Israeli government too quick to link truck attack to ISIS inspiration
Jerusalem - The Israeli government was quick to suggest a Palestinian who rammed a truck into a group of Israeli soldiers was inspired by the Islamic State (ISIS), raising questions over how it came to that conclusion.
Hours after the January 8th attack, which killed four soldiers and wounded 17, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said the assailant showed signs of being a supporter of ISIS. He did not give details.
Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman also pointed to ISIS, citing parallels with ISIS-inspired attacks on crowds using trucks in Germany and France last year.
“We saw it in France, we saw it in Berlin and unfortunately we saw it today in Jerusalem,” he said during a visit to the scene overlooking Jerusalem’s Old City.
A day after the attack, an obscure Palestinian group claimed responsibility and said it had no outside links and had acted on political motives. It was not possible to verify the claim but in Israel multiple voices pointed out the differences between Palestinian violence and that perpetrated by ISIS.
While extremism may inspire some Palestinian assailants, political motivations linked to Israel’s occupation and the long-running conflict remain the dominant factor, they said, suggesting the government sought to downplay politics.
“Palestinian attacks are overwhelmingly motivated by nationalism, not by religion,” said Orit Perlov, a social media expert and research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. “Israel is trying to generalise the phenomenon, saying everyone faces the same threat but, while the symptoms may be similar, the causes are completely different.”
In Europe, there is sympathy and support for Israel and the threats it faces but also cautiousness about close comparisons.
During the last 18 months, Netanyahu has repeatedly described a wave of Palestinian attacks on Israelis as part of the same violent Islamist campaign afflicting Europe, saying Israel, France and Germany are in the same boat and that Israel’s front-line position needs to be better understood.
“They might have different names — ISIS, Boko Haram, Hamas, al-Shabab, al-Qaeda, Hezbollah — but all of them are driven by the same hatred and bloodthirsty fanaticism,” Netanyahu said in January 2016. “We understand we are in a common battle for our values and a common battle for our future.”
The statement about the truck attack was the clearest link Netanyahu had made between a Palestinian attacker and ISIS, although he did not say the group planned it or that the assailant, who was shot dead at the scene, was an ISIS operative.
Yossi Melman, an analyst writing in Ma’ariv newspaper, said there was little evidence to suggest the Palestinian attacker had drawn inspiration from ISIS, pointing out that Palestinians carried out car-ramming attacks before ISIS.
“This is essentially a case of unaffiliated terrorists, young people… who do not belong to any organisation and decide on their own, often on a whim and with no prior preparations, to commit a terror attack,” he said.
Others said it made sense for Netanyahu to draw a direct link between the threats Israel faces and those in Europe but that it was unlikely to convince policymakers.
“There are no signs that Europe as a whole will stop considering the occupation as the main cause for Palestinian terrorism,” said Ilan Jonas, chief executive officer of Prime Source, an Israeli political and security consultancy.
Europe is not about to “adopt Netanyahu’s line that this is part of a universal phenomenon that is totally unrelated to Israel’s policies in the West Bank”, he said.
As is common, Hamas, the Islamist group that controls Gaza, praised the attack but the Palestinian Authority, which has limited self-rule in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, was more circumspect. Its security forces even carried out raids in some areas, supporting Israel’s clampdown.
Adnan al-Dmairi, spokesman of the Palestinian security services in the West Bank, dismissed any suggestion ISIS had a foothold in the territory.
“There is no presence for ISIS as an organisation in the West Bank,” he said, while acknowledging some people expressed support on social media. “There is nothing of such a name as ISIS in the Palestinian areas.”
Data tend to back that up. Figures collected by Israel’s security establishment show Palestinian support for ISIS declining, said Perlov, with the level falling from 14% in 2014-15 to 8% last year.
“The trend is downward. Even if there was some low-level support for [ISIS] at the peak when it seized control of Mosul, that has dropped away,” said Perlov.
Some Israeli Arabs — no more than a couple of dozen, analysts say — have tried to join ISIS in Syria or Iraq but that number is a fraction of the Muslims who have joined ISIS from Britain, Belgium, France or the Netherlands.
For Europe, Israel’s generalisation of the terrorism threat presents a problem, said Andrea Frontini, an analyst at the European Policy Centre, because it risks over-politicising counterterrorism cooperation.
Europe needs and wants closer cooperation with Israel when it comes to tackling rising security threats, he said. Europe, however, does not want to feel like it has softened its approach on other issues, such as the Middle East peace process and Israel’s occupation, to show solidarity.