Analysis: Six months of terrorTrying to lump Islamic State’s attacks in Europe with the terror attacks coming out of the Palestinian territories is a misrepresentation

‘Lone wolf intifada’ is not driven by religion, and for now it seems to be waning

A Palestinian Generation Y no longer feels beholden to an increasingly irrelevant PA leadership; instead, it increasingly supports ‘Israstine’ — one state for two peoples

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.

Palestinians protest in front of Israeli security forces as they mark Land Day outside the compound of the Israeli-run Ofer prison near Betunia in the West Bank on March 30, 2016. (Flash90)
Palestinians protest in front of Israeli security forces as they mark Land Day outside the compound of the Israeli-run Ofer prison near Betunia in the West Bank on March 30, 2016. (Flash90)

Six months have elapsed since the “lone wolf” intifada began. In those six months, 33 Israelis and foreign nationals people have been killed by Palestinian assailants, and there have been roughly 270 terror attacks and attempted terror attacks of various kinds, including shootings, car rammings and stabbings. Some 200 Palestinians have been killed in the same period, more than two thirds of them in the act of trying to attack Israelis, and others in clashes with Israeli troops. More than 270 terrorists have participated in these attacks — which amount to more than one per day on average. And yet, some still insist on calling this phenomenon a “wave,” perhaps in an attempt to create hope that it will soon disappear.

The wave refuses to disappear, but it has declined significantly in recent weeks. There have been fewer attacks and fewer terrorists setting out to stab people or run them over, and there has been less incitement to carry out such attacks.

It is true that on Fridays, one can still find Palestinian demonstrations against the occupation, but these demonstrations have been taking place since before October 2015, when the violence began.

Just for comparison’s sake, 62 terror attacks (or attempted attacks) were recorded in October 2015, according to Israel’s defense establishment, including shootings, stabbings, rammings and bombs. Forty-eight were recorded in November, 45 in December, 26 in January 2016, 30 in February and 20 in March (as of March 30).

While the drop in numbers is, of course, significant and encouraging, the March figure is still at least four times greater than the average number of attacks that took place in the months that preceded this current wave of terror.

A knife used in a Palestinian stabbing attack in Givat Ze'ev on Wednesday, January 27, 2016 (Foreign Ministry/Twitter)
A knife used in a Palestinian stabbing attack in Givat Ze’ev on Wednesday, January 27, 2016 (Foreign Ministry/Twitter)


So why call this an intifada when it bears no resemblance whatsoever to the characteristics of the first and second ones?

The word “intifada” loosely translates as a kind of outburst or shaking off. It seems that a kind of outburst or “shaking off” has been taking place here: hundreds of young Palestinians, twenty-something on average, have attempted to shake off anything that resembles the society and the place in which they live. They are trying to shake off the traditional patriarchal framework where their father and the clan chief tell them what to do, the Palestinian organizations that have led them to destruction, the loathed Palestinian Authority, and, of course, the Israeli occupation.

This is the intifada of the Palestinian Generation Y — all those young men with styling gel in their hair, talking on smartphones, and following Facebook and other social networks, but drawing inspiration from the mosque, from the television channels of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, from the buzz on the street, from the pool hall or from school, sometimes out of a desire to imitate their friends who committed terror attacks.

But in recent weeks and perhaps months, we have seen that the “flag of the revolution” that this generation bears does not attract other parts of the Palestinian population; the vast majority have stayed home. While those on “the street” may see those who perpetrate terror attacks as heroes, they are in no rush to go out and get killed in the sort of attack that typifies this new intifada.

Maybe the media outlets that identify with Fatah put it best when they used the Arabic word hibah, “outbreak.” It is not an actual intifada, but rather an unplanned, spontaneous outbreak of young people who are not led by any particular organization; they are young people with no leadership and certainly no strategic or tactical plan.

Palestinian youths clash with Israeli security forces in Qabatiya, a town near Jenin in the northern West Bank, on February 4, 2016. (Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP)
Palestinian youths clash with Israeli security forces in Qabatiya, a town near Jenin in the northern West Bank, on February 4, 2016. (Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP)

Underprivileged youth

It is difficult to describe or typify these young people in a single word. They are not particularly poor or deprived. They come from many different parts of the West Bank, except for the large refugee camps. Some of them come from well-to-do families; most do not.

Perhaps what stands out the most about them is that many (at least those who were arrested and interviewed) hoped or believed perpetrating a terror attack would increase their prestige in Palestinian society. They expected to become the heroes of the village or the neighborhood from which they came.

The “lone wolf” intifada was at first attributed to an Islamic aspect linked to the incidents on the Temple Mount. Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel’s trip to pray there in September 2015, which was circulated in a YouTube video, played a starring role on the Palestinian social networks. More and more terrorists went out to commit attacks, mainly in Jerusalem, in order to “defend Al-Aqsa.” But after just a few weeks, the Temple Mount fell from the headlines and Hebron took the lead in the growing number of attacks, especially stabbing attacks.

When young Palestinians were asked why knives had become the symbol of this intifada, they cited availability, not Islamic State. Knives were a weapon found in every home, like cars, which were used in ramming attacks — and, less commonly, the homemade or craft-produced Carl Gustav submachine gun, or “Carlo,” the most popular in the territories.

Anyone trying to lump Islamic State’s terror attacks in Europe together with the terror attacks coming out of the Palestinian territories ended up with a misrepresentation that was far from reality. Religious zeal is not the leading factor here.

So what made them go out to commit terror attacks? Perhaps their uncertain economic situation, nationalistic motives and the lack of hope, as well as the personal psychological motive. But as odd and, perhaps, slightly sick as it may sound, the main reason was a desire for social prestige, a wish to be “cool.”

All too many young Palestinians wanted to become shahids — martyrs — like their friends who had gone before them. They saw how an entire society glorified the phenomenon (mainly in the first months of the intifada), the glowing reports on the various television channels, the posters, the status bestowed on families whose sons had been killed during terror attacks — they wanted to be part of it as well. The attacks were their way of climbing up from the bottom of the social ladder to the status of a hero or heroine.

A statistic that may explain quite a bit about these young people’s motives is the noted decrease in the number of young Palestinians in the Hebron area who committed suicide for psychological reasons over the past half year.

Mahmoud Abbas speaking to Israeli television, in an interview aired on March 31, 2016. (Screen capture: Channel 2)
Mahmoud Abbas speaking to Israeli television, in an interview aired on March 31, 2016. (Screen capture: Channel 2)

The Palestinian Authority’s dual role

The Islamic motive among the attackers is far from strong. It is mostly a myth created around this outbreak — and perhaps this is the place to mention the assumptions that became entrenched among the leaders of the political echelon and, following that, the general public.

It should be emphasized that the Israeli security forces gave no support at all to these myths or basic assumptions that politicians and media personalities, mainly from the right, constantly invoke.

Decision-makers in the Israeli government and the right-wing parties have said time and again that incitement by the Palestinian Authority and its president Mahmoud Abbas were responsible for the violent outbreak. While this statement is not completely accurate, it is not divorced from reality either. There is plenty of incitement in the Palestinian media, including from outlets belonging to the Palestinian Authority and Fatah’s Facebook pages. But — and this is a big “but” — this incitement is not the main reason, or even one of the main reasons, for what has been happening here over the past several months.

Young Palestinians have become fed up with the Palestinian Authority and do not watch or follow its media outlets or those of Fatah. It is true that Abbas has not condemned the terror attacks, but in reality, few young Palestinians care in the slightest whether he condemns them or not. Abbas did not encourage terror attacks, and he also did not state clearly that he opposed them. One of the toughest problems that the State of Israel has to deal with is that Palestinian teenagers care nothing about what the positions of the Palestinian Authority or its leader may be.

On the other hand, almost everyone who (justly) criticized the Palestinian Authority for its part in encouraging terror attacks has ignored the critical role it played in stopping terror attacks. The PA has prevented dozens of stabbing, ramming and shooting attacks during these past six months, arrested Hamas and Islamic Jihad operatives who had been planning serious attacks inside the Green Line, and recently, at least, even prevented popular demonstrations against Israel.

This is the Palestinian Authority’s dual role and Israel’s dilemma: The PA engages in incitement on the one hand, but in preventing attacks on the other. This can also be seen in the ambiguous policy of Abbas himself, who says at every turn that he is opposed to violence, but refuses to condemn the terror attacks in the current intifada. Yet in recent months, even he has realized the danger that a deterioration on the ground will bring, mainly when Hamas is the one trying to take advantage of it in order to weaken the PA.

It is also the reason why Abbas made members of Fatah’s youth movement cease the demonstrations that they had been leading in recent weeks, and why, in recent months, he gave clearer orders to his security agencies to try and prevent terror attacks.

The tone coming out of Ramallah has changed and this can be reflected in the fact that the situation on the ground is calming down. The most outstanding example of this is the PA’s attempts to embark on PR campaigns in places disposed to trouble such as Qabatiya, near Jenin, and Sa’eer, near Hebron. The PA’s intensive PR activity in schools in these villages has stopped a number of people from setting out to commit terror attacks. The incitement from Fatah- and PA-owned media outlets has weakened as well, though it has not stopped completely.

The bottom line is that, however unfortunately for politicians on the right who may wish differently, the State of Israel still needs Abbas’s help in dealing with the escalation in the West Bank.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, leads the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office, Jerusalem, January 17, 2015. (Amit Shabi/POOL)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, leads the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office, Jerusalem, January 17, 2015. (Amit Shabi/POOL)

The debate in Israel

Of course, the decrease in the number of attacks is not due to the Palestinian Authority’s actions alone. Credit must be given to the Israeli side as well.

The highly cautious behavior on the part of Israel in terms of affecting ordinary life of the Palestinian population as a whole prevented a large-scale deterioration and kept the Palestinian public from joining in. But beyond that, the incidents of this escalation or outbreak also threw into sharp relief the large differences between the approaches of Israel’s political echelon and those of its defense establishment.

If the former sought to blame the Palestinian Authority and its leader for the situation, the latter saw that the PA was playing a critical role in calming things down. The defense establishment also favored keeping various relief measures in place and avoiding causing harm to the population as a whole.

The defense establishment also refuses to go along with the myth being promulgated by some right-wing politicians, that Islamic State and radical Islam are at the center of this intifada. As far as home demolitions, there is agreement between the political and defense echelons that they are at least a partial deterrent, but there is still dispute when it comes to the issue of holding on to the terrorists’ bodies. While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and others see this as an effective measure in the fight against terrorism, defense officials fear that doing so could lead to a renewed escalation in violence.

But the toughest debate between the political and defense echelons is about the measures that should be taken to bring the outbreak to an end — in other words, the peace process.

While the defense establishment believes that more gestures must be made toward the PA and the Palestinian population, including resuming peace talks, the Israeli government is almost sweepingly opposed to that stance, certainly as far as talks with the PA are concerned. Does that stem only from disagreement on pure security issues or from a conflict between a professional approach to the issue and political decision-makers seeking to placate their voters? Either way, it does not seem that the dispute will be resolved anytime soon.

Palestinians hurl stones at Israeli police officers (unseen) in East Jerusalem (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Palestinians hurl stones at Israeli police officers (unseen) in East Jerusalem (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

So, where are we heading?

Despite the ebbing of the current outbreak, quite a few elements on the ground are working to revive it and even bring about an even bigger escalation. Hamas is, of course, first among them. The same group that is keeping things relatively quiet in the Gaza Strip is doing everything possible to make the situation worse in the West Bank.

For example, the defense establishment has prevented 140 significant terror attacks since October 1, 2015, including shootings, kidnappings, bombings and suicide attacks. Hamas was responsible for most of them.

The murder of the three Israeli teenagers kidnapped in 2014 led to a severe deterioration in Gaza and finally to war. Now we can only imagine what would happen if several of the terror attacks that were prevented over the past half-year had taken place. What would have happened if the Hamas cell that was uncovered in Abu Dis roughly two months ago had succeeded in committing the suicide attack inside Israel that it planned?

The bad news does not end with Hamas and its efforts to undermine the situation in the West Bank. The future of the Palestinian Authority seems particularly bleak. The current violence has proved in many ways how much Abbas’s era in the territories is over, and how badly the path he led toward a peace agreement with Israel failed. He himself no longer believes that it is possible to reach a peace agreement with Israel (as long as Netanyahu is in power), and for many young Palestinians, he and the PA are no longer relevant.

No one can guess what will happen the day after Abbas steps down. After hinting over the past year that he might resign, he now says that he has no intention of doing so. But he turned 81 last week, and public support for him is very weak. If he should step down from the presidency for whatever reason, it will take some time until Fatah manages to appoint a successor who will stabilize the system — if Fatah manages to do so at all.

The worst news of all, at least for some of the people in Israel and on the Palestinian side, may be that the two-state solution has been shelved. No one in the Palestinian or the Israeli leadership really believes that a peace agreement based upon two states can be reached anytime soon. Even if the leaders of both sides were to arrive at such an agreement, with more than 400,000 Jews living in settlements, the scenario of an Israeli pullout from Judea and Samaria seems unrealistic.

On the Palestinian side, at least, people everywhere, particularly young people, are expressing major support for the idea of “one state for two peoples,” even if that state should be called Israel at first. As they see it, in another few decades, with a solid Palestinian majority, the name of the state can be changed to the State of Israstine. And, come the day, just Palestine.

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