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Israel’s Fence, New Tactics Seen Behind a Decline in Bombings

TEL AVIV — Israelis cheered silently Tuesday when the government published its latest terrorism statistics, holding their collective breath lest their streak of good luck run out. For the Israeli Defense Forces, the announcement was an occasion for a careful pat on the back, a sign of a job well done. The announcement of the tally of terrorist activity for the first half of 2004 showed a sharp decline — estimated to be 75% — in the number of successful suicide attacks. IDF Intelligence wing chief Major General Aharon Zeevi Farkash told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Security Committee of the Knesset that since the beginning of 2004, 62 attempts to carry out terror attacks were foiled and only 10 succeeded.

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz praised the army and the internal security service, the Shabak, for their efforts.

“This is a new trend. The level of terror is in decline,” Mofaz said during a visit to the IDF Central Command. “But we have to keep up the attacks. We have an excellent army and an excellent chief of staff,” Mofaz added, a remark made all the more noteworthy because of his sometime stormy relationship with

Chief of Staff General Moshe Ya’alon.

Mofaz also indicated that for the first time in three years, there are signs of cooperation from the Palestinian Authority. “The P.A. has confiscated some money sent to the terrorists, and for quite some time our intelligence notes efforts by the P.A. to prevent terror,” he said.

Central Command officers told Mofaz that in the past six months, they foiled no fewer than 58 attempts to carry out suicide bombings and arrested more than 2,000 Palestinians. The number of arrests points to one of the keys to the new-found success of the Israeli security forces: de-facto, unlimited, no-holds-barred control over the West Bank. The IDF moves freely in and out of every Palestinian town, often occupying central parts of major cities (such as Nablus, considered to be the major hub of terror in the past year) for prolonged periods. It also has erected roadblocks, the number of which is estimated at more than 100. Shabak, which had lost many of its sources after the Oslo accords, has regained much knowledge of the terrorists’ plans and whereabouts, and developed an efficient system of “closing circles” — military jargon for quickly turning information into action.

Another major factor is the security fence. Although barely one-third of its planned length is completed, it poses new difficulties for the terrorists. Before its erection in northern Samaria, more than 80% of suicide bombers penetrated Israel from that region. Now, terrorist organizers in Nablus or Jenin have to smuggle the would-be bomber to Ramallah, where he or she must contact another operative, and receive the explosive belt, which must be smuggled separately. Another operative, often a resident of East Jerusalem (who carries an Israeli ID, and therefore has an easier pass through the roadblocks), tries to smuggle the person and charge into Israel. All this activity takes time and makes it easier for Shabak to trace it somewhere along the way. Six such attempts were foiled in or around Ramallah in the past two months.

The continuing pressure, as well as the disintegration of Palestinian organizations because of Israeli closures and raids, has created a “localization” of terrorist activities: They are carried out not by large organizations, headed by operatives who send orders to the ranks, but rather by local cells, most of them loosely organized. A major force in financing and encouraging these activities is Hezbollah. Its top operative, Keis Ubeid, the mastermind of the kidnapping of Israeli citizen Elhanan Tennenbaum (since freed in a hostage deal), is now the single most important person in Palestinian terrorism, far more influential then Fatah or Hamas leaders.

Proud as they may be of their success in the field, IDF commanders are aware that it is temporary. “Over time, the other side will adapt,” senior officers told the Forward. “If we do not change the situation drastically, military measures alone may not suffice.”

They are also well aware of the effect of the measures taken on their own soldiers. One notable brigade commander, Colonel Roni Numa, told the Forward of a talk he had with several of his troops. “We have become numb,” they told him. “When we erect a roadblock, we are polite in the first hour, less polite in the second, nervous in the eighth. By the 10th hour, we may smash someone’s headlight because we are tired and irate.”

The soldiers carry on, of course, knowing that their activity is aimed at saving lives in Israel. But their words, as well as testimonies of other soldiers about “Operation Rainbow in a Cloud” in Rafah a few weeks ago, paint an alarming picture. They warn the Israeli public that although terror is on a sharp decline and the security forces succeed in stopping most attempts, the relief may be only temporary.

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