Israelis are calling it a ‘new kind of Palestinian terror’ – William Booth, Ruth Eglash/The Washington Post
JERUSALEM — Young Palestinians with kitchen knives are waging a ceaseless campaign of near-suicidal violence that Israeli leaders are calling “a new kind of terrorism.” There were three attacks on Christmas Eve — two stabbings and one car ramming.
There have been about 120 attacks and attempted assaults by Palestinians against Israelis since early October, an average of more than one a day. At least 20 Israelis have been killed; more than 80 Palestinians have been shot dead by security forces and armed civilians during the assaults.
There is a numbing repetition to the news: knife-wielding Palestinian at a military checkpoint or bus stop shot dead at the scene — or “neutralized,” as the Israeli media call it. Many of the assaults or their aftermaths have been captured on cellphone videos.
A review of the incidents since the beginning of October, alongside interviews with Israeli and Palestinian officials, reveal attacks that do not fit into past patterns. There is a sense on both sides that something unprecedented is happening, a shapeless rebellion of individuals driven by an unknowable combination of hate and despair.
The past cycles of violence, the first and second intifadas, the stone throwers in the 1980s and suicide bombers in the 2000s, were embraced by the Palestinian leadership and steered by armed factions. The current uprising appears to be leaderless, the assailants “liked” by friends and followers on Facebook but decoupled from traditional Palestinian politics.
Palestinian officials are struggling to find the words to describe the attacks — calling them “acts” or “events” and the assailants “victims” or “martyrs.” They have been reluctant to publicly encourage the attacks, but they have not condemned the killings or called for them to stop.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently described the violence as “a new kind of terrorism.”
Israeli security forces have not been able to stop the attacks, which are mostly carried out by unmarried youths who decide on their own to pick up a knife or an ax or a potato peeler.
Netanhyahu says the attacks are inspired by radical Islam, but his own military intelligence officers are reluctant to make such a direct link, saying instead that the motivations are a mix of personal and political beliefs.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has called the daily attacks a “justified popular uprising . . . driven by despair that a two-state solution is not coming.”
Israel’s minister of public security, Gilad Erdan, said in an interview that the violence is nearly impossible to forecast and disrupt because, unlike operations directed by groups such as the Islamist militant organization Hamas, there are no cells to penetrate, no phones to tap, no targets for undercover operations. The pool of possible assailants is as large as the number of frustrated Palestinians.
“In the past we could find the organizations and send agents in and try to prevent it before it happened,” Erdan said in an interview. “Today it is individuals making their own decisions.”
The attacks appear to be spontaneous and opportunistic, poorly planned and badly executed — although often deadly. Most attackers display little or no training. The most common weapon is a kitchen knife. The second most common is the family car.
There have also been drive-by shootings and coordinated ambushes, but these number only a few of more than a hundred attacks.
If the death of an Israeli soldier or Jewish settler is what the Palestinian assailants seek, the attacks are often failures. Most victims survive; many of the soldiers, who wear body armor, are only lightly wounded, if at all.
The same is not true for the attackers. Dozens of Palestinian assailants have been shot dead. In most cases, the Palestinians attempted to kill an Israeli, according to Israeli authorities; in a few others, Palestinians say the alleged assailant either did not possess a weapon or posed no serious threat to troops or civilians. In parallel violence, 45 Palestinians have been killed in violent demonstrations against Israeli forces since the beginning of October, as Israel deployed snipers firing live rounds.
Israel defends the harsh countermeasures as legitimate self-defense. Palestinians say that Israel should detain more alleged attackers. The Israeli human rights group Btselem charges that an unwritten “shoot to kill” policy has led to “street executions” of wounded or prone assailants.
At least 20 Israelis have been killed in the knife, vehicular and gun assaults since the beginning of October. An American student, Erza Schwartz, 18, studying at a yeshiva during a gap year, was killed while distributing food to Israeli soldiers in the West Bank. A Palestinian mobile phone salesman, Shadi Arafa, 24, was killed in the same attack while on his way home. An Eritrean refugee was mistakenly shot and then beaten to death by an Israeli mob during an attack at a bus station.
Four of the Israelis killed were active-duty soldiers; several of the dead were in the army reserves, but it is unlikely the assailants would have known this as they were dressed in civilian clothes.
Twelve lived or studied in the Jewish settlements that the international community consider illegal, although Israel disputes this, on lands that Palestinians want for a future state.
The attackers killed six rabbis. Two of the dead were women and six were older than 50; two were men in their 70s.
One of the dead Israelis, Aharon Banita Bennett, 22, was pushing a baby stroller when he was knifed; a couple, Eitam and Naama Henkin, were shot dead in their car in the West Bank, their four children sitting in the back seat.
More than 50 attacks involved teenagers as perpetrators.
The Israeli dead include Nehemia Lavi, 41, a prominent activist for Jewish settlements in the Arab Quarter in Jerusalem’s Old City; another was a peace activist, Richard Lakin, 76, whose Facebook page called for the sides to “co-exist.”
Although the Palestinian leaders say they are committed to nonviolence, they consider the attacks acts of “popular resistance” against the 48-year military occupation by Israel.
“If you slap me, I will react,” said Jibril Rajoub, president of the Palestinian Football Federation and a former chief of security, who on Palestinian television has praised the “bravery and composure” of the assailants.
“This is caused by our humiliation and suffering, under this fascist system, that day and night is trying to eliminate the Palestinian people. This is the source of everything,” Rajoub said. “The only way to discourage this is to give us some hope.”
The attackers sometimes give clues to their motivations on social media, but not always. Some family members praise the acts, and others claim ignorance.
In November, Rasha Ewaisi, 23, approached an Israeli military checkpoint near Qalqilya. Alerted to suspicious behavior, Ewaisi emerged from her car with a knife, Israeli officials said. She was shot immediately.
There was a letter in her purse. “I don’t know what will happen to me at the end of the road,” it read. “I am fully aware of what I am doing. I am [doing this] in defense of my homeland, the young men and women . . . I can’t suffer anymore.”
Mohammad Shtayyeh, director of the Palestinian Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction, insisted, “We’re not sending people out to the streets with knives.”
He said Palestinian authorities “are not initiating the violence. It is the Israelis who are pushing us in that direction.”
Israeli parliamentarian Anat Berko, a criminologist who has written extensively about the motivations of suicide bombers in the Palestinian conflict, sees the “normalization of violence” among youths in Palestinian society, a phenomenon she called “martyr-mania.”
A survey released Monday by the respected pollsters at the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah found that two-thirds of Palestinians support the knife attacks. More than half of those surveyed support armed struggle against Israel and want their leader, Abbas, to resign from office.
American diplomats have called this a recipe for chaos.
“When they look at the Palestinian Authority this young generation sees a dysfunctional authority that is corrupt and does not represent them,” said Kobi Michael, former head of the Palestinian desk at Israel’s Ministry for Strategic Affairs.
“They have no expectation from the Israelis, they feel neglected by the Arab countries and they understand that the international community is more concerned with ISIS or extremist terrorism that it no longer gives attention to the Palestinian issue. They feel very alone.”
“This creates a huge darkness and they want to change or undermine the order, even though they don’t know what should replace it,” he said.