Israel’s new-old terrorist problem: How can Israel stop the wave of attacks?

“The sentiment that we heard from the majority of Arabs Israelis is: Those terrorists don’t represent us."
Thousands of people, including many Haredi Jews, attended the funeral of 32-year-old Amir Khoury on March 31, 2022. Khoury was a Christian Arab police officer who saved many Jewish lives before he was killed in a shootout with a terrorist in Bnei Brak, Israel. (Photo: Ariel Elharar via Twitter)

We’re curious…

“Amir Khoury, hero of Israel,” read the signs on buses in the Haredi neighborhood of Bnei Brak, Israel. The buses were transporting residents from the town to the funeral of 32-year old Khoury, an Arab Christian police officer who saved Jewish lives and stopped the terrorist in Bnei Brak, paying with his life.

Thousands of people — including Christians, Muslims, Druze and Jews, many who had never met Khoury — came to pay their respects to the fallen officer. Khoury was one of 11 Israelis who were killed in terror attacks throughout the country in one week.

“Love of my life,” Shani Yashar, Khoury’s fiance, said in a heartbroken eulogy. “You are a true hero. You walked into the fire without an iota of fear… Only you had that courage.”

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett offered a similar message, saying in a video statement after the attack in Bnei Brak: “The civilians and police officers who shot at the terrorists at the various attack scenes are the heroes of Israel.”

“After a period of silence, there is a violent outburst from those trying to destroy us, those who want to harm us at all costs, those who are moved by hatred of the Jews and of the State of Israel, those who are willing to die as long so that we cannot live in peace,” Bennett added.

Many were alarmed that two of the three deadly attacks were carried out by Arab citizens of Israel, raising concerns about a threat from within the state of Israel. Were these horrific attacks carried out by an extremist minority in the Arab community, or is this a more widespread threat? How can Israel stop the wave of attacks?

“We are determined to embark on the path of peace”

Although terror attacks often raise tensions between the Jewish and Arab communities, this time, Arab and Jewish political leaders in Israel condemned the attacks and called for tolerance and solidarity.

The day of the attack in Bnei Brak, Ra’am party chairman Mansour Abbas said in a statement: “We all stand together in the face of a murderous wave of terror, all of us with no differences. The streets of Israel’s cities are crowded with Arab and Jewish citizens, and those who embark on a vicious killing spree do not notice or differentiate between [Jewish] blood and [Arab] blood.”

“We are determined to embark on the path of peace in the face of all extremists,” Mansour Abbas continued. “It is impossible not to notice extremist groups with interests that insist on harming the fabric of relations between Jews and Arabs in the country. We will not allow it.”

Israeli Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Frej, Israel’s second Arab minister, sounded a similar note, telling The Times of Israel, “The majority [of Jews and Arabs], we want to live together. We love life…In order to keep Israel strong, we should go hand in hand together.”

Frej underscored the progress made between Arabs and Jews in Israel, noting that, for the first time in history, Israel’s governing coalition includes an independent Arab party. “Something changed in the atmosphere of the country. This tries to stop the change,” he said of the attacks.

Arab lawmaker Ayman Odeh, leader of the Joint List in the opposition, condemned the attacks and compared the Israelis who were killed with Palestinians who were killed in clashes with Israeli soldiers.

“Five civilians were killed today — each a world in their own right,” Odeh tweeted. They join the 51 Palestinians killed since the beginning of the year — each one a world in its own right.”

Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid emphasized the need for Arab and Jewish citizens to stand united in the face of terrorism.

“Our best weapon against terrorism is the unity of the state of Israel and its citizens,” he said at a press conference. “The purpose of terrorism is not only to murder innocents, but also to make us hate and be angry with each other. To undermine and dismantle Israeli society from within…Peace and friendship are the alternatives to terror and chaos.”

“A very fragile situation between two societies”

As Arab and Jewish politicians condemned the attacks, many Israeli commentators underscored that the attacks are not representative of the vast majority of Arabs in Israel, or the relationship between the two communities.

In a Times of Israel op-ed, Gadeer Kamal-Mreeh, former MK and the first Druze woman to serve in the Knesset, noted that “apart from the few extremists on both sides,” the reaction of most Arabs and Jews to the terror attacks has been “impressive and striking.”

“The sentiment that we heard from the majority of Arabs Israelis is: Those terrorists don’t represent us,” Kamal-Mreeh wrote. “The fact that they used the word ‘terrorists’ is essential. There are dramatic and rapid changes occurring in Arab Israeli society.”

Similarly, in an interview on the Israel Policy Forum podcast, Col. (res.) Michael Milshtein, the former head of the Palestinian arena at Israeli military intelligence, underscored that support of ISIS among Arab citizens of Israel is “a very marginal, very limited phenomenon.”

“I think that 99.99% of Israeli-Arab public really resist and even hate the idea of ISIS,” Milshtein said. “But this small group — and I estimate that we are talking about 100 to 150 people in the Arab sector in Israel who support this idea — is very lethal, and they really affect the general atmosphere between Jews and Arabs in Israel. They really can cause a deterioration in the very fragile situation between the two societies.”

Meanwhile, Yair Rosenberg, contributing writer at The Atlantic, echoed these ideas, writing that “As Ramadan and Passover converge, and the calendar moves to a period historically fraught with the potential for unrest, the country faces an inflection point.”

“It has seen these violent scenes before, but it does not have to replay the movie,” Rosenberg explained. “New characters and dialogue are at its disposal, and the country’s Jews and Arabs may yet write a different ending.”

Language matters

Even though only a small number of Arab citizens of Israel are estimated to support ISIS, some politicians suggested that it was a widespread problem in the community.

After the attack in Bnei Brak, opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu implied that the government couldn’t fully respond to terror because of the Ra’am party, saying:

“We must restore peace and security to Israeli citizens. Unfortunately everyone sees a government dependent on the Islamic Movement isn’t doing this and probably isn’t capable of doing this.” (Ra’am party leader Mansour Abbas has issued strong condemnations of the attacks, as we covered in a previous section.)

Both Lapid and Bennett, on the other hand, appear to be using language that underscores that this is a marginal threat.

Yair Rosenberg explained: “Lapid has referred to these recent attacks as the work of ‘violent extremists,’ rather than ‘Arab extremists,’ in keeping with a worldview that seeks to form Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens into a united front against an arsonist minority.”

While Bennett initially referred to the attacks as a “wave of murderous Arab terror,” he switched to speaking simply of “a wave of murderous terror, and reports suggest the change is deliberate,” Rosenberg added.

Diversity of perspectives: How can Israel stop this terror wave?

The conversation in Israel also focused on how Israel can break this terror wave, and the obstacles it will have to overcome to do so. Many commentators pointed out that this terror wave presents new challenges compared with previous ones. 

In the past, the IDF has responded to terror attacks committed by Palestinian residents by carrying out military operations in the territories, which are under Israeli military control. But this time, with the threat coming from Israeli citizens, the response is more complicated.

“Does anyone imagine the IDF going door-to-door in Umm al-Fahm or Rahat like it did 20 years ago in Nablus and Jenin? Should the IDF be allowed to operate against Israeli citizens?” Yaakov Katz, editor in chief of The Jerusalem Post, asked in an op-ed, referring to Israel’s operation in the West Bank during the Second Intifada.

“The same applies to cyber technology like [the Israeli spyware tool] Pegasus,” Katz continued. “It is one thing to use it against suspected Palestinian terrorist suspects; it is another to use it against Israeli citizens.”

Israel’s response is also complicated by the fact that the attacks appear to be a form of “lone wolf” attacks, which are more difficult to prevent.

“How do you stop a lone-wolf murderer? How do you keep someone — who is not getting instructions or orders from any organization — from waking up in the morning, deciding he wants to go kill some Jews, and then acting on that intent?” Jerusalem Post columnist Herb Keinon asked.

A critical way to combat lone-wolf terrorism, Keinon wrote, is to analyze social media to track and stop the attacks. “Lone-wolf attackers do post on Facebook and TikTok,” and Israel will continue to develop “technology to flag potential suspects by surveying their posts,” he wrote.

Meanwhile, Israeli-Arab activist Yoseph Haddad called for the creation of a special police unit to combat violence in Arab communities, as well as harsher punishments for what he called “the extreme minority.”

Haddad also underscored the critical role education could play in the long-term: “When we educate for tolerance, when we educate to negotiate and resolve conflict without arriving at violence, when we educate at a young age about this, we can start seeing something better.”

The Second Intifada: Two different origin stories

To appreciate the current Israeli and Palestinian psyches, especially during the current terror wave, it’s vital to understand the first five years of the 21st century — the period of the Second Intifada.

How did one of the most famous attempts at peace end in one of the bloodiest periods in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict? How are the effects of those defining years still felt to this day?

This is a tale of two stories (or probably, a lot more than that). Many Palestinians argue that the Second Intifada began as a result of Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount, which they saw as an intentional provocation for the outbreak of violence. They argue that the Second Intifada was an eruption of brewing anger, with Sharon’s visit as the final straw.

Many Israelis, on the other hand, see the intifada as a premeditated plan. The story from the Israeli side goes something like this:

After then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak made an unprecedented offer of 92% of the West Bank and parts of Jerusalem, then-Palestinian President Yasser Arafat rejected it and did not even make a counter offer. When Barak returned empty handed and Ariel Sharon made his pilgrimage, the intifada was already set in motion by Palestinians. 

This is not just an Israeli idea, but it seems to be corroborated in some Palestinian circles. Palestinian minister of communications Imad Al Falouji admitted that “the Palestinian Authority began preparing for the outbreak of violence the moment Yasser Arafat returned from Camp David at the explicit direction of Arafat himself.”

We’ll let the historians debate this one, but for Israelis, the Second Intifada devastated Israeli society. Left-wing Israeli journalist, Ari Shavit gave the clearest articulation of the frustration felt by Israelis: “Israel’s most generous peace offer led to the worst terror attack on Israel.”

In these four years, over 1,000 Israelis were killed, and over 4,000 Palestinians were killed in the fighting as well. Suicide bombings became a daily worry. The countless horrific terror attacks during this time had a tremendously powerful and emotional impact on Israelis that continues until this day.

Israeli author Micah Goodman explained why Israelis started losing faith in the hope for peace. Palestinians often lament their status in the territories, which is why it is why this intifada was so maddening for many Israelis. “The Second Intifada did not break out because of the occupation,” Goodman wrote, “it broke out after Israel offered to end the occupation.” Listen to our “Unpacking Israeli History” podcast episode on the Second Intifada to learn more.

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