This past Friday, Khayri Alqam, a Palestinian from East Jerusalem, shot seven civilians to death and injured several others outside a synagogue in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Neve Yaakov, the country’s most fatal Palestinian terror attack since 2008. A mere 12 hours later, a 13-year-old Palestinian East Jerusalemite opened fire on two men in the City of David area of East Jerusalem’s Silwan. Later on Saturday, a security guard stationed at the West Bank settlement of Kedumim shot to death a Palestinian man with a handgun, who was apparently attempting to infiltrate the community in order to carry out another attack. Amid a months-long escalation of violence between Palestinian militants and Israeli forces in the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority’s recent announcement that it is suspending security coordination with Israel, and the likelihood of copycat terror attacks targeting civilians in Israel-proper in the coming weeks, Israel may be on the cusp of a security crisis. Meanwhile, the Israeli government has allowed the collective punishment of Palestinians to serve as the guiding principle of its response to the crisis, a heavy-handed approach that is set to inflame Israeli-Palestinian tensions even further and, contrary to its tough-on-terror framing, is likely to have the opposite effect.

Police officers at the scene of the January 28, 2023 terror attack in Jerusalem’s City of David by Israel Police, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 (License linked to image)

As would be expected in any country following a major terrorist attack or other significant breach of public security, the Israeli government’s response to this crisis has included a range of steps—some backed up by legitimate security arguments, and some purely political posturing that will at best do nothing to help the situation, and at worst actively exacerbate tensions. The IDF raising its preparedness for an escalation and deploying reinforcements to the Judea and Samaria and Gaza Divisions, for example, seem like fairly common-sense actions to ensure Israeli citizens’ safety, with an obvious security rationale. On Sunday, Prime Minister Netanyahu also announced that the government would expand firearm licensing to allow more civilians to bear arms. For all of the reasons why putting additional guns on the streets is a dubious policy choice (and there are many, especially given the country’s illegal weapons problem and the recent rise in nationalistic hate crimes), it could conceivably result in lives saved in specific cases. Indeed, two passers-by who happened to have weapons on them shot the 13-year-old perpetrator of Saturday’s attack, likely preventing casualties and additional injuries. Loosening gun restrictions may not be a good idea, but at least the debate around the issue can legitimately be framed around weighing immediate security benefits and drawbacks.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

Most of the other actions taken and policy proposals floated in the wake of this weekend’s terror attacks have no tangible security rationale. They merely seek to punish Palestinians inadvertently adjacent to terrorism in order to deter future terror attacks. For example, security forces evicted Alqam’s family members from his residence and sealed it to prevent their reentry ahead of the house’s eventual demolition. Punitively sealing or demolishing the houses of terrorists is not a new policy; Israel usually carries out a handful of punitive demolitions a year. This amounts to collective punishment—depriving a family of their home as a punishment for the actions of one of its members—and the IDF itself determined nearly two decades ago that this practice does not actually deter terrorist activity. In this case, the punishment won’t even impact the perpetrator, who was already shot to death by Israeli security forces in the aftermath of the attack.

Indeed, the Netanyahu government is set to impose a whole set of collective punishments on terrorists’ families that go further than the existing policy of housing demolitions. Prime Minister Netanyahu announced that the cabinet agreed to revoke the national insurance rights of “families of terrorists that support terrorism” and to put forward legislation to deport the families of terrorists to Gaza or PA-controlled areas of the West Bank. This proposal would be a step beyond the legislation currently making its way through the Knesset to strip the status of and deport terrorists who receive financial compensation from the Palestinian Authority, a bill that has garnered broad support from opposition MKs.

The Knesset

The government has essentially proposed an anti-terror response that focuses on stripping families of terrorists not only of all of their rights as Israelis, but of the right to live in Israel—demolishing their homes, revoking their citizenship, deporting them to Palestinian-governed areas. This would be the punishment for the crime of merely being related to someone who committed a terror attack and for meeting an undefined threshold of “supporting terrorism.” While of course a family should be expected to cooperate with the authorities after one of their members committed an act of terror and murdered innocent civilians, Palestinians resisting, expressing reservations about, or being less than wholehearted in their cooperation with the Israeli police as a loved one is accused of terrorism should not be grounds for deportation. Assuming the complicity of family members is fundamentally unjust and would result in innocent people with no involvement in terror facing senselessly harsh punishment.

As a counterterrorism measure, these policies are also all but doomed to fail. Seeing innocent family members and friends stripped of citizenship and deported will probably not deter Arab citizens of Israel and Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem who may be inclined to commit terror attacks from doing so. Those who are willing to sacrifice their own lives in order to take those of others are unlikely to be dissuaded by harsh and unjust collective punishment when perceived injustice is motivating their actions in the first place. It will likely only inflame the sense of hopelessness and fervor of violent resistance that radicalizes individuals and drives them to terrorism. This isn’t to say that any Israeli policy can be held responsible for Palestinian terrorism. There is never an excuse for killing innocent civilians. But it is within Israel’s power to avoid needlessly exacerbating tensions in the interest of calm and public safety, and this package of measures does precisely the opposite.

East Jerusalem

The final component of the anti-terror measures announced by Netanyahu is a vague commitment to “strengthen settlement,” a sentiment that is no doubt pleasing to his far-right coalition partners but again has little to do with actually preventing attacks and keeping Israelis safe. Indeed, the inclusion of this point alongside a host of measures that could provide a legal pathway to deport a yet-undetermined number of Palestinians is indicative of the extent to which Netanyahu has allowed himself to become hostage to Smotrich and Ben Gvir’s policy agenda, which frames Israeli security as best served by a zero-sum battle over the Palestinians to secure Jewish dominance from the river to the sea. Like promoting collective punishment of Palestinian families, strengthening Israel’s civilian presence in the West Bank presents a burden for Israel’s security forces and puts more Israelis in harm’s way. With violence on the rise in the West Bank and Jerusalem and Palestinians increasingly hopeless about prospects for their future, if Netanyahu’s messaging following this tragic weekend is any indication, it will be an uphill battle for the IDF, Israel Police, and other agencies to keep the country safe in the face of a spiraling security crisis and political leadership that prioritizes placating the far-right over genuine security.