Amid ‘copycat intifada,’ fears of a suicide bombing fad

With Hamas determined to weaken the Palestinian Authority, the Kalashnikov or explosive belt may supersede the knife as a symbol

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Palestinian youth supporting the Hamas movement take part in a rally marking the 28th anniversary of Hamas' founding, in Rafah, southern Gaza strip, December 14, 2015. (Abed Rahim Khatib/FLASH90)
Palestinian youth supporting the Hamas movement take part in a rally marking the 28th anniversary of Hamas' founding, in Rafah, southern Gaza strip, December 14, 2015. (Abed Rahim Khatib/FLASH90)

The fatal attack in Otniel on Sunday night, like Monday morning’s attempted murder in Tekoa, emphasizes just how far Israel and the Palestinians still are from the end of this “intifada of lone wolves.”

That said, it is clear that over recent weeks there has been a decline in the number of stabbing and car ramming attacks, along with riots and even Friday protests.

Only three months ago, those thousands-strong protests had the potential to set the whole West Bank ablaze. But in more recent days, only a few hundred people have been participating in the rallies, partly because of the Palestinian Authority’s more energetic efforts to quell them. And yet, despite the relative slowdown, this week’s attacks show that the wave of violence is not coming to an end.

The limited “success” of the stabbing attacks and the absence of any change in the situation on the ground should have led to a lowering of motivation to carry out attacks, and it is certainly possible that there has been such a decline among some young people.

The problem, however, demonstrated clearly by the events of the last three days, is that there are still enough young people with the will to go out and kill Jews, and potentially die in the process, and apparently their reasons for doing so will not change in the foreseeable future.

The most recent attacks also illustrate the copycat effect in the current intifada. In other words, the motivation does not stem only from nationalist or religious factors; it comes, more than anything else, from social influences: The “success” of one terrorist in the Otniel attack on Sunday provided inspiration to another young Palestinian from Bethlehem to carry out a similar attack hours later.

Whereas in the past, the Temple Mount and its Al-Aqsa Mosque provided the reason for the attacks, the significant drivers today are revenge and the desire to belong socially to one community or another, to be “cool.”

While in Israel or other Western democracies, young people listen to a particular rock band or are fans of certain TV programs, the carrying out of an attack turns some young Palestinian perpetrators into “heroes of the moment” among some in their social circles.

This can also explain the fact that nearly a third of the attacks are concentrated in the Hebron area, where ties to clan, family, friends, mosque or village play a significant role in the way youngsters are inspired to go out and attack. In other words, it isn’t only about Facebook or social networks; it’s about incitement that’s often spread by word of mouth, between members of a mosque or school, between neighbors and, above all, within a family. The death of one of them will almost always bring in its wake another attempted attack by a relative or a friend.

Until now, these copycat attacks have mostly been relegated to stabbings and car rammings. But should Hamas go through with its reported decision to renew suicide bombings and ramp up the number of shootings, all it may take is one especially devastating mass-casualty attack for the knife to be replaced by a Kalashnikov rifle or an explosive belt as the symbol of the struggle.

Hamas knows that only one successful suicide attack within the Green Line is all it will take to sever the last tattered remnants of the ties between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, including security coordination.

Such an attack would bring severe Israeli punitive steps against the authority, weakening it even more, while catapulting the already popular Hamas to a more prominent position in the West Bank.

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