What draws a child to become a terrorist?

Experts on Palestinian society say incitement, neglect, and parental responsibility are elements contributing to the phenomenon of child terrorism.

13-year-old east Jerusalem boy who carried out stabbing attack in Pisgat Ze'ev hospitalized at Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem's Ein Kerem‏ (photo credit: Courtesy)
13-year-old east Jerusalem boy who carried out stabbing attack in Pisgat Ze'ev hospitalized at Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem's Ein Kerem‏
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The wave of terror that hit Israel a couple of months ago has been largely attributed to "lone wolves." Further than this, these lone attackers have included children as well as a couple of elderly terrorists, making it harder for security forces to anticipate who the next stabber might be.
"You don't expect kids to draw knives and stab anyone in sight, so it means we have no real profile for a lone wolf," says Dr. Simon Perry, an expert on homeland security and policing terrorism from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "It can be a young man, woman kid or elderly person. There is no clear profile for security personnel to be aware of, so they need to be aware of every possibility,” he tells The Jerusalem Post.
In Palestinian society, "It's OK for children to be used as long as they are sexually mature," explains Dr Reuven Berko,  a former adviser on Arab Affairs to the Jerusalem District Police, recalling an interview he once conducted with Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin in which this point was raised. "That's the only sign needed to be recruited."
He stresses that child abuse of this kind is not unique to Palestinian society: "You can see this phenomenon all over the Middle East and also in Africa." Berko makes note of the practice seen in the Iraq-Iran War in which Iranian children were given cut-outs of keys , symbolizing the promise of being sent to heaven, before being sent into Iraqi minefields to clear the ground for troops.
"It’s a cynical use of children who are exposed to permanent incitement," Berko says of the Palestinian attackers, pointing to media, social networks and mosques as sources of incitement.
Berko's explanation as to why this phenomenon has sprung up now, is merely that it is a new method in a series of different tactics. "If you look back at the history of Palestinian terror they tried several ways to hit at us: kidnapping, hijacking airplane, suicide bombing. They tried to find a method to which we have no answer," he says, referring to the difficulty Israeli security and legal authorities have in handling child terrorists. Indeed, Berko's wife, MK Anat Berko (Likud), recently submitted a bill proposing that the minimum age for a prison sentence be waived in cases of minors who commit crimes with a nationalist motive. Currently, minors under the age of 14 cannot be sent to prison, though some are sent to a home for troubled youth.
“The recruiters take advantage of the loophole in the law, knowing that the children won’t be sent to prison,” she stated. “Even the children know that, so it is easier to convince them to go out and attack.”
Dr Ido Zelkovitz, and expert on Palestinian social history and politics from the University of Haifa's Department of Middle Eastern History attributes the "child terrorist phenomenon" to a combination of a number of different elements.
One of the these factors, he says, is the continued neglect of east Jerusalem. "More and more kids are finding themselves without educational frameworks," he tells The Jerusalem Post, explaining that this lack of infrastructure makes its easier to  set in motion children in the streets. Incitement on social media is another element, as well as the young generation's perspective of Israel and its strengths. "They don't know 1967, or even the Second Intifada. They don't really know the force of the IDF, so it's a weird reality," says Dr Zelkovitz. 
He adds that over the past years, this population has been exposed to elements such as Hamas,conveying the message that Israel is weak --and getting weaker-- and that resistance is the only way to achieve anything against Israel. He also asserts that the young generation is to a certain extent protesting against the older generation, for not having obtained any political achievements.
Lastly, he notes that all these elements are connected to the motif of Jerusalem and the al-Aksa Mosque. "In the modern Western approach, there is a tendency to discount the religious connection, but it's very significant. He stresses that the Mosque connects the Palestinian community in Israel, to the Islamic movement in Israel and Hamas. "It's not just religious, it's a national symbol." He notes that the youngsters in east Jerusalem see the mosque all the time but they are prevented from going up there. "Though the status quo at the al-Aksa Mosque hasn't changed, the amount of Israeli, Jewish and western visitors to the Temple Mount has increased in the past few years. They see this, and they feel like they are taking part in an historic struggle over a changing status quo."
Dr Perry has a different take on the motivations behind the actions of child terrorists, saying the same motives children have for joining gangs and turning to crime must be examined. "I don't think it's mostly ideological motivation," he opines. "I find it hard to believe that an 11-year-old has an understanding of the bigger picture. It's the same a regular juvenile delinquency- the need to be  a part of something, to be a hero." He also blames social media, incitement and failure of parents to prevent exposure to these triggers.
"Society here is very violent, on both sides," he add. "They are exposed to stabbing and Israeli shootings in response. It's a question of what society promotes. If the PA gives a hero's' reception to stabbers and builds a narrative that these people are heroes and being a shahid (martyr) is something to aspire to, what should the children understand from this? If you don't get this message at home, you get it in the streets, in the media and on social media."
Berko is more forceful in his criticism of parents, remarking that in Palestinian society parents have full responsibility for all actions of their children. He points to fights between Arab families (hamulot), noting that parents often intervene on their children's behalf.  "The parents know what the general atmosphere is, and even if the first set of parents weren't aware of what was going on, the other should warn their kids against such actions. But unfortunately it seems they hate the Jews more than they love their own children." Berko is in favor of Israeli measures against the families of attackers, including house demolitions and compensation from the attacker's family for the victim of the attack. He adds that the children themselves should be put in detention centers and when they reach the required age they should be put in regular prisons.
Lahav Harkov contributed to this report