NABLUS — The historic West Bank city of Nablus spreads out in front of Mount Gerizim, also known as Jebel et-Tur in Arabic. Through his binoculars, Israeli Army Major Elitsur Trabelsi gazes from the mountain's peak at the sprawling urban area below — home to almost half a million people. "Do you notice anything? There aren't any checkpoints anymore," he says proudly.
The Second Intifada, a Palestinian uprising that claimed the lives of thousands on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from 2000 to 2005, started here. So did the more recent "Knife Intifada," sparked by the fatal stabbings of Eitam and Na'ama Henkin near the Israeli settlement of Itamar in October 2015. Since those bloody days, however, Israel decided to alter its longstanding strategy for combating terrorism.
Major Trabelsi and his Shomon Brigade operate at the heart of one of the West Bank's most difficult and conflict-prone areas. "When I see Berlin, Paris, and other European cities full of concrete barriers I'm taken aback, because it means the terrorists are winning," he says. "Experience has taught us in Israel that the fewer barriers you build and the more freedom of movement you give the local population, the more you empower those who want to live in peace and isolate the extremists."
Israel's anti-terror forces want to end the strategy of besieging West Bank cities to stop terrorism. The road leading down from the Israeli settlement of Har Bracha opens into a roundabout that connects the town to the southern suburbs of Nablus. Large red road signs tell motorists they are about to enter "Area A," the portion of the West Bank under Israeli control. This is one of the hot spots of militant activity where multiple terror attacks have taken place.
Despite its notorious history, there are no military checkpoints to be seen here — only sturdy yellow stakes to protect the bus station. Trabelsi displays a video on his cell phone that shows a minibus ramming into the stakes at high speed, causing it to bounce back. "Attack thwarted," he says.
The other major change in the local anti-terror strategy is in the training of security agents. "We need to understand that the vast majority of Palestinians want to work and care for their families," says Trabelsi. "Now all our soldiers take courses on how to identify the signals that mark a potential terrorist, from their irritability to their dress."
The Israeli authorities have also invested in new intelligence tactics. "We are now faced with terror cells that are much smaller on the surface but are supported by deeper criminal networks," he says. "We thought the attack on the Henkin family was carried out by only three people, but there were 40 accomplices."
Controlling and monitoring these territories helps the fight against terrorism on the ground, but better intelligence is also key. The most recent wave of terror attacks was inspired primarily by online sources, and intelligence services have moved to counter radicalization on the Internet, where local extremist groups and the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) compete to attract Palestinian followers.
The most important military intelligence base in the region — home to the Israeli army's Ayosh Division — is reached via the infamous Route 60, the location of many attacks in the past. "We've neutralized many ISIS terror cells," says another army official at the base, located close to the West Bank capital of Ramallah. The base's cyber-intelligence unit scours social media websites and infiltrates email accounts in a race against time to prevent terror attacks.
"Aspiring ISIS fighters seek external contact with the group's leadership, and this helps us identify them," says the official. "But this phenomenon shows how forcefully ISIS is trying to supplant Hamas and other extremist groups in the Palestinian territories."
We need to be faster and smarter than the terrorists.
Israeli intelligence services attribute two attacks on Israeli soil to ISIS: the shootings on Tel Aviv's Dizengoff street in January 2016 and at the city's Sarona market five months later, with a total of seven casualties. Another trend that has caught the authorities off-guard is the proliferation of unsophisticated homemade weapons. "At one point the price of a gun had fallen to 300-400 shekels ($80-100), and in 2015 we weren't able to find a single clandestine weapons factory. Last year we found 43, and the price of weapons began to rise again," says one intelligence official.
These artisanal weapons factories are often hidden at the back of repair shops or other similar businesses, but some — particularly those that produce explosives — are also run out of private residences. The military base of Tel Hashomer houses a lab that studies homemade bombs and their components.
Colonel Tuval Eron lists some of the ingredients. "Nail varnish remover, chlorine, caustic soda, semolina flour, oxygenated water, antifreeze …" These products are all available at home or in supermarkets, but can be combined to produce powerful explosives like TATP or EDGN — both are three times more powerful than TNT, which was used in the 2016 Brussels attacks.
Colonel Eron detonates half a gram of EDGN in a teaspoon, producing a large flame. "There were 40 kilograms of this in the suitcases detonated in Brussels," he says. The lab also tests the readiness of canine units and machines used by the army and the police to identify explosives at airports.
"We need to be faster and smarter than the terrorists," says Eron. "It's a race against time that never ends."
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