6 min read
A Discussion on Terrorism in Israel with Professor Assaf Moghadam

This month Platform had the good fortune to sit down with Professor Assaf Moghadam to speak to him about the recent spate of terror attacks in Israel. Professor Moghadem is the director of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) at Reichman University where he also teaches. He has studied and written much about international terrorism. His books include The Roots of Terrorism, The Globalization of Martyrdom, Militancy and Political Violence in Shiism: Trends and Patterns, and Nexus of Global Jihad: Understanding Cooperation Among Terrorist Actors.

Platform: There have obviously been an increase in terrorist attacks in Israel over the last few weeks with some of the attackers being Israeli Arabs. This has been something that has been usually very rare. Is this a new and dangerous trend of radicalization amongst Israeli Arabs causing this or is this a statistical anomaly?

Assaf: I think there has been a trend of [attacks by] specifically Arab-Israelis. There has been a growth of affinity between Arab-Israelis and Palestinians. One way of noticing this is this growing activity in acts of violence and terrorism. I think it is important to understand that this is has been seen not only with acts of terrorism but in growing numbers of dissatisfaction and protests. Arab-Israeli society is suffering from a lot of problems- not only systemically through the Israeli government but through inter-Arab violence and crime being at an all-time high. There have been a lot of systemic challenges which have fed Arab-Israeli discontent. There is a belief on the part of many Arab-Israelis that the Israeli state has given up on them and there is a sense by some that the Israeli state does not really care about what is going on within the Arab communities. There has been a growing national identity and awareness among Arab-Israelis which has feed into this phenomenon, and I think it is beyond just terrorism. In Lod for example you see acts of violent civil unrest. So even in areas where there has been more or less peaceful traditional coexistence between Jews and their Arab brethren, we can sense a growing pressure and tension between these communities.

Platform: At the same we see unprecedented decisions by some in the Arab community to cooperate with Israel. Islamist politicians like Mansour Abbas joining in the Israeli government and issuing historic statements of cooperation and recognition are encouraging. We see this community get government funding to crack down on violent crime. How does this square with the growing discontent?

Assaf: Right, I think we shouldn’t look at Arab-Israelis as a homogenous community, but it is a very large sector of the society and there are some elements within Arab-Israelis that are far more pragmatic and accept and work within the current political system. There are others like the Islamist community which don’t. It is a very broad spectrum of beliefs and strategies.

Platform: How likely is it that an escalation in violence from large scale IDF operations in Jenin could drag Hamas into the fray?

Assaf: In Israel and our context every small seemingly tactical incident can very quickly spiral into a major confrontation between Israelis and Palestinians. There is always a risk there. This is true in general today; I think much more than before that smaller clashes have strategic consequences. Right now, I think at this particular moment in time two issues that make the situation tense is that we are still in the month of Ramadan, which is always a time when tensions are very high, and I think looming in the background of all this is the Abraham Accords on a subconscious level. For many Arab Israelis and Palestinians there is the belief that the Israelis want to neglect the Palestinian issue, that they are doing this over the Palestinians heads, and that the Israelis think they have found a perfect way where they can simply gloss over the Palestinians through having a modus vivendi in the Middle East by focusing on the region, economics, and innovation. Palestinians and Arab Israelis like to remind Israel that they are still here, and this plays an important role. It may be subconscious, but I think the timing of the recent spate of attacks has to do with the Abraham Accords and this campaign over the last few weeks coincided with the Israeli government having a summit with a number of representatives of the Arab regimes. I think this was not coincidental.

Platform: It has become evident that the state of the security fence has been quite mediocre for some time now. Many amongst the Israeli political elite argue that this is intentional as it allows Palestinian laborers economically benefit from opportunities in Israel and thus defuse the potential increase in tension. Now Israel has decided to get serious about restoring the fence. In your opinion should it be done? Do you buy the argument that allowing Palestinians more economic opportunity in Israel is protecting it from an escalation in violence rather than precipitating it?

Assaf: I remember being here as a student in the 1990s every week a bus was being blown up. These are different times. Of course, the recent terrorist campaign that occurred is horrible and the death of everyone is one too many but compared with what we used to see 15-20 years ago in the height of the Second Intifada this is a different ballgame. There are always many reasons for counterterrorism successes, but I think the security barrier that was erected is probably the most important reason why we see less infiltration of Palestinian terrorists. On the one hand, the barrier is a technological solution and every solution to the conflict requires a much broader toolbox including political solutions of course. The barrier is not going to solve the underlying issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but from a pure counterterrorism perspective it should be credited with reducing the number of Palestinian terrorist attacks. In that sense it makes sense for the border to be solid and fortified. That being said, it is a short term and temporary solution. The long-term solution to the conflict is going to require political solutions and I firmly believe that only if the lives of Palestinians improve, coexistence is possible. There has to be movement on these two tracks- making sure that those who wish us harm cannot infiltrate easily inside Israel and we have to ensure Palestinians can live a life of dignity, they can come here to work, and that Israelis are dependent on Palestinian labor. So, it is not just that we are doing them a favor because we are also dependent on them.

Platform: Although there have been holes in the fence for years, why have we been seeing the recent spate of attacks only now?

Assaf: There are always cycles of activities and the Israeli strategy is not to address the underlying reasons so much. The Israeli approach to terrorism is basically a tactical approach. The Israelis refer to it as “mowing the grass” which by definition grass grows back. Fundamentally, first of all there is no Israeli strategy to deal with terrorism and part is that the Israeli approach looks only at the terrorist aspect of these organizations. The organizations should be seen as something beyond purely terrorism. These are movements that do more the 24 hour a day thinking about the next terrorist attack, these are movements that want to rule, establish institutions of governance, and exert political influence on their own population. These are political movements. The Israeli counterterrorism strategy though focuses only on that terrorist aspect. That is why we can call these organizations as terrorist organizations even though they are much more than that. Of course, they are terrorist organizations, but they are also political movements with a militant ideology- yes- but they are very powerful. It is almost inherent that given the lack of a grand strategy of dealing with these organizations and this in-built tactical approach to these groups that we will see a cycle of violence every one or two years. The specific timing of the attacks has to do with Ramadan or the meeting with the Abraham Accords but if it weren't for that there would have been another reason. It is a game of whack-a-mole, we hurt them, they rebuild and draw popular legitimacy through showing that they are ones defending Palestinian national pride. Until we find a long-term political solution unfortunately, we will be stuck in this game of whack-a-mole.

Platform: We haven’t seen suicide bombings as an effective terror method in the last decade and half. Is this because a shift in Hamas’s leadership or increased effectiveness of Israeli intelligence efforts?

Assaf: As my friend Boaz Ganor always says you need both motivations and capacity/capability to conduct terrorist attacks. I don’t think the motivations have diminished to attack Israelis. I really think the answer to the question mostly is in capacity/capability. The security barrier has done a lot and is probably the single most important reason why we have seen a stop this infiltration of suicide attacks. In the heydays of Palestinian suicide terrorism, we have seen there was a cult of martyrdom that was rampant especially in Gaza but to a lesser extent in the West Bank. There were periods when you could not walk the streets of Gaza without seeing pictures of the latest suicide bombers plastered on the walls. We are not there at this point in time. Clearly Palestinian martyrs are still celebrated but this cult of self-sacrifice is less visible right now because the failure to succeed in staging terrorist attacks is its own counterterrorism. These movements thrive on their own successes. Success feeds more attacks. There has been a great deal of frustration among these organizations about the security barrier that they have a much harder time to do these kinds of attacks. You don’t see the high level of popular support for this particular tactic that you used to see at the height of the Second Intifada or the mid 1990s or other campaigns. So, there is some logic for not allowing terrorist to succeed in carrying out terrorist attacks. It is not just good because it saves lives, but it is also because it puts a dent in the efforts of these organizations to claim success and reduces their popularity. It has an effect beyond capacity, it can affect motivations.

* The email will not be published on the website.