Don’t jump to conclusions about who staged yesterday’s attack

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If there’s just one lesson we can draw from the last decade it is this: utter the word “terrorism” and thought grinds to a halt, perceptions become blinkered and the power of human intelligence is suddenly put on hold.

Consider the attack near Hebron in the West Bank yesterday in which four Israelis were gunned down by Palestinian gunmen.

A report in the Jerusalem Post conveys a particularly harrowing moment in the attack’s aftermath as volunteers from Zaka, the Israeli community emergency response network, arrived at the scene of the shooting.

Zaka volunteer Momy Even-Haim was dispatched to the scene of the attack with his colleagues, when to his horror he discovered that his wife was among the dead.

“We saw a crying volunteer, and at first we did not understand what was happening — he has seen many disasters before,” Zaka volunteer Isaac Bernstein told The Jerusalem Post.

“Then he started shouting, ‘That’s my wife! That’s my wife!’ We took him away from the scene immediately,” Bernstein added. Even-Haim was taken to his home in Beit Hagai by his colleagues.

Tragedy takes infinite forms. Those in closest proximity can never be expected to respond rationally but from a distance, rationality is not only possible — it is essential.

Instead though, this attack — like so many before — has produced a series of highly predictable knee-jerk responses.

The White House issued a statement saying:

The United States condemns in the strongest possible terms the terrorist attack today perpetrated by Hamas in which four Israelis were killed in the southern West Bank. We express our condolences to the victims’ families and call for the terrorists behind this horrific act to be brought to justice. We note that the Palestinian Authority has condemned this attack. On the eve of the re-launch of direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, this brutal attack underscores how far the enemies of peace will go to try to block progress. It is crucial that the parties persevere, keep moving forward even through difficult times, and continue working to achieve a just and lasting peace in the region that provides security for all peoples.

Is Washington already ahead of Israel in identifying the culprits?

That seems unlikely. Much more likely is that the White House is content to parrot press reports in which representatives of Hamas are quoted claiming responsibility for the attack. If Hamas claims responsibility, its claim will be accepted at face value; if it were to deny responsibility, it’s denial would be treated with skepticism. That’s the way the “analytical” process works.

Israeli press reports are less clear on the matter.

In Haaretz, Avi Issacharoff and Amos Harel report:

Even though no official claim of responsibility was made, the investigation by the security services of Israel and the Palestinian Authority suggest that the culprits were a cell which identifies itself, more or less, with Hamas. Fauzi Barhum, one of the spokesmen for the group in the Gaza Strip, did not openly claim responsibility for the attack, but hinted that his group was behind the shooting.

“The resistance continues everywhere,” he said.

In recent months the Hamas leadership in the Gaza Strip and Damascus has pressed West Bank-based teams of gunmen to resume the attacks in an effort to make it more difficult on the Palestinian Authority and stir up tension with Israel.

Two months ago a large Hamas network was uncovered in the southern Hebron Hills, a “sleeper cell” that was revived, whose members are suspected of murdering an Israeli policeman in a similar shooting incident, along the same route, several kilometers from the spot of last night’s terror attack.

A cell which identifies itself “more or less” with Hamas — that’s pretty vague. Moreover, a previously unknown group calling itself the Al-Haq (“Rights”) Brigades has claimed responsibility for Tuesday’s shooting, according to the Ma’an news agency.

As for Issacharoff and Harel’s claim that a Hamas cell was responsible for the June Hebron Hills shooting, that also is far from clear. When suspects were arrested by Israel’s internal security services, Shin Bet, Haaretz reported:

It is unclear… who is responsible for the establishment of this group, which is reportedly affiliated to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah movement. Israeli security sources have been examining the possibility that the gunmen behind the June 14 attack were from various Palestinian militant groups.

Whether or not Hamas had a role in yesterday’s attack it is too soon to tell. And even if some or all of the gunmen turn out to belong to the movement does not necessarily reveal a great deal about the level of command and control or political motives for the attack.

Whatever the motives, the outcome itself has opened political opportunities to each constituency that now portrays itself as a victim.

Given that the attack took place in an area controlled by the IDF, President Abbas could have taken the opportunity to point out that the attack underlines the fact that there can ultimately be no security solution to the political conflict. Instead, Palestinian security services have been quick to launch what is being described as one of the largest arrest waves of all time in the West Bank.

Hamas lawmaker Omar Abdel-Raziq said more than 150 members had been detained, and others had been summoned to police stations for questioning.

He accused Abbas of trying to please the Israelis.

“These are political arrests,” he said. “They are trying to tell the Israelis that they are capable of doing the job after the attack.”

At the funerals of the four Israelis killed, settler leaders took the opportunity to push for settlement expansion, call for vengeance (a call which has already been acted upon), deny the existence of the Palestinian people and make a thinly-veiled appeal for ethnic cleansing:

Rabbi Dov Lior of Kiryat Arba eulogized the victims saying that “this is a grave tragedy for the families, for the people of Israel and for the state. God, avenge the spilled blood of your servants.”

“There is an army, which must be used,” Rabbi Lior continued. “The mistake is to think that an agreement can be reached with these terrorists. Every Jew wants peace, but these evildoers want to destroy us. We need to give them the right of return and return them to the countries from which they came.”

When President Obama tries to press Benjamin Netanyahu to extend the so-called settlement freeze, the Israeli prime minister will no doubt tell him solemnly that in light of recent events, his hands are well and truly tied.

They shoot and we build has become the settlers’ slogan — one that is almost certainly to Netanyahu’s liking.

Update: In a conversation I just had with Hamas expert Mark Perry, he made the point that when it comes to identifying armed militants in the West Bank, the Al Qassam Brigade (affiliated with Hamas) and the Al Aqsa Brigade (affiliated with Fatah) are virtually indistinguishable in most of the area, but particularly in Hebron. The clearest differentiation in armed groups is between those who are on the Palestinian Authority’s payroll and those who aren’t.

Mark also pointed out that if the Obama administration was not trapped inside its own terrorism rhetoric, they could point out that the attack underlines the unnecessary vulnerability that Israeli’s expose themselves to by grabbing Palestinian land and building settlements.

This article is cross-posted at Woodward’s site, War in Context, under the headline, Terrorism is like advertising–it short circuits the rational mind.

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