SA’IR, West Bank — It is early afternoon in the center of this village near Hebron — a village that was home to the highest number of Palestinians killed in violence against Israel over the past five months (in proportion to the population). Twelve youngsters from Sa’ir, a village of some 18,000 that lies five miles northeast of Hebron, have died in this latest wave of terror and violence, some when carrying out attacks, others in clashes with Israeli troops.

Surprisingly, at first, however, we see no posters of shahids, or “martyrs,” on the village walls. In most every village, city and refugee camp, posters hail the local shahids. But not here.

Three youngsters are the first to approach us. One of them introduces himself as Muataz Shalada. He is 20 years old, and knew two of the 12. “Their brother was a friend of mine,” he says. Although he works in Israel, Shalada does not hesitate to say what everybody in Sa’ir says when asked about the “martyrs”: “We are proud of them. They defended the homeland.”

A group of 10 to 15 young people stands on an incline at the side of the road nearby, watching the goings-on in the center of the village. They seem bored, but many of them refuse to be interviewed.

Khaled, at 32 the oldest of the group, married and the father of four, is drawn in when I ask what has made Sa’ir such a source of attackers.

“Do you see all these young people around us?” he says. “They’re all unemployed. Sometimes they enter Israel illegally (to seek work), but they have no work permits. I don’t have one either. I never did anything wrong. I’ve never been in jail. Nobody in my family has been in jail or done anything, but they won’t give me a work permit.” How does he make a living? “I drive people around in this car.” Khaled points to a vehicle with yellow Israeli license plates — a stolen car that has become an illegal taxi.

He launches into a diatribe against Israeli soldiers: “I tell you, today they are shooting people for no reason. Anyone who has a knife gets killed. Anyone who drives a little fast near soldiers gets shot. If I could make a decent living, why would I stab anybody? For Netanyahu? For Abu Mazen? What do I care about them?”

In the circle of friends, many nod in agreement.

Why are the attackers in this latest violence using knives, I ask. What happened to the symbols from the past — stones and rifles?

“Every home has knives. That’s all. Same with cars. They’re right there, they’re convenient. But it’s not because of the influence of Islamic State, like people say sometimes. That’s nonsense.”

And these attackers, these are heroes? Why?

“For us, anyone who shoots or stabs Jews is a hero. Why? Because they resisted the occupation. We don’t want violence; ultimately, we want peace. But these shahids resisted the occupation, so we consider them heroes. And again I say to you: If these people had jobs, there would be no problems at all. I knew some of them, and I know what I’m talking about.”

“Ultimately they want peace.” Does that mean alongside or in place of Israel? When I ask whether they are in favor of the two-state solution, they repeat what young people are saying in every corner of the territories.

“We want one state,” says Issam, one of the youngsters, who sports a pointy hairstyle that requires even more styling gel than the norm. “That would be better. I have no problem living with Jews.”

I ask how much of a role official and unofficial media played in inciting Sa’ir’s young “shahids.”

“It’s true that Facebook and the various television stations play a role,” Khaled says. “But there would still be problems even if Facebook didn’t exist. You see the things on the Al-Aksa channel, or on Al-Quds (the Hamas television station), and it’s infuriating.”

What is the most popular channel?

“The Playstation,” says Issam, getting belly laughs from the whole group.

Stopping the terror attacks

The first resident of Sa’ir to carry out a knife attack on an Israeli target last year was 22-year-old Raed Jaradat. He was killed by the Israeli troops who thwarted him on October 26, 2015. His cousin Iyad Jaradat, who allegedly tried to attack Israeli soldiers, was killed later that same day. Fadi al-Frugh was killed several days after that, in early November. At 27, he was somewhat older than the others.

The father of Raed Jaradat and the father of Daania Arshid embrace after 'betrothing' their dead children to each other to be married as 'martyrs' in heaven, October 31, 2015. (screenshot: YouTube)

The father of Raed Jaradat and the father of Daania Arshid embrace after ‘betrothing’ their dead children to each other to be married as ‘martyrs’ in heaven, October 31, 2015. (screenshot: YouTube)

The attacks continued. Another young man was killed in late November. After a lull lasting slightly more than a month, another eight young people from the village were killed in a series of incidents and terror attacks in a matter of weeks through mid-January. Perhaps the best-known of these, which took place on January 7, was an attempted terror attack by three teenagers from the same family: brothers Mohannad and Ala Kawazbe and their cousin Ahmed Kawazbe, armed with knives, who were caught on security cameras at the Etzion bloc junction coming from the direction of the village of Beit Fajjar toward the soldiers at the junction. They were shot dead. That same night, another young man from Sa’ir tried to stab soldiers at the nearby Beit Einun junction and was killed as well. As of this writing, there had been no more incidents or fatalities since mid-January.

Scene of an attempted stabbing near the Etzion bloc junction in the West Bank on January 7, 2016. (Etzion Bloc Regional Council)

Scene of an attempted stabbing near the Etzion bloc junction in the West Bank on January 7, 2016. (Etzion Bloc Regional Council)

The mayor of Sa’ir pronounces himself baffled by the surge, but has explanations for the decline.

“There was no visible reason why these young people chose the path that they did,” says Ka’id Jaradat, a former colonel in the Palestinian Authority’s security agencies who was elected mayor on the Fatah list in 2012.

“I have no doubt that the story of the Al-Aksa Mosque” — the PA-disseminated allegation that the holy site is in danger — “as well as other videos circulating on the Internet, had an influence on many of the young people here,” says Jaradat, who also served as a PA diplomat in several African countries, in an interview in his office in the municipality building. “One video showed a young woman who had been killed and her body disrobed when it was searched,” he charged, “and that got people very angry. The slogan ‘Defend your sister’ spread on Facebook, and that got the young people up in arms.”

Sa'ir Mayor Ka'id Jaradat (YouTube screenshot)

Sa’ir Mayor Ka’id Jaradat (YouTube screenshot)

Jaradat echoes the accusation that Israeli troops fire readily at all suspects, and says soldiers behave coarsely at the roadblocks, which fuels attacks.

But why Sa’ir? What made all those young people from this village do what they did?

“I don’t rule out any possibility,” Jaradat says. “Most of them were unemployed. On top of that, they had no political horizon. I tell you: I want peace, and I see Israel as a partner. But when I’m unable to bring any achievements to my constituency, they tell me: Get out of the way, let me act, you haven’t managed to do a thing.

“The economy is ruined. The closures on the village have had their effect. And remember: all those people who were killed did not go to Tel Aviv or to (Jerusalem’s) Jaffa Road (to carry out attacks). They did it here, at the entrance to the village. So what made them do it? Despair. Lack of hope. You see it all over the Middle East.

“And if Israel uses only force, that harms coexistence and only makes the despair more powerful. The military pressure on the population here has made the situation even more tense. Social media has had a damaging effect as well. So has the concept of the blood feud. Since most of the (attackers) were members of the same families, that possibility cannot be ruled out.”

‘A pupil who does well in his studies, who gets a full education, is the one who shows true steadfastness. He is actually the one who is protecting the Palestinians’ right to this land’

And why have the attacks halted of late? Jaradat describes an unusual measure taken by the Palestinian Authority, in coordination with the local village municipality, to try to prevent future attacks — a measure that seems to be working.

“I’m raising my son to become an engineer, let’s say, or a teacher. He should live in peace with his family, not go out to shoot anybody or engage in a terror attack. That was our message to everybody here in the village after all those shahids,” says Jaradat. “We conveyed a message to the Israeli side as well: that it needed to do everything possible to keep from killing young people, even if they were holding knives.

“The (PA’s) governor of Hebron came to the village, and we arranged a large meeting with all the dignitaries, clerics, teachers, school principals, representatives of the security agencies,” the mayor continues. ““Our message to all of them was: ‘We want our children alive.’ My message as a leader and representative was, ‘I don’t want the young people to commit attacks. I want them to live. Let’s keep our blood. We don’t need or want there to be shahids every day.’

“We conveyed this message to the young people via the schools and the mosques. We’ve tried to calm things down. Our goal was that people would work voluntarily for calm, for quiet. And when the army removed some of the roadblocks around the village, that also helped to calm things down.”

What exactly did the authorities do in the schools? “The teachers and the principals did not speak out against the shahids. We never intended anything like that. But they did convey the message that a pupil who does well in his studies, who gets a full education, is the one who shows true sumud (steadfastness). He is actually the one who is protecting the Palestinians’ right to this land. In other words, those who remain are the successful ones. Not those who die. Those who die are gone, finished.

“The same was done in the mosques. We stated clearly that we wanted our sons alive and the village to go back to being ‘under control.’ We conveyed messages using the local media outlets. We even told the families of the shahids that we wanted no incitement.

“So yes, we are completely disappointed in the political situation. But everybody, including the Israelis, must understand that despite that, we want our children alive. You talk a lot among yourselves about incitement and blame President Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas). But that’s not it. He is working for calm, and speaks and acts without equivocation or vague messages. Our security agencies are working to keep things calm and for a return to nonviolent resistance.”

And yet the shahids are still considered heroes here, I note. “Look: we’re a traditional society. Shahada (martyrdom) is a supreme value. And yes, people’s admiration for the shahids is very high, the highest it can be. For these young people who were killed, the way they saw it is: ‘If I didn’t get heaven on earth while I was alive, I’ll get it when I’m buried.’”

As we leave the municipality building, we see, finally, a poster bearing the images of the three “shahids” from the January 7 attempted terror attack at the Etzion Junction. The poster, which bears Fatah’s logo, reads: “The three martyrs from the heroic Etzion attack.” And here, in one place at one moment, we could feel how equivocal and confusing is the message to Sa’ir’s youth: On the one hand, the municipality is taking a leading role in working against the terror attacks, while on the other, it is here, of all places, that we see a poster extolling the attackers and their deeds.

The children

That confusing, indeed contradictory attitude, is reflected not only in the statements of people like Khaled and Mayor Jaradat. Everybody here hails “our heroes”; everybody emphasizes that most of the village’s inhabitants want to live quietly with the Israelis and avoid more violence.

‘True, it’s an honor to be a shahid, but what for?’

A group of teenagers stands at the side of the road near the village high school. Mohammed Shalada, 16, also refers to the young people who were killed as “heroes who defended their homeland.”

His friend Ahmed Shalada, 18, agrees. “They showed that we will not allow provocations. Every Palestinian takes pride in them. They felt despair and saw that nobody, not even the Palestinian Authority, could help.”

So would you, too, want to do as they did?

“No, of course not,” says Ahmed. “I have no desire to be a shahid. We gained nothing from these terror attacks. I want to live, and live as well as possible. True, it’s an honor to be a shahid, but what for? Who cares about that? It may have made them be seen as heroes and be thought of as ‘great,’ but I want to live. That’s all.”

So what will put a stop to the attacks?

“What will put a stop to it? Only peace.”