Suicide Stabbings: A New Chapter in Palestinian Violence

The readiness of young Palestinians to attack, knowing they face a good chance of dying, has fundamentally changed the situation in Israel and the territories.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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A Palestinian posing as a journalist stabs an Israeli soldier with a knife before being shot dead near the West Bank city of Hebron, October 16, 2015.
A Palestinian posing as a journalist stabs an Israeli soldier with a knife before being shot dead near the West Bank city of Hebron, October 16, 2015.Credit: Reuters
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The five stabbing attacks by terrorists on Saturday, one in Jerusalem and four in the West Bank, support the conclusion that had been reached over recent days: In the third week of the current wave of violence, the end doesn’t appear to be on the horizon.

There have been increases and decreases in the daily number of incidents (although Thursday was the only day without a stabbing attack over the past 11 days). The size of the crowds at Palestinian demonstrations in the West Bank and on the Gaza Strip border has been on the decline for a number of days. And yet there are no signs that the escalation has been halted, or that it will happen in the near future.

Therefore, even if the heat of the confrontation is lower than during the first month of the two previous intifadas (which broke out in 1987 and 2000, respectively); even if the number of Palestinians taking part in the demonstrations and violent incidents is immeasurably smaller; even if the Palestinian laborers continue to leave the West Bank to work in Israel in almost normal fashion; and even if trade between the territories and Israel has not undergone a real change, it’s clear that a different situation is developing here. Its most prominent characteristic is the stabbing attacks – most, but not all, of which have been committed by residents of East Jerusalem.

The readiness of three, four or even five young Palestinians a day to attack, knives in hand, in the clear knowledge that they face a good chance of dying has fundamentally changed the situation in Israel and the territories. This is imposing an atmosphere of fear in the streets and on buses, and has required the diversion of police and military troops to the heart of cities and to areas where Arab and Jewish populations meet.

The level of alert at which the police and Israel Defense Forces personnel find themselves presently has meant that most stabbing attempts have been foiled or the terrorist shot and killed immediately after wounding someone. For the time being, this isn’t deterring the next assailants. This element – the readiness of many people to put themselves at risk and face death – is creating the fundamental change in circumstances of recent weeks.

During the second intifada (which ran until 2005), when terrorists set out to commit shooting attacks and suicide bombings in the heart of cities, the staff of the IDF Intelligence Corps and the Shin Bet security service dubbed the phenomenon “sacrifice attacks.” That’s very similar to what is happening at the moment, but with knives instead of guns and bomb belts – although the prolongation of the violence is leading to an accumulation of intel regarding the intention of terrorist organizations to also initiate attacks using live fire.

Just as at the beginning of the second intifada, the disparity between the number of Israelis and Palestinians being killed – seven Israelis compared to at least 39 Palestinians – is even further fueling Palestinian anger, along with the desire to inflict greater losses on the Israeli side. And the fact that more than half the Palestinian fatalities are terrorists who attempted to stab or run over Israelis isn’t changing the Palestinian perspective.

In any event, the Palestinians have presented several of the fatalities as innocent victims of Israeli violence, and the disparity in casualty numbers has also led the U.S. State Department to criticize Israel, taking note of reports of excessive use of force on Israel’s part – a statement that left the impression that President Barack Obama has been trying to walk it back a bit.

The numerous stabbing attacks in the West Bank city of Hebron has not surprised the army. First of all, as with Jerusalem, it’s a city in which Palestinians and Israelis are in close proximity, producing numerous opportunities for stabbings – unlike other West Bank cities, where the lines of separation are clearer.

Secondly, one of the first things that any new IDF brigade commander learns when he takes up a position in the area is that Hebron operates to a different clock. The city belatedly stirs itself to action reacting to developments in the field, but then does so with greater force than in other cities. That is what has been happening in Hebron lately. It can also be assumed that the fact that East Jerusalem, which has led the confrontation up to now, is home to thousands of families originally from Hebron is contributing to the passions in the West Bank city itself.

The assessment by the defense establishment over the weekend is that the stabbings are expected to continue in the coming days. Nevertheless, at this point Israel is not taking reactive steps of the kind it took during the previous intifadas. Palestinians, for example, will continue to come to work in Israel this week, without being subject to new limitations such as closing off Palestinian areas. But if there are additional Israeli fatalities in the coming days, the political mood could become more extreme and influence the decision makers.

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