Israel, West Bank, and Gaza
Overview: Israel remained a committed counterterrorism partner, closely coordinating with the United States on a range of counterterrorism initiatives. Owing to COVID-19, Israel and the United States held numerous interagency counterterrorism dialogues virtually to discuss and collaborate on regional threats. Counterterrorism issues were also at the center of the agenda during numerous high-level U.S. visits to Israel.
Israel faced threats from the North from Hizballah and along the northeastern frontier from Hizballah and other Iran-backed groups, including as many as 150,000 rockets and missiles aimed at Israel, according to some Israeli estimates. Israeli officials expressed concern that Iran was supplying Hizballah with advanced weapons systems and technologies, including precision-guided missiles. This concern included Iran’s work to assist Hizballah and other proxies in indigenously producing rockets, missiles, and drones.
To the South, Israel faced threats from terrorist organizations including Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), and ISIS-Sinai Province. Rocket attacks originating from Gaza resulted in several injuries and property damage. There were sporadic attempts to infiltrate Israel from Gaza by armed militants, none of which resulted in Israeli casualties. Other sources of terrorist threats included the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and lone-actor attacks.
2020 Terrorist Incidents: In December, Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi said 2020 registered the lowest number of Israelis killed by terrorism in the country’s history. Nonetheless, Israel still experienced terrorist attacks involving weapons ranging from rockets and mortars to vehicular attacks, small arms, and knives. The following is a representative list of IDF-announced terrorist and ethno-religious attacks:
- In February, Palestinian Sanad at-Turman carried out a ramming attack against IDF soldiers in Jerusalem, injuring 12.
- In April, on the national Memorial Day for Israeli victims of terrorism, a 20-year-old Palestinian stabbed a 62-year-old Israeli woman in Kfar Saba. The assailant was shot by a bystander and was hospitalized in serious condition; the victim was hospitalized in moderate condition.
- In August a 23-year-old Palestinian man from Jenin stabbed a Rosh Ha’ayin man 20 times, leaving him in serious condition.
- Hamas and other terrorist groups including the PIJ launched more than 175 rockets and more than 150 incendiary balloons from Gaza toward Israel, some of which landed in civilian areas. Iron Dome, Israel’s air defense system, intercepted many of the rockets.
Legislation, Law Enforcement, and Border Security: Israel has a robust legal framework to combat terrorism and promote international legal assistance in the investigation and prosecution of terrorists. For a portion of 2020, the Palestinian Authority (PA) suspended security coordination with Israel; for details, see “The West Bank and Gaza” section below. Israeli security forces took numerous significant law enforcement actions against suspected terrorists and terrorist groups, including the following:
- On April 7, Israeli law enforcement arrested an Israeli Arab citizen, Ayman Haj Yahya, for allegedly collaborating with Iranian intelligence and with a PFLP operative. Israeli authorities assert that Yahya received funding, training, and instructions to establish a terrorist cell.
- In April, Israeli authorities discovered and thwarted planned IED attacks at a soccer stadium in Jerusalem and against IDF vehicles and posts near Ramallah by a Hamas cell from Bir Zeit University.
- In September the Israeli Security Agency arrested an East Jerusalem woman, Yasmin Jaber, for allegedly heading a cell to recruit Israelis and Palestinians for IRGC-QF and Hizballah.
- In October, Israel’s General Security Service arrested two minors in Beit Umar near Hebron in connection with allegations that Hamas had recruited them for terrorism. Israeli authorities assert that they had received from Hamas weapons, ammunition, uniforms, and money for West Bank attacks.
Countering the Financing of Terrorism: Israel is a member of FATF and the Committee of Experts on the Evaluation of Anti-Money Laundering Measures and the Financing of Terrorism. FIU, the Israeli Money Laundering and Terror Finance Prohibition Authority, is a member of the Egmont Group.
The 2019 Israeli Deduction Law requires the Ministry of Finance to withhold from its monthly tax revenue transfers to the PA the amounts Israel estimates the PA pays to Palestinians connected to terrorism, including to the families of terrorists who died in attacks. The PA calls these prisoner and “martyr” payments, and argues they are social payments for families who have lost their primary breadwinner. The United States and Israel argue the payments incentivize and reward terrorism, particularly given the higher monthly payments the longer an individual remains imprisoned, which corresponds to more severe crimes. Because of the COVID-19 crisis, the Israeli security cabinet did not approve the 2019 prisoner/martyr report until November.
In May, some Palestinian banks closed relevant prisoner and “martyr” payment accounts for fear of criminal liability resulting from an Israeli military order extending such liability to banks facilitating payment transfers, though the Israeli government later suspended the order’s implementation until the end of the year. In October, Defense Minister Gantz signed an order confiscating an undetermined sum (described in the media as “hundreds of thousands of new Israeli shekels”) that Hamas and the PA had sent a group of “martyr” families inside Israel. In December, after the PA announced a resumption of cooperation with Israel, the Israeli government transferred all pending tax revenue to the PA but declared it would deduct $184 million for prisoner and martyr payments, to be prorated monthly in the coming year.
Countering Violent Extremism: Although the COVID-19 pandemic constrained activities during the year, the Israeli government continued work on its “City Without Violence” and “Israeli Hope” initiatives. The Ministry of Community Empowerment adopted City Without Violence and widened the scope of the program to more municipalities, with additional tools in different fields to counter violence and crime. The Ministry of Community Empowerment also supported and funded Israel’s national community-based prevention initiative, “The Israeli Authority for Community Safety,” in collaboration with the Israeli National Police. More than 250 municipalities implemented community, education, and social welfare projects to counter violence, crime, and substance misuse. The Community Safety Authorities’ principles include prevention and health promotion, local capabilities, and community engagement.
The Office of the President expanded its work on Israeli Hope programs and activities to develop and reinforce the partnership between various sectors of society, in areas such as education, academia, employment, sports, and local government. It did this in partnership with four population sectors: secular, modern Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox (Haredi), and Arab. Israeli Hope in Education and Israeli Hope in Academia encourage a more diverse and equitable higher education system, to prepare graduates for life in a society valuing coexistence and partnership. Israeli Hope in Employment concentrates on promoting employment diversity, representation, and cultural competence, placing emphasis on integrating the ultra-Orthodox and Arabs into the economy. The Israeli Hope in Sports program aims to encourage tolerance and seeking an end to violence and racism. In each area, the program attempts to create meaningful and broad cooperative efforts between individuals and public organizations, and in the private and the volunteer sectors in efforts to promote understanding and tolerance.
International and Regional Cooperation: In May, Israeli officials told reporters that Israel had provided sufficient intelligence to Germany regarding Hizballah’s activities on German soil to influence Germany’s decision to take further action against Hizballah. This was the latest in a series of collaborative counterterrorism efforts between Israeli intelligence services and their partners in Europe and Australia over the past several years. Israeli officials credited these efforts for successfully thwarting terrorist attacks by ISIS, Hizballah, and other violent extremist groups.
The West Bank and Gaza
Overview: The Palestinian Authority continued its counterterrorism and law enforcement efforts in the West Bank, where U.S.-designated terrorist organizations Hamas, the PIJ, al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, and the PFLP remained active to various extents. PA officials expressed a commitment to nonviolence but halted security coordination with Israel in May, before officially resuming it again in November, proclaiming the decision as necessary to deter Israel’s application of sovereignty to parts of the West Bank.
Despite stopping official coordination with Israel, PA security forces in the West Bank constrained the ability of terrorist organizations and individuals to conduct attacks, in part by arrests targeting those suspected of planning attacks against Israelis. Per Oslo Accords-era agreements, the PA exercised varying degrees of authority over the West Bank, with the IDF securing Areas B and C, as well as periodic Israeli entry into PA-controlled areas (Area A) for counterterrorism operations. The IDF and the Israeli Security Agency also arrested individuals and members of terrorist organizations operating in the West Bank, including a group of 21 Hamas members in early September in the largest operation in the West Bank since 2014.
The United States, through the multinational office of the U.S. Security Coordinator for Israel and the Palestinian Authority (USSC), worked with the PA Ministry of Interior and PA security forces on training (including counterterrorism) and reform efforts (including professionalization and police primacy), except during the May-September cessation. During that period, USSC staff from other member states under U.S. leadership continued to assist the PA until the resumption of security coordination with Israel, as it developed professional security forces capable of some, but not all, counterterrorism functions.
According to the IDF as reported in the Times of Israel, “the West Bank saw 60 terror attacks in 2020, up from 51 in 2019, but down from 76 in 2018 and 75 in 2017.” Numbers vary slightly depending on the source — the IDF, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA), or human rights groups such as B’Tselem. While this decrease is partially attributable to greater movement restrictions imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic, it also reflects a general downward trend in violence indicators since 2016, including deaths of Israelis, deaths of Palestinians, and terrorist attacks in the West Bank.
Israelis living in the West Bank also committed a variety of physical attacks and property crimes against Palestinians, some of which caused serious injury, according to Israeli human rights organizations and media reports. Over the course of 2020, UN OCHA documented 771 incidents of settler violence that brought injury to 133 Palestinians and damaged 9,646 trees and 184 vehicles, mostly in the areas of Hebron, Jerusalem, Nablus, and Ramallah. For example, in July, Israeli settlers allegedly poisoned more than 60 domestic animals in the Jordan Valley town of al-Auja, north of Jericho. According to UN OCHA, Israelis destroyed more than 1,000 Palestinian-tended olive trees over the course of 2020.
In May, Israel’s Lod District Court found Amiram Ben-Uliel guilty of a terrorist act in 2015 and sentenced him to three life sentences for killing a Palestinian family in a fire that erupted after he threw a Molotov cocktail though the window of the family’s home in the West Bank village of Duma.
Israeli settlers also committed violent acts against Israeli law enforcement. According to news reports, during the year there were also 42 instances of violence against Israeli soldiers and police by right-wing extremists, compared with 29 such incidents in 2019. For example, in March, media reported that settlers threw Molotov cocktails at the Israeli Border Patrol near Yitzhar. In December a 16-year-old settler died in a car accident after police gave chase when he and his companions threw rocks at Palestinians in the central West Bank; the incident resulted in clashes between settler groups and police, including a December 21 attempt to storm a Jerusalem police station by 200 demonstrators.
Hamas, a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO), maintained control of Gaza in 2020. Several militant groups, including Sunni violent extremist groups and the PIJ, launched rocket attacks against Israel from Gaza. Hamas and its affiliates launched incendiary balloons and devices toward Israel, damaging farms and nature preserves. Hamas and PIJ tunneling activities continued. In October the IDF used new underground sensors to uncover a two-kilometer-long, 74-meter-deep tunnel running from the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis toward the Israeli community of Kibbutz Kissufim.
2020 Terrorist Incidents: Terrorist incidents during the year included the following:
- In May, the PIJ’s militant wing al-Quds Brigades kidnapped 25-year-old Gazan journalist Yousuf Hassan in retaliation for his reporting on corruption, blackmail, and embezzlement related to aid distribution. He was ultimately handed over to Hamas and later released.
- On June 23, Israeli border police shot and killed Ahmed Erekat after his car crashed into a checkpoint. Israeli authorities described the incident as a car-ramming terrorist attack, a characterization disputed by Palestinian authorities and his family, which claimed it was an accident.
Legislation, Law Enforcement, and Border Security: The PA lacked comprehensive counterterrorism-specific legislation, although existing Palestinian laws criminalize actions that constitute terrorist acts. Presidential decrees prohibit incitement to violence, illegal associations, providing financial support to terrorist groups, and acts that run counter to Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) agreements with other states (a reference to the Oslo Accords with Israel). President Mahmoud Abbas has governed by presidential decree since 2007. NGOs claimed that at times the PA arbitrarily arrested individuals based on their political opinions, including for criticizing the PA online. Several anticorruption activists were jailed before they could begin a protest in July; they were released about one week later.
The Palestinian Preventive Security Organization is the key PA institution that works to prevent West Bank terrorist attacks and investigates security-related criminal conduct. Palestinian General Intelligence also plays a critical role in this effort, as does, to a lesser extent, the Palestinian Military Intelligence. Per previous agreements, Israel retained control of border security across the West Bank and general security throughout Area C, which encompasses most of the West Bank.
Countering the Financing of Terrorism: The Palestinian Authority is a member of MENAFATF. Its FIU, the Palestinian Financial Follow-Up Unit, is a member of the Egmont Group. The PA’s MENAFATF mutual evaluation was postponed from 2020 to 2022-23 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Countering Violent Extremism: Official PA traditional and social media accounts affiliated with the ruling political faction Fatah featured content praising or condoning acts of terrorism. For example, on June 25, Fatah Secretary General Jibril Rajoub made a variety of statements on PA TV, saying, “If there will be annexation, then we won’t suffer alone and we won’t die alone.” Problems with misleading textbooks, some with maps not depicting Israel, and public ceremonies celebrating Palestinian “martyrs” continued. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas stated a commitment to nonviolence, a two-state solution, and previous PLO commitments, but others in the Palestinian leadership have avoided making such commitments. The Palestinian leadership continued to offer so-called martyr payments to families of Palestinians who were wounded or died while committing terrorist acts or in connection with terrorism.
International and Regional Cooperation: Palestinian Authority justice, security leaders, and PA security force personnel continued to participate in regional conferences and meetings to combat terrorism, though in 2020 these opportunities were limited — given COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.