Bethlehem after Oslo: Terror spiked in Israel’s absence
By Nadav Shragai
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.
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:
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:
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:
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).