On Thursday night the security forces were trying to work out how Raad Hazem – a 28 year-old Palestinian from Jenin in the West Bank without a work permit in Israel – had managed to make it to Tel Aviv with a weapon despite the high alert.
There he opened fire on a crowded bar, killing three civilians. But at least some of their officials already knew who to blame: the press.
On Friday, less than 24 hours after the shooting, the spokespeople of the IDF, the Shin Bet and the national police sent an unprecedented public letter to Israeli news organisations accusing “some of the media channels of covering the chase [after the terrorist] as if it was an actual reality show, without self-censorship or criticism”. In doing so they wrote “we were exposed to footage that could endanger the forces and the media members”.
This rush to blame the messenger for being on the scene and doing its job seemed to many within the security establishment itself to be an attempt to avert the criticism for the absolute chaos on Dizengoff Street, Israel’s most crowded nightlife drag.
Instead of ensuring first that civilians could get out of harm’s way, the scene could be sealed and specialist forces with counter-terror training in urban environments could carry out a focused search for the shooter on the loose, more and more security personnel were thrown into the area, without proper coordination.
I’ve covered terror attacks in a range of countries and cities, with different cultures, infrastructure and levels of security professionalism – from London to Mumbai – but I’ve never seen such a mess as Thursday night on Dizengoff. And yes, some of the reporters were acting improperly, shoving cameras in the faces of police officers who were trying to work out where the shooter had escaped to.
But it was nothing in comparison to the levels of ineptitude on open display from those who were supposed to be the professionals.
The duty of security personnel, no matter the level of their experience and training, to respond to a terror attack, wherever and whenever it happens, arises from they’re happening to be there just then. But once the incident has been reported, there are those, much higher up the ladder, whose duty it is to ensure a perimeter is established and the right units are sent in to continue the job.
In the hours after the shooting began, I counted members of at least seven police, military and paramilitary units being deployed, only one of which is specifically trained for such an event, and just two with arguably adequate training for the scenario.
All the other forces there could have been used to close off streets and ensure a water-tight scenario, but they were piled in instead to Dizengoff itself. One senior officer later called it “a professional humiliation”, and said that an investigation into the forces’ conduct should be carried out, as it was lucky that there were no casualties from friendly fire.
Another high-up blamed the government, including prime minister Naftali Bennett, who was nearby in his Tel Aviv office, for pressuring the security forces to respond in such an exaggerated way.
In the event, it didn’t matter anyway. The terrorist had already escaped and it was a coordinated investigation that led to him being located eight hours later south of Tel Aviv, by a mosque in Jaffa, where he was killed in a short fire-fight with members of the Shin Bet’s operational unit.
In the end it was professionalism that won the night, but not until after long hours of chaos that was both shameful and needless, given that there were enough counter-terror personnel on the scene within minutes anyway.
“The problem with the scenes on Dizengoff, and the previous three attacks in Israeli cities, is that they obscure what is essentially a success story,” mused a veteran intelligence official this week.
“None of these attacks were carried out by an actual organisation, and in fact, all the main Palestinian organisations with the exception of Islamic Jihad, are now, for various reasons, holding their fire. And as a result, it’s relatively calm in east Jerusalem, in the West Bank and in Gaza. In fact, in Gaza, Hamas are actively preventing Islamic Jihad from launching attacks. It’s the result of long, hard intelligence and operational work and learning a lot of lessons.”
The wave of violence freshest in the memory is last year’s, which began with clashes in east Jerusalem and escalated into 12 days of war with Gaza and rioting in “mixed” cities.
But security professionals are comparing the latest wave to the one which began in late 2015, in which dozens of individuals carried out attacks, mainly using knives or vehicle, in which 50 people were murdered over the space of a year.
The wave eventually ended largely due to a strategy devised by the IDF and Shin Bet chiefs, which had two elements. The first was “separating the perpetrators from the population”: in other words, avoiding collective punishment such as curfews and closures of specific villages and towns, in order to minimise a spread of violence from individual attacks to widespread rioting. The second was a focused effort to profile the potential attackers, where they were coming from and where they could be intercepted.
Nearly all the attackers had social media accounts and had given some kind of warning there about their intentions. Many came from the same villages or neighbourhoods, similar age groups and in some cases even the same class in high school. Using data-analysis, many who were planning an attack were arrested in advance or intercepted on the way. These counter-terror algorithms were soon successfully adopted by a number of European security services in the fight against Daesh-inspired “lone wolf” attackers.
“We’re still using that strategy,” said an IDF officer this week. “We believe it will work this time again.” But the top brass are under pressure from the politicians to deliver fast results, especially after the coalition government last week lost its majority. Prime Minister Bennett is especially under pressure from the right-wing opposition which claims he “can’t fight terror with terror-supporters in his coalition”.
These accusations conveniently overlook the fact that the previous waves of violence took place under Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, which was if anything much slower at quelling them. But with Mr Bennett scrambling to prevent another defection of his own Yamina MKs, which could bring the government down, the last thing he needs is a terror wave amplifying the criticism against him.
“We’ve seen these waves before and dealt with them, and we get better every time, but the politicians need to let the professionals work, and that doesn’t always happen,” said one intelligence veteran. The chaos on Dizengoff may well have been a result of that.
Other than that, the government has given the security services the lead, accepting their recommendations not to cut the number of Palestinians with permits to work in Israel or the number of West-Bankers allowed on Fridays to come and pray at the Al Aqsa mosque on Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
The only decision so far the government has made deviating from the professional recommendations was to close off Jenin, the West Bank city from which two of the attackers came, preventing Arab citizens of Israel making Ramadan visits there.
“Bennett has to make sure Ramadan passes without any more serious attacks and that we can celebrate Pesach and then Independence Day peacefully,” says one of his political aides. But there’s another crucial date on his calendar, immediately after Independence Day.
That’s when the Knesset return to its Summer Session and the political battles resume. How well he fairs on the security front in the next three weeks could determine his success there as well.