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Bethlehem after Oslo: Terror spiked in Israel’s absence

By Nadav Shragai
web posted October 29, 2018

The Oslo accords were a colossal security failure. According to Israeli security services’ data during the 15 years preceding the Oslo accords, 270 Israelis were murdered by Palestinian terror organizations. However, during the 15 years that followed, close to 1,500 Israelis were murdered by the same organizations. As a “test of blood,” to use the expression coined by Yossi Beilin, one of the architects of the agreement, the Oslo accords were a disaster. Twenty-five years after the signing of these agreements, while many are involved with summarizing, taking stock, examining its gains, and primarily its losses, this paper deals with one single test case: Bethlehem. The data presented here demonstrate more than anything else the direct connection between the absence of the IDF and the security forces in the area and the proven outcome – of bloodshed, terror attacks, and loss, as a direct result of this.

Bethlehem, which is the location of the Church of the Nativity, is only several hundred meters from the southern judicial line of Jerusalem. This area used to be under Israeli rule – including its urban, tourist, and also security aspects. According to the UN partition plan of 1947, Bethlehem was meant to be part of an international zone under UN control, along with Jerusalem. The Arab Legion took control of the city in 1948, and in 1967 the city was conquered by the IDF. In the early years following 1967, its leading citizens wanted it to be annexed to Jerusalem, but the then-Defense Minister Moshe Dayan refused.

The second Oslo Accords of 1995, or as they are more precisely called, the “Interim Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip,” was a comprehensive agreement, or “package deal.” The agreement, also known as “Oslo II,” determined that Bethlehem would be one of six cities where the Palestinians would receive complete civilian and security authority. Bethlehem was the last on the list, after Jericho, Jenin, Tulkarem, Shechem (Nablus), and Kalkilyeh. Just before the handover to the Palestinians, the veteran mayor of Bethlehem, Elias Freij, still tried to convince Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin not to give the city over to the Palestinians. This message was delivered through the then-Minister of Religious Affairs Professor Shimon Sheetrit. Freij expressed deep concern for the city’s Christian communities and shared his worries about the nature of the PA regime with Sheetrit and others. Rabin agreed to postpone the handover, but on condition that he received a joint letter from all the leaders of the Christian communities in Bethlehem asking Israel to remain there. Freij found it hard to deliver the goods, and the die was cast.

On December 21, 1995, Bethlehem was officially handed over to Palestinian Gen. Haj Ismail. Several days later, PA leader Yasser Arafat came to the city and participated in Bethlehem’s Christmas celebrations.

The Christians Left

As mentioned earlier, the “test of blood” showed that the handover of Bethlehem was doomed to disaster. Its results demonstrate the dangers of transferring territory to the Palestinian security authorities, from the point of view of intelligence, operations, and thwarting terror attacks. At the end of 2004, Israel took control of Bethlehem’s security, even though responsibility for security lay in the hands of the Palestinian Authority. This de facto Israeli control over security in Bethlehem gave Israel the freedom to act in the city. The IDF, ISA, and security apparatus enter and leave the city whenever their operational needs and intelligence information requires them to do so. Sometimes, this is done in coordination with the Palestinian authorities, and sometimes it is not. Today, around 30,000 people live in the city of Bethlehem. The Christian population, which used to be the majority in the city, has become a minority of only around 20 percent. Many Christians have moved to various countries in South America. The overall population of the Bethlehem sub-district totals around 200,000 people.

In the early years following Operation Defensive Shield of 2002, Israel tried to turn the security of the Bethlehem district over to the hands of the Palestinian Authority. However, it was disappointed over and over again. Each time that the IDF left the city, the number of terror attacks in Jerusalem emanating from Bethlehem increased. Each time the IDF returned, the number of terror attacks in the capital decreased, as will be demonstrated below.

We will explore the “the test case of Bethlehem” from the beginning to the end. Here are just a few examples from the years following Operation Defensive Shield, but there are also dozens more. They illustrate how Israel has restored its ability to foil terror attacks from the Bethlehem district:

In November 2014, Israel thwarted an attempt to assassinate the then-Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman. The cell that sought to kill Liberman was led by Ibrahim Salim Mahmoud Zir, a 37-year-old Hamas activist from one of the villages in the Bethlehem area. For this, Zir recruited his brother Ziad and Adnan Amin Mahmoud Zabih, another Hamas activist. The members of the cell considered plans for running their victim over or stabbing him (similar to the knife murder of Ari Fuld, which was committed at the Gush Etzion junction on September 15, 2018). However, exact intelligence information obtained by Israel stymied the attack. The freedom of operational action in the area facilitated their arrest. Intelligence information also led to the arrest of two Palestinian women who planned to commit a joint suicide bombing inside Israel. The main suspect in the incident was apprehended in her apartment in the Bethlehem area.

In November 2014, it was made public that the ISA, with the assistance of the IDF, discovered a Hamas terror cell, the members of which were trained abroad to commit various terror attacks – under the supervision of the Hamas office in Turkey. During investigations, more than 30 activists were arrested, and ammunition and materials for making explosives were confiscated. The members of the cell had planned shooting attacks, bombings, kidnappings, the infiltration of Israeli communities, and attacks on Jerusalem’s Teddy Football Stadium and the Jerusalem light railway. One of the leads that led to this discovery came from a resident of the Bethlehem district, who was interrogated and “removed” from there by the security forces. Also, in November 2011, ISA discovered a cell from the Bethlehem area that carried out shooting attacks, planted explosives, and threw Molotov cocktails. In 2018, six members of a cell from Bethlehem were arrested on suspicion of causing damage to the security fence bordering Jerusalem in the area of Har Homa.

Bethlehem’s proximity to Jerusalem facilitates terror organizations using the district as a base for operations, organizing, initiating, and launching attacks on Israel’s capital. It is very tempting because the conditions are very convenient for Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and other groups established in the refugee camps in the Bethlehem district, where the Palestinian Authority cannot do much to restrain them. However, even in the city of Bethlehem itself, there is a varying presence of terror organizations.

Mortars Pointed at Jerusalem

Although not all the terror activities planned in the Bethlehem district have been discovered in time, the rate of discovery when the IDF had freedom of movement in operations and intelligence action in this area was significantly higher than the rate of discovery during the period when it was “locked out.” Furthermore, a significant part of the shootings that the Palestinians carried out during the Second Intifada on the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo came from Bethlehem and was primarily with heavy machine guns.  When the IDF restored its freedom of action in the Bethlehem district in 2005, the shooting stopped. One year later, the IDF and ISA arrested a terror cell that possessed eight mortars with a range of 1.5 km intended for Gilo. This entire terrorist infrastructure was established in Bethlehem. Eventually, Saleh al-Arouri, today the second-in-command of Hamas, attempted to create the infrastructure for manufacturing and firing rockets from the West Bank into Israeli cities. Bethlehem was one of the designated areas for this because of its proximity to Jerusalem. This plan was also thwarted.
Rachel’s Tomb, October 2000, at the start of the Second Intifada. As part of the Oslo 2 agreement, Bethlehem was handed over to the Palestinians. The nearby Rachel’s Tomb was attacked hundreds of times, and Israel had to fortify it
Rachel’s Tomb, October 2000, at the start of the Second Intifada. As part of the Oslo 2 agreement, Bethlehem was handed over to the Palestinians. The nearby Rachel’s Tomb was attacked hundreds of times, and Israel had to fortify it

During the Second Intifada, before the IDF restored its freedom of operation in the area, Rachel’s Tomb was also exposed to hostile fire and terrorism. Firing on the Jewish visitors to Rachel’s Tomb began almost from the first day of the Second Intifada, and it came from the direction of the al-Aida refugee camp, which is between Beit Jalla and Bethlehem.  It was directed from the rooftops of the houses to the west, south, and east of Rachel’s Tomb. There were gun battles with the terrorists in the square near the gas station close to Rachel’s tomb, around the Azza refugee camp, which is at the entrance to Bethlehem, and in the large buildings overlooking the tomb compound, such as the Paradise Hotel. On the Palestinian side, members of the Tanzim and the Palestinian Authority participated in the fighting. Various Palestinian organizations took part in these disturbances, and it was not always possible to distinguish between them.

Rachel’s Tomb, October 2000, at the start of the Second Intifada. As part of the Oslo 2 agreement, Bethlehem was handed over to the Palestinians. The nearby Rachel’s Tomb was attacked hundreds of times, and Israel had to fortify it. (Amos Ben Gershon, Government Press Office)

The movement of Jewish visitors to Rachel’s Tomb was restricted in those days. Sometimes, they were not allowed to travel to the holy site. Armored vehicles conveyed visitors and Jewish worshippers to the fortified entrance of the tomb compound, and they would scurry inside to avoid sniper fire. During the skirmishes at Rachel’s Tomb, which also involved combat helicopters, two soldiers were killed: Staff Sgt. Shachar Vekret, aged 20, from Lod, who was shot by a Palestinian sniper from the roof of the Paradise Hotel, and Sgt. Danny Darai of Arad, who was also killed by a Palestinian sniper from one of the buildings around the pharmacy. The IDF had to retake these buildings and other places overlooking the area of Rachel’s Tomb to prevent further sniper attacks on soldiers and visitors to the site.

Today, in contrast, visitors and worshippers visit Rachel’s Tomb with only minimal restrictions. Private vehicles and buses enter the compound, drop off the worshippers, and bring them back to the Gilo junction on a frequent basis. There is no more sniper fire or shooting at the tomb, and the high wall that the IDF constructed around the compound blocks the Molotov cocktails that are still thrown at Rachel’s Tomb from Bethlehem.

The Ritual: the IDF Leaves, the IDF Returns

Experts from the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center conducted a comparative analysis during the first half of the years since 2000 of the level of terror in Jerusalem when the IDF had security control of Bethlehem and the level of terror in Jerusalem when security control of the area was in the hands of the Palestinian Authority. From this comparison, which is broader and deeper than this paper, it clearly emerges that the suicide bombings that emanated from Bethlehem were carried out when the security control of this city was in Palestinian hands, while during the period that responsibility for the city’s security has been in Israeli hands, there have been no suicide bombings originating from Bethlehem. Here are the findings of this analysis:

  1. IDF Leaves Bethlehem: Between September 2000, the beginning of the Second Intifada, and April 2002 (just before Operation Defensive Wall), when the IDF did not have any control in Bethlehem, it was very difficult for Israel to put a stop to terror cells, suicide bombers, and their accomplices, who brought terror from Bethlehem to Jerusalem and the area of Gush Etzion.

Below are the nine main terror attacks that began and originated from the Bethlehem district during this time, and primarily in the second half of this period:

    • Daoud Ali Ahmed Saad, who lived south of Bethlehem, blew himself up on the corner of King David Street and Eliyahu Shmaya Street in Jerusalem, a few meters away from the Hilton Mamilla Hotel. This terror attack, which occurred on December 5, 2001, was perpetrated by a “Islamic Jihad in Palestine” base in Bethlehem, which was in constant contact with the organization’s leadership in Damascus. The base commander who sent out the suicide bomber to commit this terrorist act was Issa Mahmoud Ismail Battat of Bethlehem, who was arrested by the Israeli security forces, released, and killed later in a targeted assassination. Five people were injured in the attack.
    • Yasser Said Moussa Uda from Beit Sahour, on the outskirts of Bethlehem, blew himself up on February 18, 2002, in a booby-trapped car next to a roadblock on the highway from Maaleh Adumim to Jerusalem. A police officer was killed, and two more were injured. The terror attack was carried out by a Fatah/Tanzim base in Bethlehem, led by Ahmed Mugrabi.
    • Suicide bomber Muhammad Tawfiq Muhammad Dar attempted to blow himself in a supermarket in the town of Efrat in Gush Etzion. The terror attack, which occurred on February 22, 2002, was orchestrated by a Fatah/Tanzim base in Bethlehem, led by Yihye Dehamseh Yassin.
    • Muhammad Ahmed Abd El-Rahman Derameh, a suicide bomber, blew himself up on March 2, 2002, next to a group of worshippers that were leaving a synagogue in the Beit Yisrael neighborhood in Jerusalem. Ten people were killed and 46 injured. The suicide bomber was brought to the site by Ashraf Hajajara, aged 20, who had a criminal background and was a resident of the Daheisha refugee camp in the Bethlehem district. Hajajara was arrested near the site of the terror attack. On May 27, 2002, Ahmed Mughrabi and Mahmoud Sarahna, senior figures of the Fatah/Tanzim operational base at the Daheisha refugee camp, were apprehended, and they took responsibility for the attack.
    • A suicide bomber from the village of Jabel Mukaber, who tried to blow himself up at the Caffit café on Emek Refaim Street in Jerusalem, was arrested on March 7, 2002, inside the café. A Hamas base in Bethlehem, which was composed of six students from Abu Dis College, was behind the attempted terror The students, who were arrested, played a central role in recruiting the suicide bomber, preparing him for the terrorist act, and sending him to Jerusalem.
    • Suicide bomber Akram Ishak Abdullah Nabatiti blew himself up on March 17, 2002, at the French Hill junction in Jerusalem. Twenty-five people were injured. This terror attack was carried out by the operational network of Islamic Jihad in Palestine in Bethlehem, led by Mohamed Tamari.
    • On March 29, 2002, Ayat Mohammed Latfi al-Akhras, a suicide bomber from the Daheisha refugee camp in the Bethlehem district, blew herself up at the main supermarket in the Kiryat Yovel neighborhood in Jerusalem. Two people were killed and 22 were injured.
    • On March 31, 2002, a 16-year-old minor blew himself up next to the Magen David Adom first aid clinic in Efrat. Six people were injured. The bomb that he carried on his back was prepared by two leading Fatah activists in Bethlehem – Riyad al-Amour and Ibrahim Ebiat, who planned and directed the terrorist act.
    • Rami Mohammed Hassin Issa al-Shohana blew himself up on April 1, 2002, next to a police roadblock on Shivtei Yisrael Street in Jerusalem, killing a police officer. The terrorist was a member of a Fatah-Tanzim cell, the members of which were arrested. The cell carried out dozens of shootings and planted explosives around the Bethlehem area and Jerusalem.

2. IDF Returns to Bethlehem – On March 29, 2002, following a major terror attack that wounded and killed many on Seder night at the Park Hotel in Netanya, the IDF launched Operation Defensive Wall. It concluded on May 15, 2002. During this period, apart from two terrorist attacks mentioned above – the one in Kiryat Yovel and the other at the Magen David Adom clinic in Efrat – during the first two days of the operation, there were no further attacks originating from the Bethlehem district.

3. IDF Exits from Bethlehem – From May 15, 2002 to May 26, 2002, a time-period of less than two weeks, the Palestinian Authority once again had control of Bethlehem. On May 22, Issa Abd Raba Ibrahim Badir, a Fatah suicide bomber from Bethlehem, blew himself up at the Rothschild pedestrian mall in Rishon Letzion, killing two Israelis and injuring 36.

4. IDF Returns to Bethlehem – On May 27, 2002, the IDF returned to Bethlehem and arrested a “general intelligence” cell that planned to use a booby-trapped car in an attack on Israelis, as well as activists involved in the Fatah-Tanzim infrastructure, who had dispatched the suicide bomber that carried out the abovementioned attack at the Rothschild pedestrian mall in Rishon Letzion.

5. IDF Exits from Bethlehem – From the beginning of June 2002 until June 19, 2002, Israel again turned over the responsibility for security in the Bethlehem area to the Palestinian Authority. This time, there was a particularly heavy toll. On June 18, a Hamas suicide bomber from Bethlehem blew himself up on an Egged bus at the Patt junction in Jerusalem. Nineteen Israelis were killed, and 50 were injured.

The suicide bomber, Muhammad Haza Abd el-Rahman al-Ghoul, a 22-year-old resident of the al-Fara’a refugee camp north of Nablus, was studying for his second degree at the An-Najah University in Nablus. Al-Ghoul, who was recruited and trained by the Hamas operational network in Samaria, was transferred to Bethlehem. He stayed overnight in the city, and the following morning was driven to the neighborhood of Abu Dis, which is on the eastern edge of Jerusalem. From there, he was picked up by a resident of east Jerusalem, who drove him to the bus stop where he got on the bus, close to the neighborhood of Beit Safafa, and he blew himself up.

6. IDF Returns to Bethlehem – During the two-month period from June 19, 2002 to August 20, 2002, when Israel had control of Bethlehem, just one terror attack emanated from this area. This was when a suicide bomber from the Bethlehem branch of Fatah blew himself up next to a falafel stand in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Shmuel Hanavi, injuring five people. The security forces managed to lower the heat and prevented a return to the earlier pattern of mass terror attacks.

7. IDF Exits from Bethlehem – For a period of three months (from August 20, 2002 to November 11, 2002), Israel again returned responsibility for security to the Palestinian Authority, only to pay for it with yet more bloodshed. On November 21, Na’el Azmi Moussa Abu Hilail, a resident of Dura (who had moved to Bethlehem several months earlier), blew himself up on the #20 Egged bus on Mexico Street in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Kiryat Menachem. Eleven Israelis were killed, and 45 were injured. Hamas of Bethlehem were responsible for the attack. Following the exposure of the terrorist infrastructure, two explosives manufacturers were arrested, along with five senior activists involved in the preparation of the explosives and the recruitment of suicide bombers, and six youths who had been recruited to carry out suicide bombings.

8. IDF Returns to Bethlehem – From November 22, 2002 until July 1, 2003, Israel returned to Bethlehem. During this period, there were no suicide bombings. The Israeli security forces had discovered a Hamas network in time, which had planned to carry out a series of terror attacks on Israeli targets.

9. Exit from Bethlehem – From July 7, 2003 until the end of February 2004, Israel yet again handed over the control of security in the area to the Palestinian Authority. As a result of the PA security forces’ superficial and ineffective handling of terror organizations, the terrorist infrastructure in Bethlehem was resuscitated. The terror infrastructure in Bethlehem carried out various terror attacks at this time. Two of these stand out in public memory: the attack on the #14 bus in Jerusalem on February 22, 2004, when Mohammed Issa Khalil Zaul from Husan in the Bethlehem subdistrict, blew himself up, murdering eight people and injuring 60. In another terror attack, which occurred three weeks earlier on January 29, 2004, Ali Munir Yusuf Jaara, a resident of the al-Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem, aged 25, blew himself up on the #19 Egged bus in central Jerusalem, killing 11 people and injuring 44. Jaara was an officer in the Bethlehem police force.

Conclusion – From the Individual City to the General Situation

Bethlehem is merely one example. A similar pattern is also found in other districts. When the IDF and ISA were physically present in the area, the frequency of terror attacks decreased. When the IDF and ISA relied upon the Palestinian Authority, the frequency of terror attacks increased. Security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority over long periods, since the end of Operation Defensive Shield, helped to thwart terror attacks. However, the IDF and Israel Security Agency have made it clear that without the freedom of operation that the IDF and ISA have maintained for themselves throughout the area, “many terror attacks would not have been foiled, and many dozens, if not hundreds, of terror attacks would have taken place.”

The terror attacks that have been thwarted in recent years, as a result of the IDF’s freedom of operation in the cities and areas transferred to the Palestinians, include dozens of kidnappings, hundreds of shootings and the placing of explosives, dozens of suicide bombings, and hundreds of grenades and Molotov cocktails being thrown. Hundreds of workshops and preparations for manufacturing weapons have been uncovered, and in recent years, through monitoring social media, many stabbings and vehicular attacks have also been prevented.

Nevertheless, during the time when the IDF had to fight to restore its control over security in the areas transferred to the Palestinians – the period of the Second Intifada and also afterward (from September 2000 until December 31, 2005), Palestinian terror organizations carried out 25,700 attacks. In the terror attacks perpetrated during this struggle, 1,084 Israeli civilians were killed. The terror attacks included 147 suicide bombings, carried out by 156 male bombers and eight female bombers. Around another 450 suicide bombings were foiled by the Israeli security forces when they were still at various stages of planning and also due to the arrest of the would-be suicide bombers, their collaborators, and dispatchers.

Most of the suicide bombings emanating from Bethlehem were directed toward civilian targets. The Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center found that this was congruent with the modus operandi of Palestinian terror in other districts. There, most terror attacks were against civilian targets, primarily inside parts of Israel that are within the pre-1967 lines, with the objective of killing as many civilians as possible, indiscriminately. Out of the 147 suicide attacks mentioned above, 107 of them (or 75 percent of these attacks) were directed toward civilian targets. Only 40 attacks (around 27 percent of all of them) were directed toward military/security targets, with the intention of harming members of the security forces.

The civilian targets for most suicide bombings and which suffered the largest number of casualties were:

  1. City and intercity buses, and bus stops – The most catastrophic attacks on these targets include the bombing of the #2 bus in Jerusalem (23 fatalities), the bus bombing in Gilo, Jerusalem (19 dead), the attack on the #14 in Jerusalem (17 deaths), the bombing of a bus next to the Megiddo crossing (17 killed), the attack on a #16 in Haifa (15 deaths), and the bombing of the #37 bus in Haifa (15 fatalities)
  2. Entertainment venues, such as restaurants, shopping malls, cafes, and nightclubs – The most catastrophic attacks on these targets include the attack on the Park Hotel in Netanya (29 dead), the attack on the Dolphinarium nightclub in Tel Aviv (22 fatalities), the bombing of the Maxim restaurant in Haifa (21 deaths), the bombing of a billiards hall in Rishon Letzion (16 killed), the bombing of the Matza restaurant in Haifa (15 dead), and the bombing of the Sbarro restaurant in Jerusalem (15 fatalities).
  3. Places with large population concentrations and crowds, primarily in Israel’s large cities, markets, pedestrian malls, and main streets – The most catastrophic terror attacks among large concentrations of people include: the bombing of Tel Aviv’s old bus station (11 dead) and the bombing of the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall in Jerusalem (23 fatalities). ESR

Nadav Shragai is a senior researcher at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He served as a journalist and commentator at Ha’aretz between 1983 and 2009, is currently a journalist and commentator at Israel Hayom, and has documented the dispute over Jerusalem for thirty years.   His books include: Jerusalem: Delusions of Division (Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 2015); The “Al-Aksa Is in Danger” Libel: The History of a Lie (Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 2012); the ebook Jerusalem: Correcting the International Discourse – How the West Gets Jerusalem Wrong (Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 2012); At the Crossroads: The Story of Rachel’s Tomb (Gates for Jerusalem Studies, 2005); The Temple Mount Conflict (Keter, 1995); and the essay: “Jerusalem Is Not the Problem, It Is the Solution,” in Mr. Prime Minister: Jerusalem, Moshe Amirav, ed. (Carmel and Florsheimer Institute, 2005).

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