Analysis: New generation of terrorists may lead to much bigger escalation

Deep problems in Palestinian society are the undercurrent to the unending attacks; West Bank armed factions and even Gaza could be dragged in if nothing is done to calm the atmosphere

The scene of the attempted attack near the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba (photo credit: Courtesy)
The scene of the attempted attack near the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba
(photo credit: Courtesy)
On Monday morning, two Hebron residents armed with a sub-machine gun and a handgun showed up at an IDF checkpoint near Kiryat Arba, and opened fire at soldiers. Minutes later, a resident of nearby Bnei Naim rammed his car into an Israeli bus. According to the initial security investigation, the two attacks were unlinked.
Nobody told these attackers to strike where they did. No organization paid them, or recruited them into a cell.
Instead, they decided to act on their own. Two out of the three had no prior record of security offenses, and no organizational affiliation. They left no warnings or electronic communications behind that could allow the Shin Bet to preemptively foil their intentions.
On the tactical level, the response by security forces in dealing with the threat was as swift as it was professional. Soldiers accurately fired on the threats to their lives, and walked away with minor injuries.
On the strategic level, there is no end in sight to the drizzle of Palestinian violence. If the violence does not stop, it could turn into a significantly larger storm.
The young terrorists behind the past six months of violence represent a much deeper undercurrent of problems that are plaguing Palestinian society. In the absence of any steps to calm the atmosphere, these youths and young adults could drag the Palestinians into a wider conflict with Israel.
Israel is currently experiencing the biggest escalation of violence in Judea and Samaria since 2006; there have been 206 acts of terrorism since October.
At first, fabricated Palestinian conspiracy theories alleging Israeli plots against the Temple Mount, and religious Islamic sentiments, acted as a trigger. But that soon faded as the prime reason. Ongoing incitement – on both social media and established Palestinian media – have only served to pour more fuel on the fire.
Yet shutting down television stations run by Islamic Jihad and Hamas will not stop the violence.
In fact, there is no single counter-measure that can quickly put out the fire, which is what makes the current situation so precarious.
In addition to the murderous ideas planted in the minds of many young Palestinians, a set of personal and collective grievances are also driving violence.
These frustrations could have been turned against the Palestinian Authority itself, had Israel not formed the first and most obvious target.
If the first intifada was a popular eruption of violence and nationalistic feeling against Israel’s presence in the West Bank – which was only later joined by Hamas and other organizations – and the second intifada was planned by the Palestinian Authority, and joined by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the third and current wave of violence is a completely different situation.
There is no leadership framework at work behind the attacks, in which lone wolves, pairs and trios wake up in the morning and decide to act. There is also – so far – no mass rioting; the majority of the Palestinian people in the West Bank are staying out it... for now.
In part, according to past statements by the IDF chief of staff, this is due to the fact that at least 120,000 Palestinians, who feed and house nearly half a million people, are fully dependent on the Israeli economy (either by working in Israel or in the settlements and industrial zones of the West Bank).
Hence, tens of thousands of additional Palestinians may soon receive work permits. In the past six months, only one Palestinian with a work permit launched a terror attack.
But giving more Palestinians work permits will also not be enough to douse the flames.
What is emerging now is a new Palestinian generation, educated (many with university degrees) and plugged in to the Internet and to social media. It is a generation filled with rage over its lack of ability to convert education into job prospects. Such rage means the poisonous incitement that fills Palestinian media is falling on increasingly receptive ears.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has used his speeches to signal desperation to his people. He also fails to condemn the terrorism, but even if he were, the spontaneous violence is out of the PA’s control anyway.
Many Palestinian youths are utterly indifferent to and alienated by their own government. In the long run, that could threaten the PA’s stability.
Maintaining the PA’s stability remains a core Israeli security interest. A stable PA helps keep Hamas at bay, enables security coordination with the IDF, and saves Israel the need to micromanage the lives of 2.7 million West Bank Palestinians.
Within the ruling Fatah faction, some members have begun whispering about the “failure” of Abbas’s diplomatic pressure strategy against Israel, and relaying messages that Israel “understands only force.”
For now, Abbas has been able to keep such currents in check. The Tanzim militia has also received clear directives from Ramallah to stay out of the violence. None of these things can or should be taken for granted.
Meanwhile, in Hamas’s Islamist kingdom of Gaza, trouble is, once again, brewing. Hamas is in strategic distress, isolated and without significant allies, while its civilian population is growing increasingly frustrated with its monstrous unemployment rate and basic living conditions.
These factors could end up pushing Hamas, in the not too distant future, to start up a new conflict. Attempts at reconciliation with Fatah have stalled, yet the Gaza Strip is more attentive to the violent developments in the West Bank than ever before.
Since 2006, the West Bank and Gaza have never been as influential on one another as they are now. A raid on Islamic Jihad in the West Bank could trigger a response from Islamic Jihad in Gaza. An escalation in Hebron could result in an escalation in Khan Yunis. And while Hamas remains deeply deterred, its military wing could, before long, find that growing pressure from home may push it into another destructive round with Israel.
As a result, every lone-wolf terrorist is part of a wider chain of events that ultimately threatens to destabilize the region.
Israel is trying to introduce stability and deterrence, through a mix of carrots and sticks, while the new generation of Palestinians is seeking to achieve just the opposite.
It is not at all clear which side will ultimately get its way.