Israeli forces stand guard after seven civilians were injured in a terrorist attack outside the West Bank Jewish community of Ofra on December 9, 2018.

Terrorists On The Run: The Complexity Of Israeli Manhunts In Palestinian Territory

Searches ongoing for the perpetrators of Sunday night’s attack in Ofra and for Ashraf Na’alowa who has been at large since killing two in October

Seven Israelis were injured Sunday night when a gunman opened fire on a bus stop outside the West Bank Jewish community of Ofra. Of those critically wounded was a pregnant woman whose baby subsequently was delivered prematurely in hospital, although the infant remains in critical condition. The Israeli army and other security services launched a manhunt to apprehend the perpetrator along with an accomplice believed to have been driving the car from which the shots emanated.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu wished a speedy recovery to the victims and vowed to “not rest until we find these murderous criminals.” Notably, the attack comes on the backdrop of the continued search for Ashraf Na’alowa, who has been on the run for over two months since murdering Kim Levengrond Yehezkel and Ziv Hajbi at the Barkan Industrial Park.

“The first step taken after an assault is to cull information to get leads and determine which to pursue,” Maj. Gen. (ret.) Danny Yatom, former chief of Israel’s Mossad spy agency and prior to that head of the IDF’s Central Command, explained to The Media Line. “Concurrently, forces are deployed to set up a perimeter in order to try to prevent the perpetrator from escaping. The operation begins at the [point of incident] and then spreads out like a wave.”

The number of forces needed is, according to Yatom, situation-specific and based on the operational plan devised once initial circumstances are known. “There is no recipe but generally the larger the geographical region of the search the more people are involved. This also is true if there is a need to enter built-up [civilian areas].

“Like every country in the world, Israel uses people on the ground to provide what is referred to as ‘human intelligence,'” he continued. “There is simultaneous cooperation with the Palestinian Authority security [apparatus] which can be of great significance. Israelis can ask their Palestinian counterparts to carry out activities in [sensitive places], albeit there are seldom joint operations.”

The organization that spearheads these manhunts is the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) “because it is constantly observing the West Bank and knows the local population well,” Brig. Gen. (ret.) Hanan Gefen, former leader of the IDF’s elite Intelligence Corps Unit 8200, related to The Media Line. “The bulk of the intelligence is provided by the Shabak [the Hebrew acronym for the Shin Bet] and then the army is called in to implement measures such as roadblocks, curfews, searches and the capture.

“Israeli bodies work closely together,” he elaborated, “and, of course, there is coordination with the Palestinians. If you recall, [PA President Mahmoud] Abbas in October met [in Ramallah] with the head of the Shin Bet, Nadav Argaman, and later said that he agrees with ninety-nine percent of what they discuss.”

A month later, Argaman told the Israeli parliament’s powerful Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that “in the past half-year [security forces] have foiled 480 organized terror attacks and 590 ‘lone wolf’ attacks.” The former operations include, for example, the dismantling in September of a Hamas cell based in the West Bank that was planning major bombings in Israeli public places, and the latter the frequent arrest of radicalized Palestinians.

Indeed, Israeli security forces are continuing to operate throughout the West Bank and on Monday took the rare step of conducting daytime raids in Ramallah. The troops were sent to, among other locations, the headquarters of the official PA news site Wafa where they seized security cameras that may have captured footage of Sunday’s attack.

While the IDF often enter regions of the West Bank under full Palestinian political and security control—known collectively as Area A—operations in broad daylight are uncommon. During the mission, clashes broke out only a few hundred meters from Abbas’ private residence and, overnight, at least three Palestinians reportedly were shot and several more arrested amid intensified fighting.

“The Israeli occupation has no red lines, which is exposed when its soldiers enter Ramallah and other Palestinian cities on a daily basis,” Adnan al-Damiri, a spokesman for the PA Security Services, asserted to The Media Line. “In addition to breaking into al-Aksa Mosque, this proves Israel has no discipline and that its right-wing extremist government operates outside the realm of morality.

“Israel kills our children, arrests our women and, in cooperation with the American administration, has destroyed the two-state solution,” he contended, adding that “security coordination does not involve violating Palestinian rights.”

Al-Damiri revealed that the Palestinian National Council already has decided to re-evaluate its relationship with Israel, whereas “President Abbas recently spoke clearly with the Israelis about amending the [1994] Paris [Economic] Protocol but there has been no follow-up and so the PA is considering terminating the deal.”

Dr. Asad al-Awiwi, a political analyst and professor at Al-Quds Open University, believes that Abbas is in a precarious position, “as the IDF incursions, while not new, show that the military can carry out whatever it wants whenever it wants in the West Bank.

“Even though the Palestinian side is in some way informed before operations in Area A,” he expounded to The Media Line, “the missions reflect negatively on and are embarrassing for the PA which tries to exert power over the people without the ability to safeguard them.”

All of this exemplifies how unrest on the ground inevitably morphs into political-diplomatic battles geared towards winning over domestic and international opinion. Case in point is the repetition Monday by Prime Minister Netanyahu of the oft-heard accusation that ultimate responsibility for West Bank terrorism lies with the PA because of its dissemination of anti-Israel propaganda through official media organs. For her part, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked of the Jewish Home party attempted to outflank the premier from the right by calling for Ofra’s annexation, claiming that “the legal opinion draft for [such a move] is ready.”

On the flip side, the PA emphasized that the shooting occurred at a location under total Israeli administrative and security control and therefore it is “inconceivable” to hold Ramallah accountable. Abbas also placed phone calls to numerous foreign leaders to urge them to condemn Israeli “acts of aggression,” while chief Palestinian peace negotiator Saeb Erekat denounced the ongoing search as a “deliberate and reckless campaign led by the Israeli government and its army against the people of Palestine.”

Overseas, American officials highlighted that the Ofra attack came just days after the United Nations General Assembly rejected a resolution to condemn the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip, the inference being that a failure to denounce terrorism is tantamount to encouraging it.

Due to the interplay of so many factors “cooperation with the PA suffers from ups and downs,” former Shin Bet division head Brig. Gen. (res.) Lior Akerman related to The Media Line. He nevertheless underscored that Israeli forces are “very helpful in thwarting terrorist activity directed against the PA itself and hence the common interest.”

Akerman stresses that there is no foolproof strategy to prevent attacks and “in the case of a single terrorist operating without an organizational infrastructure it is more difficult to obtain early intelligence and, as a corollary, to identify suspicious connections and sometimes to locate the hiding place.”

In scenarios an assailant is able to evade immediate capture “there are usually ideologically like-minded people that are facilitating the offender,” Gefen noted, “and this is why the IDF usually begins by questioning or arresting the suspect’s family members.”

Experts agree that the end-result of such manhunts is a foregone conclusion given Israel’s counter-terrorism expertise. “Even if a perpetrator can sometimes be on the loose for a while,” Yatom concluded, “the operation continues until the end because the terrorist is always exposed.”

(Dima Abumaria contributed to this report)

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