On Copycats and the Escalation of Conflict

Both Israelis and Palestinians have their reasons for emulating violence in this lone-wolf uprising.

Israeli soldiers stop Palestinians at the entrance of Yatta, home of the Palestinians who shot and killed four Israelis in Tel Aviv, West Bank, June 9, 2016.
Mussa Qawasma, Reuters

After attempted or actual stabbings spurred a wave of copycat attacks by young Palestinians that began to ebb, Israelis are beginning to fear the fatal shootings at Tel Aviv’s Sarona Market will also produce imitations.

Just as there were women who emulated each other and set out to be arrested or killed by soldiers at checkpoints, thus escaping domestic violence and injustice. Though it is known and talked about behind closed doors, shockingly and regrettably this still isn’t discussed openly. The gradual decline in support for stabbing attacks stems in part from the unspoken understanding that young men and women motivated by their own personal circumstances have made use of the heroic national guise of brandishing a knife or trying to stab.

The emulation in this privatized uprising is impulsive – that is, without thought or examination, even if there is some advance planning. Nevertheless, the reasons and impulses behind the lone-wolf uprising are the same logical and justified reasons and impulses that, for instance, have spurred brave but poorly attended demonstrations in several West Bank villages for the past decade and more.

But an unarmed struggle against soldiers armed to the teeth doesn’t win high ratings. And in any case, nothing changes Israeli policy.

Facebook, posters, television, praise at funerals or in mourners’ homes all help encourage imitation by young people without a shred of confidence in their political system or their leaders. But lo and behold, Israel knows how to fight copycatting: by declaring war on Palestinian Facebook posts, on burying the dead and on various radio and television stations. And by escalating.

Israelis ignore the fact that we, in our collective role as soldiers, are the primary source of emulation. From the moment they are born, Palestinians see soldiers carrying guns in various positions. They identify these guns with domination, and therefore with masculinity – something the occupation has stolen from their own men. Hamas in the Gaza Strip has taken its imitation of the Israel Defense Forces to embarrassing lengths, as its military parades show.

In Yatta on Monday, in five homes that soldiers searched since the Sarona attack, there was always one woman or child who instinctively imitated the soldiers who surrounded them with guns pointed, threatening and intimidating. Khaled Mahamra, one of the two perpetrators of the Sarona attack, saw IDF soldiers blow up his family home when he was in third grade. The Israeli demolition squad imitated all its predecessors since 1967, engaging in alleged deterrence that actually causes escalation.

This was collective vengeance against dozens of children, siblings and elderly grandparents, after one of the uncles had killed four Israelis in the occupied West Bank. Decades of hard work by the father and his sons were ruined. Will any of those who made the decision to destroy that house back then – or those who carried it out, or the Supreme Court justices who approved it – ever stand trial for their prima facie indirect responsibility for the murder of four Israelis in Tel Aviv?

Ever since this individualized revolt began, in October 2015, it has seemed as if the soldiers were also imitating each other. At checkpoints, they imitate those who killed Hadeel al-Hashlamoun, spraying her with bullets at a Hebron checkpoint in September as she lay on the ground wounded and clearly not endangering anyone. They and the policemen and the security guards imitate each other in their unwillingness to overcome the young person waving a knife, sparing his or her life.

Sometimes it seems as if they’re simply afraid, which is bad PR for the IDF. How alike you all are. A soldier who kills mimics a soldier who’s afraid.

But is this really copycatting? Unlike the knife-wielders and the lone-wolf attackers, who are free to imitate, soldiers are part of a tanzim (Arabic for organization). Their military tanzim has commanders, up to the commander in chief. Those commanders give orders.

And if different orders had been given, the soldiers would have stopped imitating Hashlamoun’s killers. In other words, we’re good at escalation posing as copycatting.