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Israel

The terrorist attack that struck very close to home

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It’s noteworthy that two days after British Interior Minister Priti Patel announced that she was banning the Palestinian militant group, Hamas, Eliyahu David Kay was shot dead by one of its activists.

The United States and European Union had already listed Hamas as a foreign terrorist movement whereas South Africa, Russia, China, Iran, and others don’t regard it as one.

Official Hamas delegations have visited these countries especially in the years following 2007 when its leaders took control of the Gaza Strip and removed rival Palestinian Fatah officials from office. Tensions between the two groups are rife.

Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Fatah-controlled areas of the Palestinian territories, fears a similar takeover in the West Bank. Years ago, it was difficult to get Hamas supporters in cities like Ramallah, Jenin, Hebron, and surrounding villages to talk freely on television without their faces being blurred and location hidden. I remember being sworn to secrecy for the select few who agreed to meet with foreign journalists.

There’s no such problem today. The movement’s green flags mark the entrance to many buildings across the West Bank and graffiti to match emblazons walls with a single word: Hamas. Abbas has indefinitely postponed planned parliamentary elections for fear its outcome could result in gains for his rival.

The latest surge in Hamas’ popularity is a direct result of the May war in which Gaza militants fired about 4 000 rockets into Israel, terrorising residents in Tel Aviv and other cities. That performance earned Hamas newfound admiration among Palestinians not only in Gaza, but also crucially in the West Bank.

At the same time, Abbas was widely criticised – even among fellow Fatah members – for his limp response to Israeli attacks. Long before the most recent round of fighting, Abbas, the 85-year-old heir to Arafat, was flailing. He’s intensely disliked, and it’s not difficult to get Palestinians, especially youngsters, to openly admit it.

Many describe his government as an autocracy in which there are few checks on Abbas’s internal power. He’s criticised for being corrupt, ineffective, inept and tellingly, blamed for remaining beholden to Israel for his ultimate authority.

Hamas has no such problems. Its charter defines historic Palestine – including present-day Israel – as Islamic land, and rules out any permanent peace with the Jewish state. While Abbas is bound by international agreements, Hamas isn’t.

Kay’s murder has heightened Israeli security forces’ attention once again on Hamas and the role it could play in stirring unrest in the West Bank. The group praised Sunday’s attack as a “heroic operation” carried out by a high-ranking member of its organisation.

The group is likely to continue to encourage terrorism in Jerusalem and the West Bank in the hope that it will destabilise the rule of Abbas’ Palestinian Authority (PA) and its ties with Israel.

What’s important to note is that Kay’s attacker, a 42-year-old high school teacher, Fadi Abu Shkhaidem, hailed from the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Shuafat. Hours after he was shot dead by security forces, clashes broke out at the entrance to the neighbourhood between police and rioters, some of whom threw rocks at the forces. Israeli authorities said the attack appeared to have been planned because Abu Shkhaidem’s wife had left the country days earlier. They’ve arrested several members of his family.

The concern here is that this isn’t the West Bank or Gaza. This is inside Israel. The neighbourhood lies within the boundaries of the Jerusalem municipality, where support for Hamas has been on the increase.

It’s perceived as having initiated the most recent Israel-Gaza war to stop evictions in the East Jerusalem Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood. It’s also believed to be behind forcing Israel to rescind its strict security measures in Jerusalem’s Old City and the al-Aqsa mosque compound. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh was in direct contact with the Sheikh Jarrah families threatened with eviction.

Like many Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the predominantly Muslim residents of East Jerusalem are part of a conservative and religious society that supports any group that’s associated with Islam.

The PA, by contrast, is loathed by many Palestinians because it’s regarded as a corrupt secular regime that operates in violation of Islamic teachings.

In the wake of Kay’s murder, Israeli police have beefed up their forces in the Old City and the army is refining the preparedness of its units in the West Bank. Israel’s defence establishment is worried about another showdown between Israel and Gaza, and is closely watching to see if Kay’s murder will have an impact on the situation inside Gaza.

Another concern is copycat attacks. Particularly in light of the fact that Sunday’s attack was in the vicinity of the Temple Mount, it engenders religious sensitivities and the possibility that other Palestinians might seek to follow in the path of the dead terrorists.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid on Monday demanded that Istanbul shut down Hamas offices operating in Turkey after Israel announced the arrests of a sophisticated 50-member West Bank Hamas cell being directed from Istanbul.

According to the Israel Security Agency, Shin Bet, the Hamas cell was led from Turkey by Saleh al-Arouri, the deputy head of the group’s politburo, and Zacharia Najib, a member of the organisation who was released from Israeli prison in the 2011 Gilad Shalit exchange. They are believed to continue to operate there on behalf of Hamas. Both al-Arouri and Najib live in Turkey, which has long had a close relationship with Hamas, which is politically linked to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

During the Shin Bet operation, security forces captured weapons and materials for preparing four suicide-bomb belts. A senior Shin Bet source said the disruption of a “broad, significant, dangerous terror cell” prevented a series of severe attacks. Its objective was to “undermine regional stability while creating a heavy price tag for local [Palestinian] residents”.

Kay’s murder naturally made headlines in Israel. The government, army, and police are doing their best to try to prevent future incidents, but the sad Israeli reality is that it’s only a matter of time before another family and community is ripped apart. What South African Jewry felt this week is unfortunately what Israelis feel on an ongoing basis.

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