They’re Palestinian Children in Distress, Not Terrorists

From what we know about the adolescent mind, none of Israel’s punitive policies will have any impact on the willingness of so many teenage Palestinian knife attackers to commit acts of violence.

A Palestinian youth is arrested by Israeli police during clashes in Jerusalem's Old City in 2015.
Ilan Assayag

Brain Awareness Week in Israel was celebrated earlier this month. If Israel’s press and government only understood the adolescent brain better, they would stop calling the Palestinian youth who carry out stabbing attacks "terrorists."

Why does language matter? What difference could it possibly make?

By calling these children terrorists, we’re not dealing with the right issue. Calling them terrorists cats this phenomenon as a nationalistic problem that needs to be solved on a political level. But that’s not the problem. The problem is that these are young children that are going out to kill at least partly because of a combination of possessing still-immature brains and the lack of proper support that would prevent them.

According to Dr. Dan Siegel, one of if not the world’s leading expert on the teenage brain, the maturity of boys’ brains, particularly their frontal cortex, does not reach completion until they reach the age of 24. He has identified (in his book “Brainstorm”) four qualities of human minds that change during adolescence: novelty seeking, social engagement, increased emotional intensity and creative exploration. Properly nurtured, these four qualities become the basis of productive, engaged adults. However, they each have their downsides, Siegel’s research reveals.

Novelty seeking can induce a child to act impulsively without reflecting on the consequences, even if the child is aware of those consequences. Teens who are not socially engaged with adults but only with other youths tend to engage in increased-risk behavior. Increased emotional intensity contributes to moodiness and reactivity. Creative exploration, searching for meaning in life, can leave a child vulnerable to peer pressure and to lack direction and purpose. 

Considering these four developments, it becomes plain to see how a Palestinian teenager could be triggered to carry out a stabbing attack knowing that he or she could be killed doing so: Their brain, particularly their developing frontal cortex, simply is not able to contain the impulse or use reason to be deterred by the consequences, be it to themselves or their families.

Lacking adult role models, they are oriented toward their peers who follow their instincts. Hamas incitement videos have been around for years, but they have not had nearly the impact that the initial teenagers in the current round of violence have had. Teens see a 14-year-old stab and think, “I can do that” because there is not a strong enough leadership – both on a parental and national level - to provide a frontal cortex perspective.

The Palestinian Authority is ultimately far more accountable than Israel is for these children’s actions. It could do more to improve their parents’ economic situation and educate toward non-violence in schools. But those failings do not absolve Israel’s responsibility to do its part.

When Israeli society calls these children terrorists, the discourse revolves around what we can do to deter them. Thus, our leaders propose demolishing their homes, imprisoning their parents or deporting their families. However, we know to teenage brains all those things don’t matter – these teenage brains grasp consequences but simply don’t care. Given the current discourse, what Israel is trying to do to prevent the next terror attack is futile.

Israel has to change its discourse. We have to call a child a child and treat children who perpetrate stabbing attacks as children in distress and not as terrorists. Then, using our understanding of the teenage brain, we can address the true causes of the problem and to pursue policies that would have a fighting chance of preventing similar attacks.

We have seen over the past five months that many of the teenage attackers were mimicking previous attackers who had been killed. Changing attitudes, and changing orders to soldiers of how to handle teenage attackers, would likely lower the number of fatal shootings, and consequently the number of martyrs to mimic.

If Israel starts sending social workers to the families of children who perpetrate stabbing attacks rather than bulldozers and deportation orders, it will send a more hopeful message to Palestinian youths. Teenage martyrs inspire other teens despondent about life to seek a similar end. It is hard to conceive how teenage attackers receiving psychological support will inspire other youths to say, “Let’s go out and stab a soldier so we’ll get social workers, too.”

Moreover, a changed approach will force others, including the Palestinian Authority and its foreign donors, to relate differently to the phenomenon. It can redirect the international discourse toward educational and economic issues that will restore stability to the Palestinian nuclear family. Currently, Israel’s punitive policies, combined with its failure to engage in the peace process or restrain settlement activities, prevent it from having any leverage on its allies to pressure the PA to take action that would restrain youth-induced violence.

Changing the discourse on child “terrorists” may seem like an insignificant step, but it is nonetheless an important one that would ultimately make a greater impact on curbing youth violence among Palestinians than any Israeli attempt at deterrence. 

This approach should not be solely applied to the Palestinian side. Last week’s incident in Hebron, in which a young Israeli soldier shot a downed Palestinian attacker, illustrates how the immature brain can lead to faulty decision-making and tragic consequences in tense situations. 

That a new approach should be tried to end the bloodshed that’s ensuing when young Israelis and Palestinians face off with weapons over whose use they’re not cognitively developed enough to fully control should be a no brainer. 

Steven Klein is an editor at Haaretz and an adjunct professor at Tel Aviv University's International Program in Conflict Resolution and Mediation. Follow him on Twitter: @stevekhaaretz

Rivka Klein-de Graaf is a homeopath who is developing a parenting course.