Monday, September 23, 2013

Motivation to Abduct Israelis Remains High

by Yoav Limor

The investigation into the abduction and murder of Israel Air Force Sgt. Tomer Hazan over the weekend is still ongoing, but the initial inquiry has already yielded two clear conclusions: the first is that the motivation to abduct Israelis, especially soldiers, is very high, as terrorists know that Israel is willing to pay a hefty price for their release; and the second is that in the absence of advanced intelligence, it is virtually impossible to thwart a terror attack, especially if the soldier is perhaps not as vigilant as he should be.

The defense establishment is well aware of the issue of motivation, which has only increased since the 2011 Gilad Schalit prisoner exchange deal. In the first nine months of 2013 security forces have gathered solid intelligence indicating that dozens of West Bank terror cells were plotting to abduct Israelis with the intent of using them as bargaining chips. The majority of these plots were thwarted in the planning stages and a few in their early execution stages. In one case, a terror cell was already on Israeli soil and it was a pure stroke of luck that it was exposed before executing its plan.

What makes Saturday's case different than the others is the motive. Past abductions were planned by terror organizations, which, apart from the attack's shock value, sought to use its execution to score political points. This attack stemmed from personal motives: abductor Nidal Amar's desire to see his brother -- Nur al-Din Amar, who was convicted of a shooting attack and jailed until 2030 -- freed from Israeli prison.

This motive was probably what made preventing this terror attack difficult. Planning such an attack within the framework of a group creates interactions between partners, which in turn leads to intelligence opportunities to thwart it. A lone terrorist, on the other hand, can only be stopped if he makes a mistake.

The investigation into Hazan's murder will have to determine whether Amar was operating alone or whether he had accomplices; whether his brother was aware of the plot or involved in it, in which case the Israel Prison Service and the Shin Bet would have to account for why they did not know about it; and whether Amar was involved in criminal activity in Israel, in which case the police would have to check why no warning bells went off.

The fact that Amar was in Israel illegally is also very disturbing: There are tens of thousands of Palestinians who are staying in Israel illegally -- and the authorities are aware of it -- but while most of them are honest, hardworking people, the loophole itself is dangerous and should be dealt with more rigorously.

The issue of intelligence is also a well known one, and the IDF invests considerable efforts in its public relations deterrence campaign [meant to make soldiers aware of the dangers of hitchhiking], but despite numerous past cases, Hazan agreed to join Amar on a ride to the West Bank, thus sealing his own fate.

The lesson is clear and written in blood: Do not be tempted by such offers, alluring as they may be. The immediate reason is the clear threat to the soldier's (or civilian's) life, but in a broader context -- such events have the potential to become a national crisis and could therefore pose a strategic problem for Israel.

Had Amar's scheme been realized in full this would have been the case. He murdered Hazan knowing that Israel's intelligence network in the West Bank was solid and that it would be much easier to hide a body than an abducted soldier. His initial interrogation has yet to derive how exactly he meant to hold the negotiations he hoped would lead to his brother's release, but it is not hard to imagine the tailspin Israel would have found itself in had Hazan simply disappeared without a trace.

In that respect it is good that this case was solved immediately and that the killer was caught, but the lessons have to be learned, both by the establishment -- to foil future kidnapping attempts, and on an individual level -- with the aim of every soldier and civilian helping to prevent his or her own abduction.

Yoav Limor


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