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Why Israel Is Failing to Pick Up the Scent of Lone-wolf Terrorists

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A Palestinian protester kicks a burning tire during clashes between Palestinian youth and the Israeli army in Silwad, December 11, 2015.
A Palestinian protester kicks a burning tire during clashes between Palestinian youth and the Israeli army in Silwad, December 11, 2015.Credit: AFP

In late November, Ashrakat Qattanani – a 16-year-old Palestinian girl from the Askar refugee camp near Nablus – tried to stab two Israeli women at a bus stop in the West Bank city. The former head of the Shomron Regional Council, Gershon Mesika, intentionally hit Qattanani with his car and thwarted the attack. Another civilian, along with Israel Defense Forces soldiers on the scene, shot and killed her.

The father of the girl, Taha Qattanani is a well-known Islamic Jihad activist and preaches in the Askar mosque. When the girl’s identity became known, the Shin Bet security service summoned him for questioning.

Qattanani Sr. told investigators he had no idea about his daughter’s intentions. It seems the Shin Bet accepted his version of events, since he was released soon afterward. Following his release, Qattanani was interviewed on Palestinian television. “The occupier does not ask the right questions at all,” he told journalists. Qattanani said investigators had asked him if his daughter was depressed or suffered from any personal issues. But Ashrakat was actually a happy person and had a good relationship with her parents, he claimed.

The Israelis, he implied, are still searching for the motives of lone-wolf terrorists in the same places where they were found before – personal distress combined with the national struggle. In past years, many of the young people stopped at IDF checkpoints with knives or improvised explosive devices actually went there to be caught. They often saw Israeli prison as a way out of a family crisis, along with a fast track to securing a high school diploma.

But the father of Ashrakat Qattanani says this is no longer the case. While the Shin Bet is still checking out the depressed and frustrated, the new terrorists are a different type of character. Qattanani Sr. admitted he would have been unable to control his daughter or dissuade her from making the attack, even if he had known about her plans in advance.

A new, defiant generation of Palestinians has arisen in the West Bank, one motivated partly by the regular experience of friction with the Israeli security forces and also, in many cases, by religious fervor. This is no longer an intifada of the miserable. Not Israel, not the Palestinian Authority and not even the terrorists’ families have any real control over it.

These terrorists continue to commit attacks – albeit at a slightly lower level recently – nearly three months after the present round of violence began. For now, the relatively small number of casualties on the Israeli side has not deterred them. Neither has the high probability that they themselves will be killed during their attempt, nor the fact that the terror wave has not really achieved anything as of yet – except for a certain undermining of Israelis’ personal security and the resumption of the debate in Israeli society over the future of the territories.

The tension surrounding the Temple Mount served as the main catalyst for the start of the attacks in October, but the impetus has changed since then. Early on, the IDF spoke of a terror wave feeding on itself – dead terrorists spawning copycats in their stead. The effect of this has subsequently increased.

A memorial poster of Ashrakat Qattanani, on a wall in the Askar refugee camp in the West Bank.Credit: Alex Levac

The most commonly used term among Palestinians, as well as in the Palestinian media coverage of events, is “execution.” This is how the killing and wounding of terrorists by the security forces and armed Israeli civilians during attacks is presented. The Israeli version – that in most cases this is the justified prevention of terror while it is occurring – has not convinced the Palestinians. In the eyes of the Palestinian public, these are mostly staged incidents that are exploited to kill innocent young people.

Some public statements by senior PA officials have only fanned the flames. Earlier this week, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas described the violence for the first time as an intifada, and not an “eruption” or “outbreak.” This also suggests Abbas is justifying the violence, even though he continues to send his security forces – starting this week, also those in uniform – to prevent confrontations with IDF soldiers at the exits from the Palestinian cities.

On the Israeli side, the terror attacks still necessitate an increased military presence in the West Bank, along with the strengthening of intelligence gathering. However, the results have remained limited. It is still difficult to locate a lone wolf before they equip themselves with a knife or vehicle for a stabbing or car-ramming attack.

In the background remains the uncertainty concerning the future of the Palestinian Authority. Behind the scenes, the battle to succeed the 80-year-old Abbas has already begun. One of the scenarios worrying Israel is that the two tracks will merge: An all-out-battle for the PA presidency, alongside a slide into more widespread violence on the ground. If this happens, the Palestinian economy could very well collapse, along with the PA’s already limited control on the ground. Despite the regular verbal attacks on Abbas’ leadership, this is the last thing Israel wants right now.