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Lone-wolf Palestinian terrorists show private gripes now top ideology, say analysts

Ex-officer in Israeli military intelligence says young Palestinians are fed up with ‘the ideologies and the high politics’ and are thus turning to ‘individual efforts’

A woman looks at T-shirts with M-16 rifles printed on them, displayed in a shop window at a market in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on April 20, 2022.  (Abbas Momani/AFP)
A woman looks at T-shirts with M-16 rifles printed on them, displayed in a shop window at a market in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on April 20, 2022. (Abbas Momani/AFP)

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Recent deadly attacks by Palestinians have shown a shift in the dynamics of terrorism in the West Bank, as armed factions play less of a role and individual grievances trump ideology, analysts say.

At a bustling market in the Palestinian political headquarters of Ramallah, customers clamor to get their hands on the latest hot trend.

This season, it is T-shirts printed with an M-16 rifle.

Clothing store manager Ahmed Abu Hamza said he has sold 12,000 of the shirts in the past week.

“The demand is terrifying,” he said.

“It’s the recent conditions in Palestine, especially Jenin,” a terrorist hotbed in the northern West Bank that has seen a wave of arrests by the Israeli army, the 40-year-old said.

A terrorist aims a rifle at a passerby in Bnei Brak, on March 29, 2022. (Screen capture)

It was with an M-16 rifle that gunman Diaa Hamarsheh rampaged through the Tel Aviv ultra-Orthodox suburb of Bnei Brak late last month, killing five people. That was one of four terror attacks by Palestinians and Arab-Israelis since late March that have left 14 people dead.

Over the same period, a total of 23 Palestinians have been killed across the West Bank, many while attempting to carry out attacks.

But while armed factions — from the Islamist Hamas to the secular Fatah party of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas — have long dominated Palestinian terrorism, analyst Jihad Harb said the dynamics are changing.

“Today there is a new post-factional generation, and they are the ones who are taking the initiative,” he said.

“The factions are no longer a revolutionary model, and operations today are motivated by revenge — revenge for a father, brother or a friend, or revenge for any Palestinian who was killed.”

Harb and others also pointed to social and economic grievances as motivating factors.

‘Tired of ideologies’

Three main terror groups are present in the West Bank — Fatah’s armed wing the Al-Aqsa Martyrs brigade, the Gaza-ruling Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a group with close ties to Iran.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad carried out a string of bombings throughout the 1990s, and all three groups claimed responsibility for terror attacks during the Second Intifada between 2000 and 2005.

But in the recent attacks in Bnei Brak and elsewhere in central Israel, observers say there is little evidence of the factions’ involvement.

Members of Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s military wing hold a poster with a photo of Bnei Brak terrorist Diaa Hamarsheh, during a rally against Israel in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, on April 2, 2022. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Michael Milshtein, a former head of Palestinian affairs at Israeli military intelligence, said Palestinian terrorists were operating “with no organizational framework and no deep ideology.”

Young Palestinians “are tired of the slow dance, of the ideologies and the high politics,” Milshtein said “They really want to express themselves, they want to promote individual efforts, they find a way to do this by committing those attacks.”

A senior Palestinian security official, who asked not to be identified, confirmed that the recent attacks were “individual operations.”

But, he said, Palestinian parties and factions “are trying to exploit these operations for their benefit.”

‘Very hard’ to detect

Bader al-Araj, a professor of sociology at Birzeit University near Ramallah, said that the style of attacks “has changed, and it is clear that individualism is what leads.”

Araj wrote his PhD thesis on Palestinian suicide bombings in Israel between 2000 and 2005.

He said today’s terrorism is driven by “social conditions, such as unemployment, lack of hope, frustration, religious motives — therefore their frequency increases in the month of Ramadan.”

The Muslim holy month often sees increased tensions around Jerusalem’s Temple Mount compound which in turn fuel escalations elsewhere. A string of incidents in Jerusalem during Ramadan last year sparked an 11-day war between Israel and Palestinian factions in Gaza after Hamas fired rockets toward the city.

Palestinians chant slogans and wave Hamas flags during a protest against Israel, in front of the Dome of the Rock shrine at the Aqsa Mosque compound atop the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City, on April 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

Milshtein said the shifting dynamics represent a new challenge for Israel, as it is “very hard” to detect plans for individual attacks, “in contrast to organized institutions or organized cells.”

“You need much more complex or qualified intelligence — but it’s only the mosquitos you are dealing with, not the whole swamp.

“If you want to deal with the basic problem… you should promote efforts to improve the situation of the young generation in the West Bank.”

“I’m not saying the roots of the terror attacks are only social or economic,” he said. “But if you improve this situation, maybe you can limit the motives and the number of young Palestinians who want to promote such attacks.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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