Two separate attacks in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem on Thursday add to the long list of stabbings, shootings and vehicular attacks racked up by Palestinian lone wolf militants over the past couple of months. A knife-wielding Palestinian from the West Bank who had a permit to work in Israel entered a store being used informally as a synagogue in Tel Aviv near the restaurant where he worked and stabbed three Israeli men, committing the third attack in the city this year. Shortly thereafter, a Palestinian man conducted a drive-by shooting targeting vehicles stopped in traffic in the Etzion settlement bloc in the West Bank. Five people were killed in the two attacks.
Two days before the assaults, the Israeli government banned the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, a long-standing Islamist group that split with the more moderate southern branch of the Islamic Movement in the 1990s over whether to support the Oslo I Accord and whether to run for the Knesset. (The northern branch was opposed to both, while the southern branch supported the Oslo agreement and is now part of the Knesset's third-largest political bloc, which is made of up Arab parties.) Israel has banned the northern faction on grounds of its alleged financial and institutional links to Hamas and its role in busing in and encouraging Palestinian supporters to defend and Arabize the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem.
The Israeli Cabinet apparently had decided to ban the group two weeks earlier but did not make the decision public until Tuesday. Israel's security service reportedly expressed concerns that announcing the decision would incite attacks. Moreover, Israel likely anticipated that the West would criticize it for curbing political freedoms. The political climate following the attacks in Paris, however, may have been more conducive to announcing the decision. Nonetheless, banning the northern faction of the Islamic Movement may incite attacks like the ones on Thursday. Israel made a notable move in trying to maintain a balance with the Palestinians by signing an agreement with the Palestinian Authority on Thursday to bring 3G high-speed cellular services to the West Bank, resolving a long-standing grievance by the Palestinians. But improved cellphone service is by no means the antidote to these frequent violent outbursts.
Banning a group like the northern faction of the Islamic Movement may fall into the category of countering "soft terrorism" by going after the groups inciting the "hard terrorism." But such a strategy risks exacerbating the problem. The northern Islamic Movement likely will go underground with its charity and social activities, and its supporters will be all the more emboldened to resist efforts to silence the group. Moreover, the more moderate voices that the Israeli government counts on to drown out the more radical elements will have a stronger impetus to speak out in defense of their radical counterparts for the sake of their own credibility. Unsophisticated attacks such as the ones seen thus far, by definition, do not require significant training or operational security. As the past couple of months have shown, enough anger and frustration can mobilize a fair amount of Palestinians willing to charge into a crowd with a knife or in a car.
Nor will government measures close Palestinian ears to radical rhetoric. In a collection of Palestinian media excerpts compiled by the Middle East Media Research Institute during the height of the knife attacks in the West Bank and Jerusalem, officials, clerics and even children are shown glorifying the knife as a symbol of the Al-Aqsa resistance. In one instructional video, a man wearing a black ski mask wordlessly demonstrates how to sharpen a knife and stab an Israeli in three different ways. Another shows a mother of one of the knife attackers unexpectedly pulling a knife from her bosom in the middle of a news interview, and another shows a young couple holding the birth certificate of their newborn baby bearing the name "Knife of Jerusalem."
The sheer spontaneity of the recent knife attacks confounds Israeli counterterrorism efforts. There is no one group or leader who can be held accountable, no finite number of cells that need to be broken up.
In such a climate, it can be difficult to draw a clear line between isolated attacks and a full-blown intifada. Most agree that the spike of violence since late September is a collection of spontaneous outbursts with no clear goal or leadership, whereas an intifada exhibits a clear aim, designated leadership and organizational coherence. But the knife culture developing in the West Bank and Jerusalem suggests this could be more than just a fad. And the sheer spontaneity of these attacks confounds Israeli counterterrorism efforts. There is no one group or leader who can be held accountable, no finite number of cells that need to be broken up.
Fatah leaders have been careful to temper their praise of the attacks by still referring to them as "habbeh," or outbursts, to preserve the delicate political understanding that Fatah has with Israel. Hamas, on the other hand, says the sustainability of the violence makes it an intifada. This does not necessarily mean Hamas will try to steal the show and create another front from its base in Gaza. Hamas is still trying to build up sustainable operations in the West Bank, and the group is still recovering from its last military engagement with the Israelis in Gaza. From what we can discern, Hamas has not replenished its rocket arsenal enough to get involved in the fray beyond encouraging lone wolf attacks.
That said, Hamas' reaction to growing competition from the Islamic State bears close watching. To capitalize on the recent Palestinian attacks over Al-Aqsa, the Islamic State has put out an extensive media campaign titled "Slaughter the Jews," which includes video clips of militants threatening Israel in Hebrew. The Islamic State's fledgling presence in Gaza and significant activity in Sinai already has Hamas on guard, and the last thing Hamas (or Israel) wants is the outbreak of a conflict that would risk weakening Hamas and creating more space for the Islamic State to operate.
But the Islamic State is certainly testing Hamas' patience. In its recent media campaign, the Islamic State criticized Hamas for standing in the way of jihad with Israel, for selling out by participating in elections instead of following Sharia, and for "shamelessly" embracing a relationship with Iran. For now, it appears Hamas is resisting being prodded into action by local Islamic State affiliates, and it is continuing crackdowns on the Islamic State in Gaza. The success or failure of Hamas' containment strategy against the Islamic State will be a major determinant of whether the ongoing habbeh becomes a new and more defined phase of conflict for Israel.