The back-to-back drive-by shootings in the West Bank Sunday that killed three young Israelis (two female cousins and a 14-year-old) and injured six others were viewed by some Israeli analysts as just another in a string of terrorist attacks. But others saw it as the possible start of a new wave of West Bank attacks launched by Palestinians emboldened by Israel’s Gaza withdrawal.
"I’m sure that this was because we left Gaza," said Arnon Soffer, a professor of geography at the University of Haifa and vice-chairman of its National Security Studies Center. "Now we have started a battle on the West Bank and if you ask me, this is the beginning of the third intifada. They are now going to attack Israeli settlements that are [outside] the wall or the fence, and the result in two or three years will be a withdrawal behind the wall, from which we will defend Israel and not let them penetrate."
"This is a turning point," he continued. "This intifada will end with the next withdrawal from the rest of the sectors in the West Bank. I see the fence as the final border [of Israel] for the next generation."
The two attacks were the first since an attack in Netanya July 12 killed five Israelis and since the Gaza disengagement last month.
Shaul Goldstein, mayor of the regional council of Gush Etzion, said he too believes the Sunday attacks were fueled by Palestinian terrorists who believe such attacks were responsible for Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon five years ago and from the Gaza Strip last month. He pointed out that after the Gaza withdrawal, Palestinians announced that the West Bank was next, followed by Israel.
"Every little achievement encourages them to continue," he said.
Goldstein, who rushed to the scene of the first attack at a hitchhiking station at the Gush Etzion junction just south of Jerusalem, said: "Terror is a coward. They go in cars and kill innocent people (youths at a hitchhiking place) and then they run away."
Killed were Matat Rosenfeld-Adler, 21, a newlywed; her cousin, Kineret Mendel, 23; and 14-year-old Oz Ben-Meir.
Goldstein pointed out that the attack in the West Bank was nothing new, that there have been a series of shootings in the last two months that did not garner attention because they caused no fatalities.
In fact, the second attack Sunday, which occurred on a road near the settlement of Eli about 40 minutes after the first attack, seriously wounded a 14-year-old boy who was just walking on the street with a companion.
"Now the army is back with roadblocks and the towers of the army are manned again: but a day late," Goldstein said.
The Gush Etzion settlement bloc is vulnerable to terror attacks because the security barrier in the southern Hebron Hills area where the killers were seen fleeing has not been completed.
A spokeswoman for the Israel Defense Forces, Capt. Yael Hartman, said the military "doesn’t believe it’s the beginning of the third intifada. … The two attacks were not connected to each other. The fact is that despite the fact that we arrested about 700 people in the last month, there are going to be attacks."
Hartman was referring to the arrests of Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists in the West Bank in an attempt to prevent the terrorists from moving their base of operations from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank.
Sunday’s attacks came even though security forces were on heightened alert because of the holiday season.
Hartman said the fact that there were no terrorist warnings in the area before the attacks is "problematic," but she pointed out that the Gush Etzion area "wasn’t as strictly watched as other areas. There had been fewer checkpoints. [Palestinians] had [been] allowed freedom of movement. There had been an ease of restrictions for the olive harvest."
That has ended for the time being, noted Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University. He said the Israeli military’s "first response to the attack was to bar Palestinian vehicles" from certain roads in the West Bank.
"That is another form of separation," he said. "It says that you have to drive on your roads. They have a lot of side roads, and none that go through Gush Etzion. Israel will build more of those roads with the help of the World Bank; that is part of the separation process."
The Israeli military also resumed its encirclement of Hebron and Bethlehem, and reinstated dismantled checkpoints around Hebron, Bethlehem and Ramallah.
Steinberg said he does not view Sunday’s attacks as anything different than the kind of attacks that have taken place for the past 75 years.
"To say it is another intifada is misleading," he said. "These were drive-by shootings, not the suicide bombings" encouraged by former Palestinian Authority President Yasir Arafat.
"There continues to be [Palestinian] violence," Steinberg said. "But without Arafat or any kind of a comparable leader, it would be very hard for the Palestinians to sustain a high level of violence. I expect it to continue to be sporadic despite the rhetoric. And it would have happened in my view without the disengagement. Yes, Palestinians are talking of using the same tactics in the West Bank that they used in Gaza, but it is mostly just talk."
Steinberg maintained that the Israeli military is much stronger in the West Bank than it was in the Gaza Strip, and that although there may be other West Bank attacks, they would not be the "kind of strategic threat that was posed by Arafat’s [intifada] campaign."
The deputy director of the Jaffe Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, Hirsch Goodman, said he also believes Sunday’s attacks were simply "tactical maneuvering" by terrorists who have been feeling the heat from Israel’s crackdown of the last month.
"I wouldn’t put too much importance in these attacks," he said. "Israel is fighting with Islamic Jihad and they are responding. … The cat-and-mouse game is continuing."
But the fact that the attacks did not occur on the other side of the security barrier means the barrier is working, Goodman added.
Yoram Meital, chair of Middle East Studies at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, said that with the Gaza Strip now devoid of Israelis, the West Bank has become the "focus of fighting between the IDF and the different Palestinian" terror groups that could go on for weeks or months.
The Israeli military said it believes the attacks were timed to coincide with the visit of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to the White House this week. Meital suggested that the attacks might cast a cloud over the visit.
"I would be surprised if the top spokespeople for the U.S. administration don’t call on the Palestinians and Abbas to do more in fighting these groups," he said.