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

on 13 Comments

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.

13 Responses

  1. Richard Witty
    September 1, 2010, 3:07 pm

    Its not too soon to tell as Hamas overtly took responsibility, and honored the murders calling them courageous heroes.

    • Richard Witty
      September 1, 2010, 3:10 pm

      You are also innaccurate in your description “mention the word terrorism and thought grinds to a halt”.

      Skilled policy-makers think, measure, strategize, respond (either with rejection and reaction, or with accomodation – rarely).

      There is a parallel amnesia that occurs whenever the term “resistance” is used. Moral judgement often goes out the window.

      They are undertaking “resistance”. “Moral measures that apply to us don’t apply to them.”

    • Donald
      September 1, 2010, 4:49 pm

      A valid point about Hamas, Richard. Now if only they were civilized like your wonderful Israelis. They’d support a mass murder operation in Gaza, call it self-defense, and deny that the death and destruction was aimed at civilians.

  2. potsherd
    September 1, 2010, 3:18 pm

    Is this a delayed posting, or does Woodward have information to suggest that Hamas’s claim of responsibility was false?

  3. ehrens
    September 1, 2010, 3:32 pm

    Abu Ubaida of Hamas’ Al Qassam Brigades took responsibility for the terror attack on their own website:
    link to
    [if you can’t read Arabic but use Firefox, download the FoxLingo addon to translate the page]

    There may be reason to believe that the political wing of Hamas was not in the loop, however. Al Jazeera quotes Osama Hamdan of the political wing of Hamas saying that the attack was unnecessary because the talks were doomed to failure anyway:

    “We believe that there is no need to do something like this to sabotage these negotiations, because Netanyahu has [already] done this.”

    link to

  4. Paul Woodward
    September 1, 2010, 4:29 pm

    Osama Hamdan’s point is one that could have been made by most observers, so — everyone infers — if the Al Qassam Brigades claimed responsibility it can only mean one thing: they conducted the attack.

    Not so fast. First, leaders of militant organizations have a strong desire to present themselves at the center of the action. Four Israelis get killed and, twisted as it may sound, a competition ensues among those who want to take the credit.

    Secondly, if it turns out that the gunmen really were affiliated with AQ but did this on their own initiative, the group’s leaders may be reluctant to reveal that they are not in control of their own operatives.

    As I indicated in this piece, just because an event gets labelled “terrorism” does not circumvent the need to establish the facts: the identities of those responsible, the means through which they planned and carried out the attack, and their motives for doing so. At this point, none of these facts are known by those who nevertheless do not hesitate to make pronouncements about the attack’s significance.

    • annie
      September 1, 2010, 4:51 pm

      Al Quassam brigades

      Military Communiqué

      Al Qassam Brigades respond to the Zionist violations by Hebron operation

      Al-Qassam Brigades is declaring its responsibility for the following operations as a response to Zionist aggression on the Palestinian civilians:

      Day: Tuesday Date: August 31st, 2010.

      Time: Afternoon – Al Qassam Brigades open fire at the Zionist settlers near what so called “Kirat Arba’a”, near Bani Na’em town North of Hebron.

      Result: Four settlers were killed.

      These operations are part of the repelling operations against the occupation assaults on Gaza Strip and West Bank, and as a response for the ongoing aggression against Palestinian people.

      Ezzedeen Al-Qassam Brigades

      Information Office

      August 31st, 2010

    • LanceThruster
      September 1, 2010, 5:46 pm

      The predictable knee-jerk reactions are what make the ground so fertile for the possibility of false-flag attacks.

  5. Donald
    September 1, 2010, 4:52 pm

    “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.”

    I’m curious if Obama has ever condemned an action by the Israeli government in equally harsh terms. The answer is “no” and that’s why the US can’t be an honest broker in the negotiations.

  6. Avi
    September 1, 2010, 5:15 pm

    I’m not going to get bogged down in the details. Whether this attack was the work of one Palestinian group or another is irrelevant in my view.

    The colonists are not supposed to be there stealing Palestinian land on behalf of the State of Israel, anyway.

    Both the U.S. and Israel need to understand that negotiating with Fatah alone while excluding Hamas is not going to be productive in the long term.

    Furthermore, Obama and the U.S. government, in general, need to stop behaving as though this attack was an abomination all the while continuing to allow colonies to be built by Israel and saying little when Palestinian homes are demolished by Israel.

    Condemning the attack on these colonists in the harshest language possible while remaining silent during ALL the other attacks carried out by the colonists against Palestinians highlights Washington’s shameless hypocrisy.

    Anyone who’s been paying attention will recall how Washington called the ethnic cleansing of East Jerusalem “unhelpful”.

    The United States government hasn’t had credibility for some time now, several decades at the very least. If Obama wants to retain whatever credibility he has left in the Arab world, or the Moslem world, he needs to start being more evenhanded.

  7. Avi
    September 1, 2010, 6:01 pm

    From the slew of articles here on this incident, I have yet to see one discussing the motives behind the attack.

    Given the fact this incident remains shrouded in mystery, especially since it’s not clear who carried out the attack, let’s consider the following, shall we?

    Who stands to benefit from this attack?

    1. Fatah and its affiliates – An attack on the colonists would put Fatah at a political advantage as Israel would focus its criticism on Hamas. At the same time, Fatah, perhaps fearing a quick collapse of the negotiations — a collapse which would certainly threaten its political standing among Palestinians and further highlight its ineptness — could initiate such an attack in an effort to alleviate its increasing marginalization (and irrelevance) within Palestinian society.

    2. Hamas and its affiliates – An attack such as this highlights the need to engage with Hamas and include the party in the negotiations. Without Hamas, any settlement reached with Israel will lack legitimacy and mandate.

    3. Israel – Through its wide network of informants and agents (An agent is a Palestinian who carries out certain actions on behalf of his/her Israeli handler) has the capability to stage attacks on Israelis while appearing to be the work of Palestinians. In this case, Israel stands to gain sympathy from the world community. It can claim that the Palestinians are not interested in peace, all the while delighting in the fact that the peace talks have been thwarted yet again. Surely, such an incident would further bolster Netanyahu’s position in the eyes of the colonists whom he has alienated when he announced the so-called “settlement construction freeze”.

  8. Richard Witty
    September 1, 2010, 7:41 pm

    The consequences to the Palestinians of not succeeding at forming a consenting and ratifiable peace agreement within a year or so, is ongoing war.

    And the consequences of ongoing war are expedited and rationalized expulsion.

    Hamas will not get to the table by terror, even by falsely claiming to be responsible, if that is your thesis Paul.

    It is very very bad judgement.

    • Donald
      September 1, 2010, 10:54 pm

      “Hamas will not get to the table by terror”

      Probably not. It works for Israelis, but the rules are different for Westerners.

Leave a Reply