As Palestinian violence recedes, some question if lull can hold

A social media echo chamber creates a sense of an intifada run wild, but it’s not clear that those cheering terror attacks are also willing to carry them out

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.

Thousands of Muslims pray in front of the Dome of the Rock on the compound known to Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif and to Jews as Temple Mount during the second Friday of the holy month of Ramadan in Jerusalem's Old City, June 17, 2016. (Suliman Khader/Flash90)
Thousands of Muslims pray in front of the Dome of the Rock on the compound known to Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif and to Jews as Temple Mount during the second Friday of the holy month of Ramadan in Jerusalem's Old City, June 17, 2016. (Suliman Khader/Flash90)

Eight and a half months after the “lone-wolf intifada” — or the Al-Quds Intifada, as Hamas refers to it — began amid scuffles on the Temple Mount and prayers by Knesset members there, the area received a visit that was unexpected given the political circumstances: Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah attended prayers in Al-Aqsa Mosque on Saturday afternoon, accompanied by Palestinian general intelligence chief Majd Faraj and Preventive Security Service head Ziad Hab al-Rieh.

The visit was coordinated with Israel’s security establishment. It went off without a hitch. So did the prayer services of the second Friday of Ramadan 24 hours before, which were attended by 80,000 worshipers. The prayer services of the previous week, the first Friday of Ramadan, also took place quietly, with no unusual incidents.

This may sound surprising considering the terror attack that took place a week and a half ago at the Sarona Market in Tel Aviv in which four people were killed, or considering all the incitement and hate speech filling social media.

But things are relatively quiet throughout the West Bank. While stones and firebombs have been thrown, there are almost no organized demonstrations or riots except for specific memorial days (Nakba Day, Naksa Day and so on). The number of terror attacks continues to decline significantly compared with the terrible final months of 2015.

Israeli security forces at the scene of a deadly shooting attack at the Sarona Market shopping center in Tel Aviv, June 8, 2016. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)
Israeli security forces at the scene of a deadly shooting attack at the Sarona Market shopping center in Tel Aviv, June 8, 2016. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Thus, for example, according to statistics on the Shin Bet’s website, there were 67 terror attacks and significant terror attacks in May (including firebombs), while there were 483 in October 2015. These numbers are similar to those of particularly quiet months over the past two years, such as March 2015 (61) or July 2015 (66). Something odd is happening on the Palestinian street: on the one hand, public opinion’s hatred of Israel and of the Palestinian Authority as well appears to be greater than ever. But on the other hand, things have calmed down on the ground and the number of terror attacks continues to drop. How can this be explained?

“If you look at Facebook pages of the young people and of the public in general, and also according to public opinion polls, you might easily think that dozens of people were waiting with bomb belts, knives, and rifles, ready to engage in terror attacks,” one Palestinian commentator told The Times of Israel. “But many times, Facebook creates an illusion, and both you and we do not understand that. There is a wide gap between the statements being made on the social networks or in public opinion polls and people’s willingness to act. And since the beginning of this year, at least, around January and February, we can see and fewer and fewer young people are willing to be killed carrying out these terror attacks.

A post on the Fatah Facebook page celebrating a female terrorist. (Screen capture Palestinian Media Watch)
A post on the Fatah Facebook page celebrating a female terrorist. (Screen capture Palestinian Media Watch)

“In the end, we need to understand that there is a difference between praising the Al-Quds Intifada or the attacks in Tel Aviv and the willingness to engage in a terror attack. Most of the public, and even most of the young people, prefer to continue working or studying and not be killed. What for? They also realize that the possibility that a stabbing attack will lead to change is close to zero. Also, today anyone who writes on Facebook or anyplace else that he wants to perpetrate a terror attack is arrested right away.”

His colleague sees things a bit differently.

“Many people are willing to take action today. Even violent action. They are fed up with their personal situation and the national situation; this is particularly true of the young people. So yes, the older generation and the middle generation mainly want quiet. But it’s different for the young people, and it could burst out at any moment.”

Why is that not happening? Why is the situation in the West Bank so calm?

“There are quite a few reasons for that. First, the realization that stabbing or ramming attacks bring no benefit. Nothing. So there’s more support now for shooting attacks and even for suicide attacks. Second, this is the Palestinian Authority. The young people see it as part of the problem, not part of the solution. In other words, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas himself came out against these terror attacks when he said that the security services were holding inspections at schools and confiscating knives. Also [intelligence chief Majid] Faraj made similar statements. So people are thinking twice. What benefit will come from something like this if the Palestinian leadership itself is working against anyone who plans or wants to perpetrate terror attacks?

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during a press conference in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, January 6, 2016 (AP/Majdi Mohammed, File)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, January 6, 2016 (AP/Majdi Mohammed)

“Look: in the First Intifada and even in the second, there was at least an attempt in the beginning to guide the public by means of posters or announcements: what would be done on which day. In the latest outbreak, there was nothing. There was no leadership, no guiding voice, no plan. And there are other reasons: this whole incident started around the Al-Aqsa Mosque, with the visit of Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel and the statements that Israel wanted to divide Al-Aqsa. But people saw that this wasn’t really how it was. The visits by the Knesset members stopped, no change was made in the status quo and the restrictions on the worshipers’ ages no longer exist. Israel’s policy has a part in that, too. Take Jerusalem as an example: places from which people set out to commit terror attacks, such as Jabel Mukaber or Issawiya, were put under closure, while other, quieter neighborhoods, continued to enjoy freedom of movement. And this was something that people, even the young people, understood.”

But he sounds far from optimistic. “The situation is still very explosive. The motivation of these young people to fight against Israel and Israelis still exists. But as I see it, the next stage we see will be an outbreak against the Palestinian Authority itself, and against Israel at the same time. The hostility that the young people felt toward the ‘occupation’ is changing its form, and now it is against the PA. They see the PA as a heavy burden that damages the effort toward change and does not benefit it. They follow the incitement on social media, including against Abbas, and it influences them.”

One of the big stars on Palestinian social media is 33-year-old Fadi Elsalameen, who has 530,000 followers. He lives in the United States and was educated abroad; his mother is from Beersheba and his father from Hebron, and he has Israeli residency. From where he lives abroad, he criticizes Abbas and his sons, various high-ranking PA officials and Hamas as well. The only one who has escaped his critical remarks is Mohammed Dahlan, Abbas’s chief rival.

Posted by ‎Fadi Elsalameen (فادي السلامين)‎ on Sunday, May 22, 2016

Elsalameen quotes extensively from essays written by Dahlan’s close associates (such as Hassan Asfour). Palestinian security officials say that they have proof of the connection between Elsalameen and Dahlan. And that is only part of the problem that the PA deals with on Facebook or on Twitter: criticism on these social networks is not aimed solely at Israel but also against Hamas, or against Abbas and the PA, as well.

So Fatah and the security services are leading opposing campaigns over social networks, but the battle is doubtless almost a lost cause from the start in light of the terrible frustration and hostility that the young people feel toward Abbas. And that is also part of the problem for whoever seeks to understand the situation in the Palestinian arena (or any other arena) at present. For some time, Facebook and Twitter have not been a true reflection of public opinion in the media. They are often influenced by organized and orchestrated campaigns.

Meanwhile, it is almost business as usual in the West Bank. As we learn from the high-ranking Palestinian officials’ visit to the Temple Mount, security coordination continues, even more strongly. Despite all the statements made by the PLO’s upper echelon, the PA’s security services are keeping close cooperation with Israel on the ground.

The unending discourse around the identity of Abbas’s successor also refuses to subside. Marwan Barghouti has succeeded in marking himself as the leading candidate for the presidential elections, though it is doubtful whether such elections will take place even if Abbas cannot continue functioning or announces his retirement. Barghouti has also succeeded in creating a feeling that he has a specific plan that will bring about change in the status quo, a plan that was published in these pages approximately a month ago. Incitement against Israel continues, as stated, but it is also accompanied by incitement against the PA. Violence is declining, and the toughest and most problematic question of all is whether the terror attack in Tel Aviv might signal a change in direction of the Palestinian attacks: beyond stabbing and ramming, back to shootings and bomb belts.

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