The debate about whether or not a third intifada has begun is over.
We are indeed experiencing an intifada. Period. For years we haven’t experienced such intense terrorist activity in Israel. Just by looking at the pure numbers we can see that this is so. The beginning of this intifada can be traced back to Rosh Hashana, which took place just a few weeks ago, a classic moment for a conflict to begin.
Naturally, we are busy reporting the details of these attacks: How many casualties have there been? How many wounded and how seriously? Was the terrorist killed, too? This is the physical front, the meeting point where the attacker comes into contact with our security forces.
Israel is standing strong in this war against terrorism. Despite the difficulties, Israeli forces are once again using all of their energy and resources to combat terrorism. Large numbers of Israeli police officers and guards have been stationed in sensitive locations and are making Sisyphean efforts to create as high a level of deterrence as possible.
The main difficulty in preventing “lone wolf” attacks is of course the lack of available intelligence. It is practically impossible to know when a terrorist who is working on his own will pull out his knife and stab a passerby. Israeli security forces are trained and highly successful at sniffing out terrorist cells and foiling attacks, but they have not figured out a way to locate a teenager who took a knife from the kitchen that morning.
We do not yet know what form this current intifada will take.
The first intifada, which began in 1987, was primarily a civilian protest and was based mainly on demonstrations in which women and children also participated.
The level of violence was relatively low and quite primitive.
In the second intifada, which began in 2000, the Palestinians became much more sophisticated: They sent suicide bombers in unprecedented numbers who blew themselves up in crowded population centers throughout Israel. Most Palestinians stayed home and remained uninvolved in terrorist actions, and were content to let a few select men and women carry out the suicide attacks.
In this current wave, a new intifada is beginning from a relatively low point: Knives and screwdrivers are being employed, as well as cars to run people over. Incidentally, terrorists used bulldozers in the past for just such purposes.
The media are the most visible and immediate partners of terrorism. This is the platform that enables Palestinians to leverage the terrorist attacks they commit. In addition to the physical damage they inflict, the video clips of these events spread on the Internet at the speed of light.
The attacks that have been taking place over the last few weeks have been low-level and thankfully there’s been a relatively small number of casualties.
The main problem, though, is how these attacks have affected the lives of the millions of Jews living in Israel, which was in essence the attackers’ main goal.
Even if there were no media coverage, I believe that these attacks would still be taking place, because this is the method the Palestinians have chosen to carry out their struggle. However, when video clips of the attacks are viewed millions of times on social media, when the Palestinians realize that a huge percentage of Palestinians, Israelis and Arabs through the Middle East have seen the gory stabbings of Jews for themselves, they realize that the conflict has reached a completely new level.
Over the years, the Palestinians have become experts at how the Israeli propaganda machine works. They know that they’ve broken the Israeli monopoly on information. In 1987, Israel easily got away with declaring an area a closed military zone and successfully preventing the international media from entering.
But now in the age of Internet, such an announcement would ring hollow and would be pointless since smartphones are so prevalent. There are hundreds of cameras filming activity in real-time at every location and as a result, there is footage available of every attack that has taken place.
The prevalence of cameras is a huge change from the previous two intifadas and terrorists are taking full advantage of this medium.
Many of these images and videos end up going viral on social media within minutes, as well as being featured on more traditional media outlets. Now that anybody can film an incident with his cellphone, our ability to manage or control information has all but disappeared.
The rules of battle have changed. It’s no longer the Palestinians against the Israeli security forces. The public is now the one providing the information, as well as the one watching the battle on smartphones and computer screens the world over.
In this modern technological age, every person is a potential journalist who is gathering and disseminating information.
The normal process in which a professional journalist gathers information, processes it and edits it into a story is absent. Raw footage with no context, validation or control flows directly from bystanders’ cellphones out to the world.
Israel is having a hard time functioning in this new reality. As a liberal, democratic state, Israel has imposed limitations on itself as it aspires to uphold freedom of speech and human rights. It cannot prohibit photographs from being taken, nor can it prevent them from being uploaded to the Internet. Israel is in a weak position with respect to the coordination between governmental and nongovernmental bodies in its effort to deal with these issues.
Israel’s diplomatic history is rife with examples of failed political maneuvers and military blunders. More than once, we succeeded militarily, but lost the PR battle. We have a large number of professionals who are working together at a high level of professionalism, and yet we still fail again and again due to the government’s inability to construct a national network of public diplomacy that can focus on the correct strategy within the global arena.
Year after year, reports from the state comptroller and government commissions of inquiry have called for the establishment of such a system. This third intifada has caught us unprepared as dozens of Israel’s governmental, public and private bodies, both locally and abroad, scramble to deal with the crisis.
Even within the cabinet, the ministers are squabbling among themselves and budgets remain ridiculously low.
To win hearts and minds, the prime minister must immediately appoint one of his ministers to lead all public diplomatic affairs for the time being. He could try to do this himself, however to the best of my knowledge there are only 24 hours in a day.
Israel will gradually succeed in curbing the number of terrorist attacks and in lowering the flames of violence. But none of this can happen if we do not succeed in our battle for hearts and minds.
While we are in the midst of a crisis, it is difficult for our leaders to deal with this front, and during periods of calm, often it seems like such issues are of marginal or little importance. As a result, Israel misses the opportunity over and over again to establish an organizational plan for times of conflict, which unfortunately don’t look they are going to end any time soon.
The author is a member of Knesset from the Zionist Union and a member of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.