WASHINGTON — Following a threat this week by Palestinian militants to target “Zionists outside Palestine,” a national Jewish community terrorism alert system has been activated to determine whether Jewish institutions should take extra security precautions.
“Our Secure Community Network people have been in touch with law enforcement officials and are on top of” possible implications of the threat, said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “We are aware of [the threat] and carefully monitoring it, together with law enforcement authorities, to determine whether any particular actions are warranted.”
The Palestinian threat was issued Monday, shortly before a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv that left nine people dead and more than 60 wounded. The bombing, Israel’s deadliest terrorist incident since August 2004, was attributed to Islamic Jihad, a radical group with links to Iran.
The threat against Jewish groups was issued by a different organization, the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, which is affiliated with the Fatah faction of Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.
“This is an open call to all our fighters in the homeland to focus on kidnapping Israeli soldiers and civilians inside our occupied land,” the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades said in a statement. It added: “If the enemy does not release our prisoners, then Zionists outside Palestine will be an easy target for our fighters.”
Abbas, who sharply condemned the Tel Aviv bombing Monday, is seen by Israeli intelligence officials as having little control over the Al Aqsa brigades. “This is not a centralized, disciplined organization but a loose collection of local gangs who live by their rifle,” said reserve Brigadier General Shalom Harari, a former Israeli military intelligence officer who tracks Palestinian terrorist groups.
Unlike other terrorist groups, Al Aqsa does not have a significant infrastructure outside the territories and lacks active alliances with non-Palestinian groups. The group has recently increased its efforts to mount attacks, partly due to frustration over Fatah’s defeat at the hands of the militant Islamist group Hamas in Palestinian elections last January. However, Harari added, “it is not very likely that they will carry out attacks overseas.”
Palestinian groups have avoided targeting Jews and Israelis outside Israel and the Palestinian territories in recent years, but experts warn that an escalation might be looming. They cite the growing mood of chaos and anger in the West Bank and Gaza, the Hamas electoral victory and the resulting spike in Israeli-Palestinian tension.
Israel’s intelligence establishment has put Israeli citizens — both at home and abroad — on alert in recent months for possible kidnapping attempts by Palestinian terrorists hoping to force Israel into a prisoner swap. Israeli diplomats in postings around the world, including the United States, have been warned to take extra precautions. “For some time we have had warnings about possible kidnappings of Israelis and perhaps Jewish persons in America as well,” said an Israeli diplomatic source who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“The fears of policy planners, whether in Israel or in America — and within world Jewry — have always been of two kinds of escalation,” said Scott Lasensky, a Middle East scholar at the United States Institute of Peace, a congressionally-funded think tank. “One is targeting internationals in Israel and the territories, and there have been many such incidents recently, and the other is attacks outside of Israel against Israeli or Jewish targets.”
The Al Aqsa brigades threat caught American Jewish organizations during the traditionally quiet Passover holiday, when many employees are on vacation and offices operate on slim staffing. Jewish organizations had not been taking extraordinary security precautions during the eight-day holiday, and there was little immediate evidence of tightened security arrangements despite the bombing and new threat on Monday.
“It hasn’t set off any big warning bells in the community as of yet, but Jewish organizations and institutions generally are very alert to any potential threats that may be out there,” said Martin Raffel, associate executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which coordinates public policy for 123 local Jewish communities and 13 national Jewish organizations.
The Secure Community Network, assembled a year ago by the Presidents Conference and the United Jewish Communities, links national organizations and local affiliates to law enforcement authorities in Washington and around the country.
Alerts vary in urgency depending on the level of threat assessment. This week’s alert was relatively low-level, Hoenlein said, and was sent out by fax. Still, “in times like this you have to have heightened precautions, particularly during the holiday period.”
Israeli civilian deaths from suicide attacks have undergone a steady, sharp decline in recent years, from 390 dead in 59 bombings in 2002, the peak year, to 163 dead in 2003, 55 in 2004 and just 20 dead in six bombings in 2005. Foiled suicide attacks have declined as well, from 112 in 2002 to 15 in 2005. However, the first four months of 2006 have seen 13 dead in three bombings, suggesting an increase in the pace.
The introduction of suicide bombings in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is usually attributed to Hamas, which staged four spectacular attacks within two weeks in early 1996 and has been responsible for most bombings since then.
However, Hamas has all but ceased its violent attacks against Israel since agreeing to a cease-fire in February 2005. With one exception, all the suicide bombings since that time have been the work of Islamic Jihad, including Monday’s attack in Tel Aviv. The sole exception was a deadly March 30 bombing outside the West Bank settlement of Kedumim, which was claimed by the Al Aqsa brigades.
Hamas spokesmen publicly defended this week’s bombing in Tel Aviv. At the same time, recent news reports indicate that Hamas has been attempting since its election — with little success — to convince other Palestinian groups to halt attacks on Israelis. The apparent aim is to ease the international isolation that the P.A. has faced under Hamas leadership, leading to a mounting sense of economic and humanitarian crisis.