What turns an 11-year-old Palestinian boy into a would-be killer?

The easy answer, the answer lots of Israelis are invoking at a time when walking in the street has become a potentially life-threatening pursuit, is that the Palestinians simply hate us. Have always hated us. Will always hate us. Fill their children with hatred for us. And, therefore, that this hatred spills out inevitably in one iteration of terrorism or another — car-rammings, or rocket attacks, or suicide bombings, or stabbings on our streets.

It’s an answer that’s hard to resist amid the dizzying series of attacks these past few weeks, and with memories of the terror onslaught of 2000-2005 still fresh in most Israeli minds. But it’s an answer that also renders Israel’s future thoroughly bleak, because it allows for no possibility that Palestinian terrorism and violence will ever end, for no possibility that the Palestinians will desist from their efforts to rid the Holy Land of Jewish sovereignty and of Jews.

It’s an answer encapsulated in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s widely reported grim summation, in an appearance at the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in October, that “Israel will always have to live by the sword.”

My worry, right now, is that we’ve become so defeatist, that we have a leader so convinced of the perpetual hopelessness of seeking to change our regional reality, that we’re no longer trying

And the worst of it is, it might be true. Prime minister Golda Meir once apparently said of the Palestinians, “We will only have peace with them when they love their children more than they hate us.” And the relentless Palestinian preference for violence and the deaths of thousands on both sides over a permanent accommodation, as exemplified by Yasser Arafat, by Hamas, and bitterly too by the “moderate” Mahmoud Abbas — who spurned Ehud Olmert’s peace terms in 2008, and whose denial of Israeli legitimacy in Jerusalem has helped fuel the current terror wave — would indeed indicate an insistent readiness to kill and be killed rather than compromise, live, and let live.

But while Netanyahu may be ready to condemn Israel to a permanent obligation to live by the sword, it’s far from certain that all future generations of Israelis will be prepared to endure that verdict. These days, we Israeli civilians bear the burden of Palestinian terrorism in the heart of the country, and also send our children to two and three years of army service knowing that we no longer enjoy two- or three-year respites from armed conflict on one or other front line. We send our kids to the army, in other words, pretty certain that they will be putting their lives on the line to protect the country. And there then follow those decades of reserve duty.

If the outlook for even the most motivated and patriotic of Israelis is a prime ministerially guaranteed diet of conflict and bloodshed forever, will our remarkably vibrant and defiant country manage to maintain its resilience forever? Already, according to much-discussed and contested statistics, 10-15 percent of Israelis have chosen to make their lives abroad.

Maybe, therefore, we owe it to ourselves to at least explore whether there is a way out? Whether there are some things that we could do that might just reduce that ostensibly eternal “live by the sword” sentence. Whether there is something that we could do that might just prevent an 11-year-old Palestinian boy turning into a would-be killer.

Fated to live by the sword forever? That’s hardly a proactive Zionist response to the challenges facing Israel. Surely, we should be shaping our own destiny, taking our fate into our own hands.

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The particular 11-year-old would-be killer I’m thinking of has thus far been identified only by the Hebrew letter “Ayin.”

He and his 14-year-old cousin attempted to murder a security guard on Jerusalem’s light rail on November 10. The cousin stabbed the guard in his upper body with a knife he’d brought from home; Ayin stabbed him in the head with a newly purchased pair of scissors. The guard shot Ayin in the stomach.

The cousin has been charged with attempted murder. Ayin is too young to face charges — legislation that would change this is currently making its way through the Knesset — and is recovering from his wounds while in the custody of the Shin Bet security service. He will be sent to a facility in northern Israel to complete his recuperation. The guard they tried to kill was lightly-to-moderately injured.

A 14-year old Palestinian youth seen at the District Court in Jerusalem on November 19, 2015. He was charged with attempted murder for a stabbing attack on the light rail on November 10. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A 14-year old Palestinian youth seen at the District Court in Jerusalem on November 19, 2015. He was charged with attempted murder for a stabbing attack on the light rail on November 10. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In recent days, the Shin Bet first released portions of Ayin’s testimony under questioning and then allowed Channel 2 to interview him, with his features blurred to avoid identifying him.

Two light rail security guards boarded the train, Ayin recalled in his Shin Bet testimony, but the boys decided “not to stab them because there were two of them. Later on one of them got off and we immediately attacked the one that remained… I stabbed him in his head, my cousin stabbed him in his chest and stomach until the guard pushed me and fired three bullets in my stomach.”

Israeli medics and emergency personnel evacuate an injured light rail security guard from the scene of a stabbing in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Pisgat Zeev, November 10, 2015. (Photo by Muammar Awad/Flash90)

Israeli medics and emergency personnel evacuate an injured light rail security guard from the scene of a stabbing in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Pisgat Zeev, November 10, 2015. (Photo by Muammar Awad/Flash90)

Why did he do it? According to Ayin, the attempted killing was his cousin’s idea. Ayin got to school that day, wasn’t allowed in because his family had failed to make a tuition payment, found his cousin outside, and allowed the older boy to persuade him to go out stabbing and die as a martyr. The cousin had already been trying to carry out an attack earlier that morning, Ayin said.

This was premeditated murder? he was asked. No, retorted Ayin in the TV interview, this was not murder at all. It was, rather, “only to avenge Mohammad Ali,” a relative who he said had been killed by Israel.

Who exactly was Mohammad Ali? Also hailing from Ayin’s Shuafat refugee camp in East Jerusalem, Ali was indeed killed by Israel. On October 10. In the act of attempting to stab a Border Policeman in the neck in an unprovoked attack at Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate.

In retrospect, Ayin told the cameras, he is “filled with regret.” The attack was “a mistake.” He wishes he were back home in Shuafat refugee camp; he wishes he were back at school. He also wishes, he said, that he lived in a better environment — one that wasn’t “only filled with garbage and sewage.” He mused about looking across at nearby Pisgat Ze’ev, the Jewish East Jerusalem neighborhood where the cousins carried out the stabbing, and where he said “they have proper roads, and the houses aren’t all crammed together.”

What makes kids like him commit acts like this, the interviewer asked him. “The occupation and the shooting,” Ayin replied. “You can’t get out; there’s nowhere to go.”

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What should we make of the testimony of the 2015 terror wave’s youngest would-be killer to date? How far back should we trace ostensible cause and effect? Where should we be attributing blame, or is that a pointless exercise? Most pertinently, what lessons can we take from his remarks that might just prevent the next 11-year-old or 10-year-old or 9-year-old emulating him and trying to kill us? Or should we shrug, resolve to protect ourselves more effectively, with better security and intelligence, and move on?

Would Ayin have gone out stabbing if his parents had paid his school fees? Perhaps not. And why hadn’t his parents paid for school? Presumably because they couldn’t afford it. And whose fault is that? Israel’s maybe? They live in Shuafat refugee camp, after all, an area claimed by Israel as part of its sovereign capital of Jerusalem.

Why the notion of stabbing Israelis in the first place? Because of relentless Palestinian demonization of Jews and Israel? Because he’d been lied to about how Mohammad Ali died? And whose fault is that? The Palestinian leadership, Palestinian media?

But is that the full story? Of course not. Where does “the occupation and the shooting” fit in? Where to factor in the fact that Ayin lives in a godforsaken neighborhood that Israel, despite that assertion of sovereignty, wants no part of?

Except that’s most certainly not the full story either. How is it that Israel came to control Shuafat refugee camp in the first place? Because it was captured in a pre-emptive war imposed upon Israel by a Palestinian and wider Arab world that was confidently gearing up to destroy the Jewish state in 1967. And it has not been relinquished because subsequent Palestinian leaders have failed to agree to terms with Israel for the establishment of a Palestinian state that would and could not threaten the Jewish state.

The blame game is not irrelevant. The consensual belief in Israel is that we would have long since partnered the Palestinians to statehood — and ended “the occupation and the shootings” — if we’d been able to trust them militarily and if they hadn’t always insisted on turning Israel into a second Palestine by flooding it with millions of refugee descendants. The consensual belief among the Palestinians is that Israel seeks to occupy and build on more and more land and preclude any possibility of their independence.

The argument is destined to run and run. Neither side is ever going to concede that they are wrong. And the clashing narratives will do nothing to prevent the next onslaught of 11-year-old Ayins.

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So what can we take from this, just one more dismal tale of terror from a period again overflowing with hatred and bloodshed?

Since we Israelis want to more effectively serve our self-interest and, most specifically, want to work toward reducing the spilling of blood, we might internalize, for instance, that if we insist on controlling Arab East Jerusalem neighborhoods, we should be providing residents with the kind of adequate infrastructure, municipal services, and educational and employment opportunities that might have changed some of the context in which Ayin was so easily recruited to the ranks of the terrorists. Maybe his parents would have had the tuition money, for a start.

Alternatively, if we don’t want hundreds of thousands of East Jerusalem Palestinians hostile to Israel on the “safe” side of our security barrier, then we should be working toward a strategy that might ultimately enable us to safely relinquish control there.

No easy matter, that. But it’s a process that would be eased if the Palestinians’ political and religious leadership, their schools and their media, were not relentlessly pumping out policies and positions and misrepresentations calculated to inoculate their population against the notion of Jewish legitimacy. So how about insisting on the implementation of internationally supported agreements intended to tackle incitement on both sides of the conflict? And how about, as a small first step toward a changing climate, encouraging the international community to put some money behind, and maintain direct oversight of, a strategic effort to fund some schools, media outlets and other projects promoting tolerance and reconciliation?

Suggestions such as these are far more easily said and written than done. But specific remedies are not my primary point here. My point is that we Israelis have again been plunged into a wave of bloodshed. Palestinians are again dying in large numbers and we are being blamed for that too. And we have a choice: To accept this as our fate, and through defensive and offensive measures, do our best to keep the death toll down. Or to see what can be done, in our long-term strategic interest, in order to eventually create the possibility of improvement.

Netanyahu, Obama and Abbas during a meeting in New York in 2009 (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)

From left to right: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Barack Obama and PA President Mahmoud Abbas during a trilateral meeting in New York, September 22, 2009 (Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)

I’m far from convinced, even if Netanyahu announced a settlement freeze tomorrow, offered compensation to Jews living in West Bank areas Israel does not envisage retaining in the long term, publicly endorsed the Arab Peace Initiative as a credible basis for hoped-for negotiations on a permanent accord, and agreed to those talks on the basis of the pre-1967 lines, that the path to peace and reconciliation would open smoothly before us. I’m anything but convinced that Mahmoud Abbas would prove any more willing than Yasser Arafat to legitimize Jewish sovereignty. I’d put at precisely zero Abbas’s prospects of surviving the attentions of Hamas, Islamic State, Iran and other vicious Islamists were Israel to relinquish its West Bank security oversight. And that simple truth means full Palestinian sovereignty is a concession our little sliver of Israel simply dare not contemplate in the foreseeable future.

But we’re meant to be smart people. We’re the nation that has always found a way to flourish against the odds. And my worry, right now, is that we’ve become so defeatist, that we have a leader so convinced of the perpetual hopelessness of seeking to change our regional reality, that we’re no longer trying.

Because really, it should be within the wisdom and the resourcefulness of the Jewish state to create a climate in which an 11-year-old boy, living in what we insist is our country, is not so easily recruited into the ranks of those who would kill us.