Even four weeks into this latest surge in violence, in the fast succession of stabbings and protests and funerals and pronouncements, it can be hard to figure out exactly what this round of terror attacks is actually about.
There is no shortage of explanations, of course, but they usually say more about the explainer than the phenomenon they are explaining.
Many pundits sympathetic to the Palestinians’ plight have said the killings are driven by economic or political “frustration” — a statement the attackers themselves, along with their most passionate supporters in Palestinian politics, often seem to contradict when they insist they are motivated by devotion to God, Islam or the vision of a redeemed Palestine.
Those who sympathize with the Israelis blame Palestinian “fanaticism” and point to the attackers’ own rhetoric as proof. Yet that rhetoric, for all its rejectionism, does not explain this specific outburst, since it does not mark a change from the past. The Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel has been warning for decades that the Jews are trying to “steal” Al-Aqsa. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has been extolling the “martyrs” — among them the killers of Israeli schoolchildren — for years, to the consternation of Israelis and the complete disinterest of everyone else.
Neither “fanaticism” — the term itself is a judgment, not a description — nor “frustration” really encapsulate what the attacks mean in the cultural and political context that spawned them, and to which they are speaking: the Palestinian collective consciousness.
The missing intifada
The First Intifada, beginning in 1987, was a genuinely popular effort supported by broad swaths of Palestinian society. Its intent was thus more amorphous and more authentic than any specific strategy adopted later on, authentic enough to lead to fundamental shifts in how many Israelis perceived the moral claim the Palestinians had on the Jewish state. The Second Intifada of 2000, with its clear and oft-stated strategy — to cause enough pain and fear in the Israelis that they will choose of their own accord to leave the land – was not born in the grassroots, but at the very least enjoyed the apparent mobilization of Palestinian elites.
The latest wave of terrorism has broad support neither among the people nor among the elites.
Indeed, one of the most remarkable facts about the stabbings and protests that so dominate the headlines of the past few weeks is how few Palestinians are actually participating in them: a few hundred, and at moments of dramatic mobilization — such as the occasional “days of rage” called by Arab leaders — perhaps a few thousand.
This absence is a fact that television news or viral Internet videos fail to convey, since they are ill-equipped to tell a story they cannot show on video. Yet the simple arithmetic is undeniable: the Palestinian people are not lashing out at the Israelis. They are staying home. The elites, meanwhile, are paying lip service to the “martyrs” — the PA’s lip service can be rabid, to be sure, openly celebrating the stabbing of children or offering anti-Semitic blood libels in official media — but are simultaneously acting with determination on the ground to disrupt and stop the attacks against Israelis, and even, more rarely, to offer arguments against them.
Neither ‘fanaticism’ — the term itself is a judgment, not a description — nor ‘frustration’ really encapsulate what the attacks mean
In this absence of the people and the elites from the fighting, in the quiet, desperate effort to end the violence alongside the public need to affirm its legitimacy, a deeper message emerges. These youths — the average age of the attackers hovers at around 20 — who are killing Israelis, and often dying almost instantly in the attempt, are lauded as martyrs among Palestinians not so much because Palestinians believe their deaths have meaning, but because it is too agonizing to admit publicly that they do not. In their refusal to recognize Palestinian authorities outside their own online networks, in their appeals to religion and each other rather than the old heroes of the Palestinian “resistance” that lend their names to the more established armed groups, they are making a passionate plea to their own society to reclaim a vision that their society has largely abandoned.
They are resisting more than the Israeli occupation (we are describing the terrorists’ narrative for the moment; most Israelis believe the occupation persists because of the violence, not the other way around). They are battling, too, the growing Palestinian realization that their national movement has no answers, no narrative or political vision that offers a way forward to better days. These young killers are striving, in their kamikaze fervor, to rekindle the idea among Palestinians that straightforward victory remains possible, if only because the alternative – the possibility that Israel cannot be dislodged, that the nostalgic vision of an undivided, unfettered Palestine cannot be reclaimed — is simply too monstrous to accept.
So it is significant that their actions are loudly celebrated and quietly regretted. Unlike in the Second Intifada, when many Palestinians believed the suicide bombings, for all their brutality, could at least be justified by the hope that they might produce real results, few Palestinians now expect or even seriously fantasize that any sort of victory might flow from these new suicides. The deaths of these young killers, who proclaim their brutal acts are a reclamation of Palestinian self-respect, only deepen the despair and sense of indignity among the countrymen they leave behind.
Losing the thread
The Palestinian national movement once had a coherent narrative. The Israeli polity, it claimed, was a political construct resting on force of arms and doomed to collapse under the weight of its own injustice, taking with it back to the colonialist, imperialist West the millions of Jews it dragged into this land. This narrative formed the underlying logic of Palestinian terrorism. Brutality was lionized precisely because in this analysis of the Israeli enemy, exacting a high cost for Israel’s continued existence hastened the day of its collapse, of its succumbing to its inherent weaknesses.
This narrative drove Palestinian politics for generations. It was believed by moderates and extremists alike. Its essential premise, that the Jews of Israel are not a rights-bearing nation with nowhere else to go, but rather a colonialist ideological construct imposed on this land by foreigners, has become a pillar of more than Palestinian politics; it lies at the root of Palestinian identity, of what Palestinian nationhood has come to mean. Palestine, an identity that had no political expression until Zionism came into being, is for Palestinians, at least in part, that cultural and social reality delineated by the experience of being pushed back by the invading imperialism of the Jews.
None of that takes away from the Palestinians either their nationhood or their history. Such identities and narratives can only be given to a nation by itself. Indeed, Palestinian intellectuals usually agree that the challenge of Zionism coalesced Palestinian national feeling to resist the newcomer.
Yet this vision of the Jewish state has a glaring problem: it has failed monstrously to predict events. Israel, that supposedly hollow shell, that artificial ideological construct, has failed to collapse under its own weight. Indeed, it is the Arab world that has collapsed around it while the Jewish state continues, maddeningly, unjustly, to flourish. The promise of Israel’s inner weakness, offered to the Palestinians as often by Jewish activists as by Palestinian ideologues, has betrayed them. The Jews have failed to leave, and despite the rallying of a handful of radical Jewish intellectuals to the cause, won’t even acknowledge that their national identity is something less than authentic.
A comprehensive and startlingly deep September poll of Palestinian public opinion lays out in painful detail the Palestinians’ current despondency.
“For the first time since we started asking, a majority [of Palestinians, 53%,] now demands the dissolution” of the Palestinian Authority, explains the report, produced by the well-regarded Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki.
The main reason: Palestinians feel defenseless against a looming, threatening Israel. Fully 81% of Palestinians polled said they worried “that they would be hurt by Israel or that their land would be confiscated or homes demolished,” the study found.
This figure would surprise most Israelis, who continue to view both the violence of extremist Jews and the legal battles over housing construction and land ownership in the West Bank as essentially peripheral phenomena. Whatever their statistical scope – as with most things, Israeli and Palestinian officials offer different figures – the effect of these experiences on Palestinians’ willingness to trust Israel is decisive.
These young killers are striving, in their kamikaze fervor, to rekindle the idea among Palestinians that straightforward victory remains possible
Thus we find that over two-thirds (68%) of Palestinians said in the Shikaki poll that protecting them from extremist Jewish attacks is not the responsibility of the Israel Defense Forces, but of the Palestinian Authority that ostensibly represents them. A nearly identical number, 67%, said the PA was not doing all it could to fulfill that responsibility – not that it was failing to protect them, but that it wasn’t meaningfully trying.
Nearly half of West Bank residents (48%) even said they would volunteer for unarmed civil guard units in their towns and villages to defend against Israeli violence, if the chance were offered to them.
This sense of the failure of their national institutions doesn’t end with their security. Palestinians feel actively oppressed by their leaders and ideologues.
In Hamas-ruled Gaza, where the regime scarcely pretends to offer individual or civil rights, just 19% say their media is free and only 29% say they can criticize their government without fear (a number actually lower than the 34% who say they support Hamas). It is commonly thought that the Palestinian experience in Gaza is somehow fundamentally different from that in the West Bank. When asked to describe their leaders, however, the dismal figures are nearly the same in Palestinian Authority-controlled areas. Only 23% in the West Bank say their press is free, and 29% – identical to those under Hamas rule – say they can criticize their government.
It is impossible to understand Palestinian claims that Israel seeks to rob them of al-Aqsa, claims that underlie the latest violence, without first grasping this pervasive sense of vulnerability and abandonment.
According to the poll, the vast majority of Palestinians believe that Israel seeks to change the situation at Jerusalem’s Temple Mount in its favor. Fully half — 50% — of Palestinians say they believe Israel intends to destroy the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock shrine and replace them with a Jewish Third Temple. Another 21% say Israel intends to split the Temple Mount plateau and build a synagogue alongside the Muslim sites. A further 10% — the total is now 81% — said Israel wants to change the five-decade-old status quo that allows only Muslims to pray there. Just 12% said Israel seeks to maintain the status quo.
Of course, this widespread acceptance of claims to Israeli perfidy should not surprise those familiar with past polls, or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict generally. But Shikaki followed up this question with another, and respondents’ answers to this next question are astonishing.
Will Israel succeed with its nefarious plans, he asked.
Fully half, 50%, of Palestinians said yes.
The root of what the Israelis sometimes call the Palestinians’ “Big Lie” – essentially, that the Jews are plotting to take Al-Aqsa away from them – is not really very difficult for Israelis to understand after all. Vulnerability, Israelis know well, can dramatically change your view of the enemy.
It hardly matters whether any particular Israeli leader actually wants to change the status quo on the Temple Mount at any particular moment. The simple fact that they could do so if they wished – as vast numbers of Palestinians openly believe – brings into agonizingly sharp relief the helplessness and failure of Palestinian aspirations. The beating heart of Palestinian identity and geography, the shrine that constitutes their claim to a seat of honor in Islam, is in the iron grip of the enemy.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu regularly insists that Israel has only good intentions for the Temple Mount, saying his government will ensure Palestinian rights and access to Al-Aqsa just as previous governments have for five decades.
Palestinians do not believe these assurances for several reasons: just as Israelis do not see nuance among Palestinians, missing the general Palestinian despondency amid the loud, violent terrorism of the stabbings, so Palestinians do not bother distinguishing between the activism of Yehudah Glick or Uri Ariel and the longstanding commitments of Israeli governments and the public to a peaceful status quo at the site.
Palestinian unfamiliarity with Israelis, despite the intimate closeness in which we all live, also means they project onto Israel some measure of their own politics. There is little doubt among most Palestinians that if the disparity of power were reversed at the Temple Mount, as it was before 1967, Muslims would deny to Jews what they believe Israel plans to deny to them; it is hard to really trust that the Jews genuinely do not intend to do the same.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Netanyahu does not seem to grasp that his reassurances are themselves galling, since they highlight the intolerable fact that Al-Aqsa’s fate really is ultimately dependent on him and his cabinet.
At least two distinct Palestinian visions have emerged for helping the Palestinian national movement to regain its footing.
One was perhaps best articulated by the well-known Palestinian journalist Mohammed Daraghmeh, who also serves as a Ramallah-based writer for AP. In a remarkable column last week largely but not entirely ignored by Israelis, Daraghmeh spoke directly to the young Palestinian attackers – and to their missing-in-action leaders.
“After the Second Intifada ended, we stood as one and said: We were wrong here, mistaken there,” he wrote on the Palestinian news site al-Hadath. Yet this belated self-criticism was ultimately cowardly, he implied, since Palestinian intellectuals and leaders did not have the courage to speak out while the intifada raged.
‘Our children grab kitchen knives in a wave of emotion…. We must stand before them and say to them: You are destroying your lives and ours — Palestine needs you alive,’ Daraghmeh wrote
Today, too, “the politicians are fearful for their popularity. But the intellectuals charged with safeguarding the spirit of the nation – they must not be afraid. They must shout in the loudest voice: Where are we going?”
According to Daraghmeh, the only power the Palestinians can wield against the overwhelming force of the Israeli occupier lies in the fact that “Palestine is an international issue. [The issue] won’t be decided in a flurry of knives or acts of martyrdom [suicide attacks], or in protests or demonstrations. It will end only when the world understands it has a duty to intervene and to draw borders and lines, as it did in Bosnia-Herzegovina, in Kosovo… One might ask: How long? And I say: The day will come. … One might ask: Did the peaceful struggle bring about the end of the occupation? And I say: Did the military and armed struggle do so? …. Only the world can bring the solution. But it won’t do so if we are silent, or if we commit suicide. It will [come to our rescue] if we stay on the humane path of our national struggle…. Our children grab kitchen knives in a wave of emotion…. We must stand before them and say to them: You are destroying your lives and ours — Palestine needs you alive.”
Such sentiments are easy to admire in the context of Palestinian discourse (Israelis might be less moved; they won’t find here any moral qualms over the actual act of stabbing innocent Israelis). Daraghmeh published his warning in a relatively popular news outlet, one whose Facebook page boasts over 230,000 “likes.” Indeed, his views reflect the essential strategy of Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority in recent years: internationalize the conflict, rope a basically sympathetic world into the equation in order to force the Israelis to retreat.
Yet this most moderate of Palestinian strategies suffers from the same weakness as the more violent ones: it does not address hard strategic realities.
Daraghmeh fails to note that the Bosnian and Kosovar conflicts were ended by the blunt expedient of aerial bombardment. Is it really reasonable to expect what he calls the “world” — US-led NATO, to be exact – to bomb Israel out of the West Bank? Or less cartoonishly, can an Israeli public that consistently tells pollsters it believes a West Bank withdrawal will result in vastly larger and bloodier versions of the Gaza wars of recent years, with rockets targeting Israel’s population centers and subsequent Israeli incursions dealing far worse agony to Palestinians than the current occupation – can a voting public that sees such risks in withdrawal be swayed by economic boycott, UN Human Rights Council resolutions or the snubs of indignant NGOs to carry it out?
Then there is the second Palestinian vision, which amounts to a denial that the past strategies have failed. In Gaza, Hamas has spent the past four weeks loudly cheering on the violence in the West Bank.
Yet ironically, this triumphalism, not the self-criticism of Daraghmeh, brings the Palestinian strategic collapse into sharpest relief. Hamas has praised and sung the glory of the stabbing attacks – while clamping down tightly on sympathetic rocket attacks from Gaza out of fear that Israeli reprisals against the coastal strip could further increase the cost Gazans believe they are paying for Hamas’s strategy of perpetual struggle. (It is not an accident that Hamas’s support in Gaza – 34% in September – marks a five-point drop from Shikaki’s last poll in June.)
Worse, Palestinian leaders do not seem to understand that Hamas’s support for violence fatally undermines Abbas’s nonviolent internationalism, shoring up Israelis’ determination to resist withdrawal because they do not believe Abbas can really hold out against Hamas if Israel pulls out.
The irony is perhaps best encapsulated in last Monday’s comments by Izzat al-Rishq, a member of Hamas’s political bureau based in Qatar, who proclaimed that “the heroes of Palestine” have managed to place a “blockade” on the occupier with only knives and handguns. To Israel’s actual blockade of Hamas-ruled Gaza the group has found an answer by rhetorically padding the achievements of these (mostly non-Hamas) killers into a comparable — and thus, the pretense goes, deterrence-producing — response.
Similarly, one of Hamas’s leaders in Gaza, Mahmoud al-Zahar, said last week that the images of IDF soldiers fleeing a Palestinian shooter who opened fire on them at Beersheba’s central bus station prove that Israeli soldiers are unfit even to direct traffic. He did not seem to notice that such claims about the IDF’s frailty might raise questions about Hamas’s inability to effectively puncture the Israeli defensive line in the four wars it has fought with Israel since Israel left the Gaza Strip.
When Hamas decides to effectively sit out a major Palestinian assault on Israel while proclaiming that the very same assault constitutes a force multiplier that somehow balances the power of the sides, when it proclaims Israeli soldiers are feeble while policing Gaza’s border to prevent Palestinians from clashing with those soldiers and eliciting their response, one may safely conclude that even Hamas isn’t quite sure how to move the Palestinian cause forward from this nadir.
Israel’s victory is limited, rooted not in wise policy but in unconscious processes of Israeli identity
There is, of course, one more voice: that of the attackers themselves. Here, too, the strategic impasse soon becomes evident. Their self-proclaimed “Jerusalem awakening,” at once an appeal to the sanctity of Al-Aqsa and an admonition at the galling vacuum of powerlessness that Jerusalem has come to represent, is no awakening at all. In their rejection of existing Palestinian authorities, these “digital natives,” at home in the anarchic internet and partly shaped by its narcissistic tendencies, are in search of a new cultural and political wellspring of resistance that is not tainted by the failures of Fatah and Hamas.
Israeli security officials have told the cabinet in recent weeks that the stabbings are largely the work of “lone wolves” who lack the sort of organizational infrastructure that would make them vulnerable to easy disruption by Israeli intelligence. The diffuse nature of this sort of online grassroots activity may make them harder to intercept (at least until Israel’s security services sufficiently penetrate Palestinian social media) but it also leaves them unable to escalate the assault to the level that might drive real panic among Israelis – the sort of panic that terrorism as a strategy fundamentally requires. Online activism only really matters if it inspires a critical mass of real-world activism. In the long list of painful ironies for the Palestinians, then, this is yet another: the very thing that gives these young, decidedly modern attackers their tactical advantage ensures their strategic defeat. Israelis who ultimately brushed off the suicide bombings of the Second Intifada through the simple expedient of continuing with their daily lives will not be cowed by stabbings in the street.
This simple truth is not lost on the attackers. It is one reason that they do not discuss goals or strategy in any serious way. The video games, cartoons and music videos they share are essentially devoid of a narrative. These artifacts of the present state of Palestinian “popular resistance” are mostly focused not on a discernible path to national redemption, but on the promise of personal satisfaction. The message is simple: stab the Jews, watch them scream, prove to yourself in that instant that they are mortal, vulnerable. For that brief moment – so the online campaign implicitly claims – Palestinian dignity is restored.
Yet the real-world attacks that flow from this promise, the moments of frantic scuffling with Israelis, the quick deaths the attackers meet time and again, even when facing unarmed Israeli civilians, only bring the collapse of Palestinian solutions and self-respect – and Israeli unflappability – into sharper relief.
None of this is a moral argument. Whether the Palestinians’ essential claims are right or wrong, or the Israelis’ skepticism of withdrawal moral or immoral – indeed, whether any of this is good or bad for ostensibly victorious Israel – are separate issues to the simple fact of the Palestinians’ growing realization that they can no longer articulate meaningful options, violent or otherwise, for reclaiming control of their fate.
Yet in the very admission of failure, as always, lies a hint at a possible path that leads in a different direction.
The Palestinian national movement has paid a monstrous price for its misreading of the Jews — for failing to understand that Israeli Jews are largely the descendants of refugees who had nowhere else to go in the brutalities of the 20th century, and thus could not be driven away with terrorism as scattered European colonialists, far from their distant homelands but never estranged from them, emphatically could. The Jews’ resilience to Arab violence lies not in historical realities, but in psychological ones; the Jews believe that they are a people defending themselves, and that is enough to inoculate them to terrorism. Terrorism, after all, is an attempt to exact a cost from a certain behavior; it depends heavily on the victims perceiving a viable alternative to their present behavior.
Yet by this analysis, the Israeli victory is exceedingly limited. It is not rooted in any wise Israeli policy, but in unconscious processes of Israeli identity. Similarly, this victory cannot “solve” the essential challenge. No one has yet suggested a plausible means by which either people might be forced out of this land. So the Israelis and Palestinians remain stuck, whether in failure or success, in coexistence or wild brutality, with the hard reality of each other’s existence as self-proclaimed nations.
It’s not hard to understand why the Palestinians have struggled to come to terms with the Jewish presence in this sense. The barriers to recognition are immense. If the Jews can’t be made to leave, if the foundational strategy of scaring them off wasn’t rooted in an understanding of what that might entail – that is, of how the alternatives to this homeland might appear in the Jews’ collective psyche – then what is the value of Palestinian sacrifices made on the altar of this misbegotten strategy?
Indeed, if the Jews of “colonialist” Israel cannot be dislodged, does that mean they are not like other colonial projects that could be made to collapse? If they are not colonists who can be pushed back to Germany or Russia or Iraq or Morocco from whence they came, what are they? What is to be done with the fact of the enemy’s implacable claims to nationhood, which clash so directly with Palestinian claims?
Nations have rights, and do not lose these rights when they err. That is why Palestinian leaders are so fearful of acquiescing to Israel’s demand that they recognize Jewish nationhood; among their arguments against the demand, one is paramount: it amounts to recognition of Jewish national rights, a vastly more profound concession than Palestinian moderates’ acknowledgment of Jewish power.
Failure has not yet led to any serious consideration that the premise at the heart of the Palestinian strategy may be wrong. No Palestinian who matters, who shapes opinion or controls militias, is willing to be the first to acknowledge defeat.
And so even as Palestinian public opinion grows weary of the pointlessness of the current struggle, Palestinian politics remain trapped in the lingering uncertainty, an uncertainty that is Hamas’s lifeblood and validation: What if we are giving up too soon? What if a little more pain, a little more sacrifice, will yet redeem and restore all that has been lost?
Few really believe that anymore in Palestine, but none are yet willing to seek another path.