Inside story

The Facebook intifada? Many terrorists aren’t on the social network

Who are the attackers, what’s driving them, and where is the ongoing terror surge headed? Here’s what Israel’s security services have established so far

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.

A Palestinian protester uses a slingshot to throw stones towards Israeli security forces during clashes in Beit El, near the West Bank city of Ramallah, on October 11, 2015. (AFP/Abbas Momani)
A Palestinian protester uses a slingshot to throw stones towards Israeli security forces during clashes in Beit El, near the West Bank city of Ramallah, on October 11, 2015. (AFP/Abbas Momani)

Pundits have explained countless times over the past month, including on this site, that part of the current outburst of violence, perhaps even most of it, is the direct result of incitement on Palestinian social media. Again and again, Facebook was singled out as a central driving engine of the latest escalation, which is described in Palestinian media as the “al-Quds [Jerusalem] intifada.”

But from interrogations by Israeli investigators of the terrorists and other attackers arrested following recent attacks, or who were caught on the way to carrying them out, a different and surprising picture emerges.

Many of the attackers do not have accounts on Facebook, or on any other social networks. The online videos urging attacks on Jews have not reached them. They were motivated to strike by incitement of the old variety, the sort that played a dominant role in the last century: conversations, coffeehouse chatter; some television broadcasts, to be sure; but primarily the lightning-fast spread of rumors from mouth to ear. It is these that is triggering a substantial proportion of the latest mobilization against the Jews.

In the past, this phenomenon was called fazaah, an Arabic term for an alarm or loud cry intended to drive its audience to attack. That old mechanism seems to be at the heart of the incitement driving this latest “intifada,” which has seen the instruments of incitement known from as far back as the Arab revolt of 1936 combine with those of modern youths fed by (among other sources) the social networks of 2015.

Social networks are emphatically not absent from the arena. They play a clear role in igniting the passions of the current escalation, Hamas and others are making perniciously adept use of them, but they are apparently not as central as the media has hitherto suggested.

About half of urban Palestinian youth are on Facebook, but in villages and refugee camps the picture is very different. The attackers who came out of the villages of the Hebron region, for example, not only aren’t on Facebook, they often live in homes without regular electricity service.

Rescue personnel evacuate a woman after a stabbing attack in Rishon Lezion. November 2, 2015 (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
Rescue personnel evacuate a woman after a stabbing attack in Rishon Lezion. November 2, 2015 (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

One young woman from a village near Nablus told investigators that her village does not have a steady supply of power, and explained that she decided to carry out an attack when she happened to hear someone saying aloud that Hudai Hashalmoun, a niqab-wearing Palestinian woman who was shot by a Givati soldier in Hebron as she attempted a stabbing attack, was murdered in cold blood, butchered and desecrated. She decided then and there to carry out an attack to avenge the death of a young woman she did not know.

This story is emblematic of another dramatic finding from the interrogations: A number of the attackers set out on their attacks within less than an hour of being exposed to purported news or rumor, whether through online videos or word of mouth, of the “murders” of Palestinians by Israel. Others planned their attacks over time and even filmed their final testaments in videos intended to be broadcast after their deaths.

This fact — that some of the attackers were spurred to action by a simple statement from neighbors and family members, or by graphic pictures from deadly protests or previous terror attacks aired on television — highlights the abiding importance of these traditional platforms in driving the violence. Indeed, the most prominent media outlet cited by the attackers as influencing their decision was Hamas’s al-Aqsa TV, which has a wide following in the West Bank, along with Islamic Jihad’s channel and two others: al-Quds and Palestine Mubasher. All are popular Palestinian television outlets whose broadcasts, Israeli investigators believe, are contributing to the terrorists’ sense of mission.

The Palestinian Authority is working to prevent these outlets’ incitement to violence, but the al-Aqsa channel has been able to bypass the authority’s oversight through the simple expedient of using real-time broadcasts from reporters through their cellphones to deliver the claims that help create the atmosphere of fazaah.

Palestinian stone throwers stand next to burning wood during clashes with Israeli security forces in Shuafat in East Jerusalem on October 5, 2015. (AFP Photo/Ahmad Gharabli)
Palestinian stone throwers stand next to burning wood during clashes with Israeli security forces in Shuafat in East Jerusalem on October 5, 2015. (AFP Photo/Ahmad Gharabli)

The PA has a similarly difficult time controlling the wild frontiers of social media. Here, too, the general view of what has been happening is a little misconceived: The notion that many recently launched Facebook pages calling for a third intifada are the work of individuals, or of local initiatives, is not entirely correct. The role of Hamas in leading this discourse on Facebook is becoming more evident to the security services. Hamas now operates no small number of Facebook pages meant to fire up audiences to a modern-day fazaah. Some pages are based in Gaza and some in the West Bank.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t Facebook pages managed by independent individuals or ordinary Palestinians. But Hamas is now believed to be the dominant force driving the incitement in social media.

At the end of the day, the sheer number of Facebook pages working to inflame tensions has made it difficult for Israeli and Palestinian security services to disrupt the incitement efforts. As soon as one page is closed, many others are opened in its place.

Who are the terrorists?

Israel has collected data on the identities of the attackers. In the past 33 days, 73 Palestinians set out to commit attacks: 24 from Jerusalem and surrounding villages; 47 from the West Bank, 32 of them from the Hebron area, and 20 from the city itself. Just two were Israeli citizens.

Six of the 73 were women. All but two were unmarried. The average age: 20.

City-dwellers outnumber rural Palestinians by almost two-to-one: Forty-five of the attackers came from cities or smaller towns (like Qabatiya), 24 from rural villages, and just four from refugee camps – or, to be exact, from one refugee camp, the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Shuafat.

The Shuafat refugee camp in East Jerusalem. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
The Shuafat refugee camp in East Jerusalem. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

In that last figure lies perhaps the most dramatic difference between the current intifada and those of 1987 and 2000. In the past, the refugee camps were at the forefront of the outbreak of violence and terror, and undertook much of the fighting. Today, despite the dismal economic and social conditions in the camps, they are not actually part of the stabbing intifada. (Shuafat is more representative of the centrality of East Jerusalem in the phenomenon than of refugee camps generally.)

Whereas in the past, tens of thousands of camp residents took to the streets of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, joined the armed cells of Fatah and Hamas and constituted the “spearhead” of the violence, they are only peripheral actors in the protests taking place in the West Bank in recent weeks, and are unambiguously avoiding taking part in the stabbing attacks.

This absence may explain the broader lack of popular participation in the violence, which has thus far been limited to a few thousand activists.

It is hard, and perhaps impossible, to produce a straightforward profile of the “average terrorist” in this escalation. On one level, he is a young, unmarried man from East Jerusalem or Hebron. But as we have learned in recent days, some attackers come from elsewhere, some are women, some are educated and some less so.

Muhannad Halabi, 19, the terrorist who stabbed two Israelis to death in Jerusalem, October 3, 2015 (Facebook image)
Muhannad Halabi, 19, the terrorist who stabbed two Israelis to death in Jerusalem, October 3, 2015 (Facebook image)

Some are social outsiders, while others, like Muhannad Halabi, who began the wave of stabbing attacks with his early October killing of Nehemia Lavi and Aharon Bennett in Jerusalem’s Old City, were socially popular. Among the women, the first female attackers were discernibly drawn from the sidelines of Palestinian society, but the attacks that came later were committed by women from social circles that represent the mainstream of Palestinian society in the West Bank.

These differences from the past, and the diversity of the attackers, make it hard to say where this is all heading. Security officials do not expect any significant reduction in the violence anytime soon, at least not while there is no diplomatic horizon. The reason for that assessment is tied to the Palestinian Authority’s precarious position in this violence. Even as Fatah has disseminated calls for violence, and PA President Mahmoud Abbas has accused Israel of threatening al-Aqsa and falsely charged Israel with executing innocent Palestinians, the PA has been a key factor in blunting incitement and violent opposition to Israel. Without a change in the PA’s interactions with Israel — that is, a new diplomatic initiative that might give it a credible alternative to the violence — it will not be able to continue security coordination with Israel, or to help ensure the struggle remains diffuse and confined to the “popular,” for very long. The latest escalation, in other words, runs a real risk of slipping into an armed intifada.

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