Sunday, October 16, 2005

A West Bank Puzzle

Over the last few days, a couple of news items – neither one especially prominent by itself – grabbed my attention:

  1. Last Tuesday, a 14-year-old Palestinian boy from Nablus/Shechem was arrested by the General Security Service (a.k.a. the Shin Bet). Apparently, he had been recruited by Fatah Tanzim operatives from the Balata refugee camp after he had an argument of some sort with his father; according to one account, these operatives threatened to kill him if he didn’t carry out the attack.

  2. Last Thursday, a Palestinian man was tackled and arrested after he attempted to stab IDF soldiers at a roadblock near Halhul, north of Hebron. This was the eighth such stabbing attempt in two weeks; none of these attempts resulted in serious injury to IDF personnel, and several of the attackers were killed.
Both these stories strike me as rather odd. In the first place, why would anyone recruit a 14-year-old to carry out a suicide attack? In five years of the “al-Aqsa Intifada”, there have been very few attempts to carry out suicide attacks using kids this young, and no successes. In fact, the typical “successful” suicide bomber has been in a rather narrow age band: out of 136 such attackers in my database (119 with known ages), 87 were between 18 and 23 years old; the youngest two were 16 years old, and seven were 17 years old.

Kids have been used routinely as “mules” to carry bombs past checkpoints, so we can’t assume that the terrorists have a lot of scruples about keeping children away from explosives; but there’s a great deal of difference between offering a boy a few shekels to carry a package a few hundred meters, and training him to perpetrate a suicide attack. Since (A) a 14-year-old suicide bomber, especially a reluctant one, is not very likely to succeed in his mission; (B) using a kid this young as a suicide bomber, especially after coercively recruiting him, is very bad for an organization’s internal and external image; and (C) an intercepted suicide bomber is likely to yield some useful information to Israel’s security forces, this would seem to have been an all-around bad move on Fatah’s part.

*     *     *

The string of knife attacks is at least as mystifying to me. I'm well aware that there is a great deal of anger and frustration among the Palestinian population of the West Bank, and that Israeli checkpoints are particularly hated; and it’s no surprise by now that some Palestinians are willing to risk their lives to carry out attacks against the Zionist Enemy. But I find it very difficult to comprehend why anyone would risk his or her life attempting an attack that is almost certain to be completely pointless.

The odds of accomplishing anything by attacking well-armed and alert soldiers with a knife are extremely low. Clearly, a string of eight such attacks in a couple of weeks means that the later attackers are emulating the earlier ones; but why emulate failure? Further – and most significantly, I think – why carry out a doomed attack on your own when there are terror organizations that will be glad to train and equip you for an attack that is much more likely to succeed?

*     *     *

While it’s always risky to do too much reasoning with too little data, I find it very tempting to see these two stories as pieces of the same puzzle. If they are somehow connected, what picture do they begin to reveal? I can’t offer more than a slightly educated guess, but I can think of at least three possibilities:

  1. The terror organizations are having such a difficult time infiltrating people into Israel (and its settlements) that they are reduced to using “low-quality” bombers – people who are less capable than the normal suicide bomber, but are also less likely to attract the attention of Israel’s security forces.

  2. Many Palestinians are so disenchanted with the major terror groups that they prefer to carry out futile “go-it-alone” attacks rather than volunteer as suicide bombers or otherwise serve the organizations. This could be a consequence of some of the recent faux pas committed by Hamas and Fatah; Hamas didn’t win itself any friends by blowing up a bunch of people (including children) at a rally and then attempting to dodge responsibility, and both Hamas and Fatah-affiliated groups have been implicated in rampant lawlessness, particularly in the post-Disengagement Gaza Strip.

  3. Perhaps the terror groups really aren’t trying too hard at the moment. Hamas has reiterated its commitment to the current period of (tense) calm, as has Fatah. Since Fatah (and particularly the Tanzim/Martyrs of al-Aqsa faction) is quite fragmented these days, maybe only a few semi-autonomous parts of the organization are actively trying to carry out attacks.
Whether any of these guesses is correct or not, it would appear that the Palestinian terror groups are having a difficult time carrying out “quality” attacks these days. Of course, this doesn’t mean that Israel should let down its guard; the terrorists’ motivation remains high, and a successful attack could occur at any moment. But in our cheerful little corner of the world, we have to take what good news we can get.

Update: Even the vaguest optimism can backfire in this part of the world. No sooner was this article posted than the Martyrs of al-Aqsa carried out two shooting attacks along Route 60, a road that runs north-south through the West Bank. One attack targeted Israelis at a hitchhiking station in the Gush Etzion area south of Bethlehem, and the other targeted pedestrians at the Eli Junction north of Jerusalem. The Martyrs have already taken credit for the first attack, and it’s pretty obvious that the Eli Junction attack was their work as well. Three Israelis were killed, and five were wounded.

These attacks confirm – as if we needed the confirmation – that the terrorists are still in business; so we can probably dispense with Possibility Number Three, at least regarding the Martyrs’ Brigades. At the same time, it’s worth noting that both attacks took place outside the Arafat Line (a.k.a. the Separation Barrier) and outside the settlements themselves. Drive-by shooting attacks like these are normally carried out by permanent members of terrorist organizations rather than by the “single-use” recruits employed for suicide bombings; so today’s attacks haven’t changed my guesses about terrorist recruitment or about the difficulty of getting suicide bombers into “Israel Proper”. On the other hand, these attacks give some additional credibility to statements by various security figures who prophesied that the focus of Palestinian terrorism would shift to the West Bank.

Interestingly enough, my wife and I are planning to drive on Route 60 in a couple of days, to take some supplies (sent by a fellow barefoot-horse enthusiast in England) to the owner of a foundered pony in Bat Ayin, a couple of kilometers from the site of today’s attack. Looks like it’s time to clean my pistol, for whatever that’s worth.


At Thu Oct 20, 08:58:00 PM GMT+2, Blogger Yaakov Kirschen said...

your post intrigued me with its presentation of a puzzle.
then I read and accepted your hypothosis
and then of course the update.
thanks for a post that excited, enlightened, brought me back to Earth and finally left me with the question of what is a "barefoot horse enthusiast"!!
Who is barefooted?!
The horse or the enthusiast?!
hag sameah
shana tova
Dry Bones

At Fri Oct 21, 06:21:00 AM GMT+2, Blogger James J. Na said...


I'm blogging this on my site. But it'd be nice if you had a trackback feature.

You can use Haloscan (keep the blogger commenting, but just use Haloscan for trackbacks only).

At Fri Oct 21, 11:38:00 PM GMT+2, Blogger Don Radlauer said...

To Yaakov: Thanks for your kind comments. A barefoot horse is one whose feet don't have metal shoes nailed on - meaning that the horse is moving on his own hooves, as nature intended. Since human-owned horses aren't living the same lifestyle that wild horses live, a certain amount of special maintenance is needed to keep their unshod hooves in proper condition; but a lot of experts nowadays believe that barefoot horses are happier, healthier, and have fewer long-term foot problems. There is an informal international movement towards keeping horses barefoot; sadly, Israel is rather behind-the-times in this regard.

James: Could you explain trackback/Haloscan in more detail?

Hag sameach,



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