Israel Helpless as Young Knife-wielding Palestinians Run Wild on Its Streets

The government won't call it this, but there's no denying that Israel is facing a third intifada. What makes it different is that it's being carried out by individuals who aren't taking their lead from religious or political figures. And preventive measures run the risk of making matters worse.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Israeli police patrolling at Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem's Old City, March 9, 2016.
Israeli police patrolling at Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem's Old City, March 9, 2016. Credit: AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

One night, a few weeks ago, an Israel Defense Forces unit entered the home of a Palestinian family in a northern West Bank village. According to the Shin Bet security service, the family’s 17-year-old son had bought an improvised "Carlo" rifle. The door was opened by the father of the household, the former head of the village council. He denied the suspicions outright. I know what my children do, he insisted. But a search of the youngster’s room turned up a hidden magazine and the rifle itself. The stunned father managed to slap his son before the soldiers and Shin Bet operatives took him into custody. The IDF officer commanding the unit stayed behind for a short conversation with the father. “I was sad for him,” the officer said this week. “It was obvious that he didn’t have the slightest idea what was going on.”

The third intifada, which this week struck in Jaffa, Petah Tikva and several times in Jerusalem, is a melange of dozens of similar stories. The second intifada, which ended about a decade ago, was a trans-Palestinian struggle. The large-scale demonstrations opposite army checkpoints back then faded out within a few months, but public support in the West Bank and Gaza Strip for the violent confrontation with Israel remained high. The suicide bombers – even those who blew themselves up in the presence of Israeli families dining in restaurants on Shabbat, or amid children on a school bus – were portrayed in the territories as popular heroes. Little was said in public about the damage and destruction the bombers caused Palestinian society in the wake of the harsh measures taken by Israel in response. Many of the terrorists’ parents adopted an aura of defiant pride. They mourned their dead in private, but in media interviews declared that they rejoiced in their sons’ self-sacrifice.

The present round of violence is more complex. Most of the terrorists are relatively young and have no organizational affiliation. Often the parents know nothing about the decisions their son or daughter has made. As Amira Hass noted in these pages, there are suspicious parents who escort their children when they are outside the home, in the hope that this will prevent them from getting into trouble. Even if an individual feels a growing sense of religious piousness leading up to an attack, there are few concrete external indications of this, as witnessed by the saliently Western-style photos posted by young terrorists on their Facebook pages.

In contrast to many of the suicide bombers a decade ago, the perpetrators of stabbing, car-ramming and shooting attacks in the current intifada do not huddle with clerics before setting out on their mission. Psychological preparation for the attack takes place within the social networks or at meetings with two or three friends.

Last October, when the uprising erupted, the religious motive was more prominent, fueled by the fear that Israel was going to seize the Temple Mount shrines. Now, however, religion is confined to the background, and it is mixed with a clear desire to exact revenge on behalf of others who have been killed, and with general frustration at living conditions in the territories. Incitement in the official Palestinian media, which Israeli public diplomacy likes to claim is the cause for the terrorist attacks, is less relevant, both because the Palestinian Authority is tempering the tone somewhat and also because the young generation almost completely ignores the official media. By contrast, the Internet and popular television channels, such as that of Hamas, play a more significant role.

At the same time, Israel’s security coordination with the PA has improved. The defense establishment has stopped submitting complaints to the Palestinians on this subject. For their part, the PA’s security branches are engaged mainly in arresting Hamas squads in the West Bank, some of which have planned serious attacks. The PA has a genuine interest in doing this, as Hamas activity is also aimed ultimately at toppling the government of President Mahmoud Abbas. The monthly warning by the PA’s Saeb Erekat that the authority will end security coordination with Israel is perceived in Jerusalem as an empty threat, which if implemented would be harmful mainly to the Palestinians, as would dismantlement of the PA.

The aftermath of a stabbing attack in a liquor store in Petah Tikva, March 8, 2016.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The Palestinians’ security forces are also actively preventing attacks by individuals. Avi Issacharoff reported last week on the Walla website about efforts being made in the village of Sa’ir, north of Hebron, 12 of whose young residents were killed in the first months of the confrontation while trying to perpetrate attacks. The local council and village schools are trying to ensure that no more will die. While praising friends who were killed, young people in Sa’ir told Issacharoff that they want to work in Israel.

The town of Qabatiyah, near Jenin, has paid a similar price. Palestinian security forces have set up a barrier south of the Jalama crossing at the Green Line, to prevent young people from Qabatiyah from perpetrating hopeless knifing attacks on armed Israelis at the adjacent crossing. The town’s schools are obliged to report the absence of any student to the PA’s security forces. The latter ascertain whether the absent students are indeed sick at home and haven’t set out to launch an attack.

Not incitement

According to Orit Perlov, a social media analyst working at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, the prevailing conception in Israel – that the current violence is due to Hamas-inspired religious fervor and PA incitement – is mistaken. The social networks, she observed this week, are a medium of communication, not the root of the problem. The incendiary atmosphere derives from the distress and frustrations of the younger generation in the territories. Guaranteed employment and a positive economic future are likely to help douse the flames, she contends.

Attempts by individual terrorists have given way, in part, to attacks by pairs or trios, though they too have no organizational infrastructure. The thinking is that in groups, their action will be more lethal and will not be halted immediately by fire from Israeli soldiers and police. Possibly they see strength in numbers. In several cases, pairs from different villages have joined forces via the Internet on the basis of previous, superficial acquaintanceship. This was the case, for example, in the attack in which Shlomit Krigman was stabbed to death in the Beit Horon settlement on January 26.

There is an obvious effort now to obtain firearms. The new hit is the Carlo, a makeshift rifle manufactured in the territories and available at the relatively low price of 3,000 to 4,000 shekels ($750 to $1,000), 10 or 20 times cheaper than a standard weapon that has been stolen from the IDF or sold by a member of the Palestinian security forces.

An attack that ends with fatalities and draws extensive attention generates copycat efforts. That is probably the explanation for this week’s spate of attacks. It’s unlikely that the perpetrators were aware of the visit by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, even though Biden was in Jaffa and Jerusalem on Tuesday, when the attacks in those cities took place. The thinking that the attacks were related to the visit derives from incidents launched during previous intifadas and the focus on political developments and dates commemorating historic events. But the current zeitgeist is based mainly on local initiatives and the exploitation of weaknesses in Israeli security.

These are the breaches Israel is now trying to block, albeit with limited success. The Palestinian social networks are being more closely monitored, and recently there have been arrests of people identified as “Internet inciters,” who draw a large, attentive audience. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon continue to advocate the demolition of terrorists’ homes as a deterrent measure, even though this remains a controversial policy and was suspended completely toward the end of the second intifada. Twice in the past few months, the families of terrorists who carried out attacks turned the perpetrators in for fear their homes would be demolished. In a few other cases, the Israeli authorities were informed ahead of attacks.

Israeli soldiers check Palestinians at a checkpoint on the road to the village of Hajja near the West Bank city of Nablus, March 9, 2016.Credit: AP

A bill sponsored by Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz (Likud) to deport terrorists’ families to Gaza or Syria was submitted to the Knesset on Wednesday. It has the support of MK Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid), who purports to offer a moderate alternative to the government. However, ranking defense officials see the proposal as a cheap, even stupid, political move. It would not be cleared by the attorney general and would be struck down by the Supreme Court if it gets that far. The fact is that in most cases, the family does not have advance knowledge of an attack. Given the situation in Syria, deportation to that country would be considered excessively cruel punishment. What Netanyahu and Ya’alon are waiting for is an opportunity to deport a terrorist’s relative who did have prior knowledge of an attack. On Wednesday, the father of one of the terrorists who perpetrated an attack in Jerusalem this week was arrested, on suspicion that he knew what was afoot. Maybe his is the case in which an attempt will be made to deport him to the West Bank or Gaza, if the government’s legal advisers give the go-ahead.

A two-decade discusssion

The two knife-wielding assailants in Jaffa and Petah Tikva this week were shabahim – an acronym denoting Palestinians who are in Israel illegally. This of course sparked a renewed discussion of the need to reduce the number of such individuals and to punish those who transport them here from the West Bank – usually Israeli Arabs – and their employers, many of whom are Jews. This issue has been the subject of discussion on and off for two decades, and with the exception of a period at the height of the second intifada, when an attempt was made to seal off the entire West Bank, the defense establishment has preferred not to deal with it.

Official Israeli policy assume that a Palestinian who has a permit to work in Israel does not constitute a security risk. Such individuals are vetted by the Shin Bet, and the assumption is that they will not risk their family’s livelihood in order to perpetrate an act of terrorism. Until recently, 58,000 Palestinians were legally employed in Israel. The security cabinet approved a defense establishment plan to add 33,000 more to the list, 7,300 of whom have already received permits. Of this large group, only one Palestinian with a permanent permit and another who was awaiting such a permit have taken part in terrorist attacks. Dozens of other attacks inside the Green Line have been carried out by shabahim or by residents of East Jerusalem, who are allowed to enter Israel.

Still, little is being done to contend with the problem. One reason is that a large-scale, major effort is required to fight it, involving interdepartmental cooperation (IDF, police, judicial authorities), but also because most of the individuals in question are desperate to earn a living. A second reason is that the army, without saying so explicitly, believed for years that employment of shabahim helps the West Bank economy and thus maintains calm. Given that the majority of these persons are not involved in terrorist activity and that people sitting idly at home are more likely to become involved in the struggle against Israel, it has been convenient to ignore the situation. But that approach becomes more difficult to justify when shabahim are in the forefront of knifing attacks in the cities.

The effort to find shabahim and punish their employers involves closing the remaining gaps in the separation barrier, a decision made some time ago that the Prime Minister’s Bureau decided to air out on Tuesday evening, after the that day’s attacks. In practice, progress on completing the fence is no longer being delayed by Palestinian resistance or protests by left-wing organizations, as was claimed toward the end of the second intifada. The breaches that remain have remained open because of objections from settlers’ regional councils (mainly because they do not want to remain outside the barrier) and budget considerations. The directorate that was established to take care of the project shifted to other concerns over five years ago – constructing the fence along the border with Egypt, repairing the fences in the Golan Heights and, more recently, working along the Gaza border.

Lack of faith

More than five months after the start of the third intifada, Israel is still groping for a comprehensive, intelligent method to cope with it. The response so far, including the determined refusal to recognize the events as a new intifada, reflects a lack of faith by the leadership in the possibility of containing the current violence, combined with a lack of desire to adopt more acute measures, for fear that these would only generate escalation on the Palestinian side. Not surprisingly, whenever the violence strikes in the center of the country, Netanyahu, Ya’alon and sometimes also Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot are subjected to political criticism from the right and often from the left, too. This week the government’s security policy was savaged by former ministers MK Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu), Gideon Sa’ar (Likud) and MK Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union / Labor). It’s not always clear what they’re suggesting as an alternative, but the political goal is clear: to link Netanyahu to the situation and assign him responsibility for the fact that knife-wielding assailants are again running wild in the streets. The criticism is aimed at eroding his public status, in the wake of other attacks on his performance that did not translate into electoral gains.

As the situation looks now, neither the political pressure nor the undermining of personal security is inducing Netanyahu to take drastic measures with regard to the PA. As it is, the feeling is that Abbas’ tenure is coming to an end, and that acute measures are liable to accelerate the process and ignite a battle of succession that will involve a toughening of the rhetoric of the would-be successors vis-a-vis Israel, and perhaps a diminishment of efforts by the PA security forces to prevent terrorist attacks. Netanyahu will stick with the present policy for as long as he can, while hoping that the reports this week in the American media of a final peace initiative to be launched by the Obama administration ahead of the presidential election will turn out to be merely another Washington-style exercise in positive thinking.

Just around the corner is another challenge for Netanyahu, which is liable again to place Jerusalem and the religious factor at the center of the new intifada: the Passover holiday. Tension over the Temple Mount, which contributed to the flare-up in October, was mitigated with considerable effort a few months ago. But new friction can be expected at Pesach, with Jews wanting to visit the Mount. The police will have to make a concerted effort at the site and pray that the prime minister will be able to persuade key members of his coalition, such as Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel (Habayit Hayehudi) and the deputy foreign minister, Tzipi Hotovely (Likud), to continue keeping their distance from the site.

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