Analysis

Israeli Jew's 'Suicide by Army' Sheds Light on 'Lone Wolf' Palestinian Terror

The method - charging soldiers at a checkpoint with a knife - was a familiar one, but the unnamed victim will become just another sad mental-health statistic

Hizma Checkpoint, northwest of Jerusalem.
Emil Salman

The death of a 19-year-old man at the Hizmeh crossing between East Jerusalem and the West Bank on Tuesday will not be included in the grim statistics of similar deaths in the past 18 months. Like scores of young men and women, he was shot while running toward Israeli soldiers or police officers, waving a knife. Like many of those who came before, he was presumably driven to suicide by a combination of issues. But this young man was Jewish, which means his death will be recorded as a “regular” suicide and not one motivated, or at least complicated, by Palestinian nationalism.

When the wave of “lone wolf” attacks by single Palestinian perpetrators began in late September 2015, the Israeli security establishment quickly realized that traditional anti-terror tactics would be ineffective here. Only an infinitesimal number of these attacks were carried out by members of terror organizations. That meant there was no hierarchy, no cells, no commanders to target.

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One option was to return to the old tack of imposing weeks-long closures that prevented Palestinians in the West Bank from reaching their workplaces in Israel. But since the attacks were being carried out by individuals who accounted for a tiny proportion of the population, and in order not to invite more-widespread disturbances, it was decided not to take collective measures, at least for now. The gamble succeeded. The expected third intifada failed to materialize, and the larger protests all but died out in weeks. But there were still the individual attacks — often two or three, sometimes as many as five, times a day.

A joint task force was set up, led by the Central Command of the Israel Defense Forces, along with the Shin Bet security service and the Israel Police. It included intelligence officers, psychologists and data analysts. The aim was to create a profile, including a behavior pattern, of the typical lone-wolf attacker. The histories of attackers were analyzed, and attackers who had survived and were in custody were interviewed. A key data source was the social-media accounts of young Palestinians, between the ages of 17 and 24, which in many cases were found to contain warning signs of a user’s decision to carry out an attack. Age groups, social denominators and modus operandi quickly emerged, allowing the intelligence services to focus on a relatively small number of suspects, before they even made the conscious decision to take a knife, and to position security forces in the most likely points of friction.

Israeli soldiers secure the main entrance of the Qalandia checkpoint on April 27, 2016.
Nasser Nasser/AP

Six months later, the IDF was confident enough to report a steady decline in attacks. Instead of two or three a day, the rate was down to once or twice a week. Together with the Palestinian security apparatus, potential attackers and their parents were warned, hundreds were arrested for short periods. In some cases, community elders helped in passing on the warnings.

One of the key realizations had been that in a large number of cases, young men and women were being driven to attack Israelis, not out of ideological, nationalist or religious motives, but as a way out of their miserable daily existence.

“It was always the kids who had been bullied. Those with personal and psychological issues. It was like a virus,” explained a senior intelligence officer. “Young people who had problems suddenly found they had a way out by going to the closest checkpoint and trying to stab a soldier. In the hope they would be killed.”

Before long, the psychologists on the team began calling them “suicide by IDF” — a take on the term being used in the United States since the 1980s when an already suicidal person attacks armed police officers — “suicide by cop.” While the exact motives could not always be ascertained, the team’s researchers came to the conclusion that around 50 percent of the perpetrators in over 300 attacks in the 18 months beginning in September 2015 were attempts at “suicide by IDF.” Victims of bullying and sexual abuse; young women who had been forced to marry against their will, even a high-school student who was ashamed to return home with bad grades and a man in his 20s who was enraged by his father’s decision to entrust the family business to another sibling. In all cases, the option of taking a knife and becoming a shahid, a Muslim martyr, instantly transforming themselves from loser to hero, was the fastest and easiest way out.

Perhaps surprisingly, given the stress of Israeli life and the relatively easy access to weapons, Israel’s suicide rate is one of the lowest in the West and is on the decline. As a matter of policy, most Israeli media outlets rarely report suicides, in keeping with a belief among mental-health professionals that reporting encourages “copycat” suicide attempts.

For years, many Israelis suspected a cover-up of a higher suicide rate among soldiers. The army has introduced suicide-prevention programs and become more transparent about reporting suicide statistics. Published research is inconclusive as to whether Israeli soldiers are more likely to attempt suicide than Israelis of the same age who are not in military service.

According to Health Ministry data, the suicide rate among Israeli Arabs is lower than that of Israeli Jews.

In recent years, there have been reports of rising suicide rates in the Palestinian Authority. The official Palestinian suicide numbers are likely lower than the actual number, as the lack of trained mental health professionals and the tendency of families not to publicize contributes to under-reporting. And of course, a young Palestinian killed confronting Israeli soldiers will never be considered a suicide victim, but rather merely one of the 277 Palestinians shot dead since September 2015 in “lone-wolf” attacks that have claimed the lives of 46 Israelis and four foreign nationals.

The death of the 19-year-old Israeli Jew from the northern Jerusalem neighborhood of Pisgat Ze’ev at Hizmeh, in walking distance of his home, will not be added to either list. He was just another troubled young man, like all those Palestinians, taking the easy way out by “suicide by IDF” at the closest checkpoint. One could argue that he was another Israeli victim of this wave of violence, which has not totally died out. But as an Israeli suicide, he doesn’t even get his name in the news. He belongs to another sad statistic.