By Yaakov Lappin
(JNS) — The murderous terror attack at a gas station near Eli in Judea and Samaria on Tuesday marked another stage in the ongoing deterioration of the security situation in the area.
The two terrorists who shot dead four Israeli civilians before being killed — one by an armed Israeli civilian on the scene, the second a few hours later by Israeli special forces — came from Urif, a village south of Nablus, meaning that violence is spreading southwards from Jenin.
The Palestinian Authority continues to be a non-entity across swaths of Samaria, and the Israel Defense Forces not only has to fill the growing power vacuum, but also prepare for the possibility of launching a larger security operation to clamp down on the increasingly bold terror factions.
While the two terrorists who carried out Tuesday’s attack were affiliated with Hamas, they do not appear to be official members of it as far as the IDF is aware, Maj. Nir Dinar, head of the IDF’s International Press Department, told JNS.
Dinar added that the military is currently checking to verify whether the terrorists were activated by a wider network.
Presumably, the IDF and Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) are also checking to see whether Hamas in Gaza had direct operational ties to the two-man cell. Hamas, for its part, was quick to claim the terrorists as its own.
Whatever the level of cooperation in place between the gunmen and the wider Hamas organization, it is undeniable that Hamas’s narrative of terror and violence is gaining the upper hand in Samaria.
A series of situational assessments held on Tuesday by IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, first at the scene of the attack, and later at IDF Central Command in Jerusalem, together with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and Prime Minister Netanyahu, charted out Israel’s next steps in its war on terror.
The results of those decisions will soon be visible on the ground.
IDF Spokesperson Brig. Gen. Daniel Hagari stated that the military will act anywhere it has intelligence regarding terror plots, adding that in this case there was no such prior warning.
But recent events appear to suggest that specific, preemptive actions to thwart terror cells, actions that have undoubtedly saved the lives of hundreds of Israelis over the past year, are no longer enough.
On Monday, the IDF had to call in a helicopter strike in Jenin for the first time since 2002, the dark days of the Second Intifada, to facilitate the evacuation of wounded security personnel. What was supposed to be a routine arrest operation became a severely entangled affair, as armored Panther IDF vehicles were targeted by powerful IEDs, and Palestinian gunmen showered them with gunfire.
The IDF returned fire, killing five Palestinian combatants, and after several hours was able to extract its vehicles and units.
These scenes mean Jenin is rapidly spinning out of control, and that IDF freedom of action is under a new level of challenge there. The security situation is changing for the worse.
The recent incidents follow other red flags, including several shootings in the area, such as a drive-by shooting at Israeli civilian and military vehicles on June 13, injuring an Israeli civilian and four soldiers.
On May 30, 32-year-old father of two Meir Tamari was murdered in a drive-by shooting near Hermesh, west of Jenin. In the days preceding that attack, Palestinian gunmen fired on Mevo Dotan in northern Samaria and Gan Ner in Gilboa.
The number of shooting attacks in the first half of 2023 is already at 120 in Judea and Samaria, commonly known as the West Bank, while for all of 2022 the number was 285. When compared to the number of shootings in 2021 — 61 — or the number of attacks in 2020 — 31 — the wider problem becomes clear.
Samaria is flooded with guns, and with terrorists highly motivated to use them.
According to figures released on Tuesday by the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, the number of significant terror attacks in Judea and Samaria remained elevated throughout 2023.
The security landscape is complex: Localized terror groups with names like Lions’ Den and the Jenin Battalions are joined by established terror factions Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which back them with cash, arms and political support.
As local terror entities proliferate despite nightly IDF operations, Hamas and PIJ are deepening their foothold as well. The result is Jewish civilians under constant threat.
Whereas once Hamas insisted that those who act with its support swear allegiance to it, it has since dropped such conditions, recognizing that a new and more independent generation of Palestinians in Samaria can be activated with incitement and terror financing, without the need for direct allegiance.
If Israel wishes to prevent the violence from engulfing more southern areas where the P.A. currently is still in control — Ramallah, most of Hebron and Jericho — it may need to switch course sooner rather than later, and initiate a larger security operation.
Such an operation won’t be a second “Operation Defensive Shield,” as conditions on the ground have changed dramatically since 2002, but rather a more limited affair that targets terror infrastructure in Samaria, though still broader than the current pinpoint operations.
This could still have a significant impact and help turn back the tide of terrorism, at least for a time.
Yaakov Lappin is an Israel-based military affairs correspondent and analyst. He is the in-house analyst at the Miryam Institute, a research associate at the Alma Research and Education Center, and a research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University.
In last week’s issue, Vol. 169, Number 50, published on Thursday, June 22, 2023, we inaccurately printed Adam Teitelbaum’s name in the article “JCRC holds annual meeting, focuses on ‘Working Across Differences.’” In the article, we incorrectly called him Justin. We apologize to Mr. Teitelbaum and our readers for the mistake.