time to attack, most of the damage has been done by the time security personnel can act on the attacker. Also, since all three attackers came from East Jerusalem, there was no need to smuggle in militants from Gaza or the West Bank — a practice that has been pretty well stamped out by Israeli security services. Recruiting for the attack remains the biggest challenge, because the attacker will in all likelihood end up dead. One common recruiting technique is to approach people who have been shamed, who might feel that they have nothing to lose or who believe that they can achieve some kind of redemption by carrying out an attack against Israel. It is worth noting that all three men who carried out these attacks had been recently socially ostracized. Mughrabi had just proposed marriage to his cousin but was rejected. The other two men were known in their communities as petty criminals and were reportedly coerced into carrying out the attacks to clear their names. The first attacker, Husam Tayseer Dwayat, had come under pressure from radical elements in his community to restore his reputation after being convicted of raping his Jewish girlfriend; the second, Ghassan Abu Tir, had a criminal background in drugs and theft and was related to imprisoned Hamas leader Muhammad Abu Tir. In many ways, using a vehicle as a weapon is nearly as effective (if not necessarily as destructive) as a suicide bombing and much easier to carry out without being detected. To the extent that the goal is to create a feeling of fear and uncertainty, it is effective because an attack can happen at any time and, so far, there appears to be very little that authorities can do to prevent it — even roadblocks with vehicle searches would not turn up anything incriminating. The casualty rate for these most recent attacks appears to be lower than suicide-bomber attacks, but as militants carry out more of these attacks, they could learn, improve their tactics and indeed increase casualties. In August, Chinese militants used a similar tactic in the western Xinjiang province to kill 16 border guards and injure another 16. The United States has also seen a similar attack. The biggest risk incurred by the group sponsoring such attacks — if indeed they were sponsored by a group or a handful of groups — is the Israeli response to East Jerusalem Arab communities. Since clamping down on the use of cars and construction equipment in the city is impractical, authorities could turn to clamping down on the communities from which the attackers came. Even if security forces are able to bring down those directly responsible for the recent attacks, the tactic is easily replicated. Taking away mobility or driving rights, or increasing police scrutiny on these communities, could result in backlashes that could be far more deadly and far more disruptive than the past three attacks we have seen. It appears likely that Palestinian militants have found a new tactic in their fight against Israelis, and it is clear that the Israelis will have to respond to these attacks in order to maintain security. What remains to be seen is how the Israelis will do so without triggering an even stronger response.