The Intifada of the Knives: The Correct Strategy Going Forward


“If you want peace now, you won't get it. But if you want peace later, and you have the time, you may get peace now.” Robert Aumann, Nobel Prize winning Israeli economist and game theorist commenting on Middle East realities.


Perhaps the greatest mistake Western pundits commit when analyzing the Arab world is overlooking its tribal character. Those who seek compromise are seen as weak and, therefore, in need of a truce. Conciliatory gestures only serves as incentives for the stronger tribe to step up the aggression.

In recent times we have seen the Palestinian leadership turn down generous offers by Israeli Prime Ministers Ehud Barak in 2000, and Ehud Olmert in 2008. These offers included transfers of up to ninety-five percent of the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority with land exchanges for the remaining few percent. Olmert even offered to divide Jerusalem. Yet, in each case, Palestinian Authority Presidents Arafat and Abbas respectively turned them down, without even offering their own counterproposals.  The logic of their own heritage had taught them that if the enemy was willing to be so generous at the outset of negotiations, patience will lead to ever greater concessions. They reasoned further that if this is what is being offered during a period of calm, initiating violence in the form of intifadas will necessarily lead to an even better deal.

Conversely, the role fear and respect plays in the Arab world is best illustrated during the four hundred year Ottoman occupation of Palestine, from the early sixteenth to the early twentieth century. Though the Ottomans were oppressive and exacted onerous tax burdens, there was not a single intifada on the part of the indigenous Arab population against the non-Arab Turks during this time span. Under Ottoman rules, the locals understood that any act of rebellion, even the throwing of a stone, would be dealt with in an extremely harsh manner. This would usually involve an arrest and probable execution of the offender, and possibly his entire family. The neighbors might be arrested, as well – just for good measure. Everyone understood the rules of the game – with rule number one being that the Turks did not play games.

Draconian Ottoman rules are today rightly seen in the West as fascistic, inhumane and extreme. The intifada of the knives must, however, be dealt with firmly and aggressively. Apart from the tribal mentality of the region, basic psychology stipulates that behavior that is rewarded tends to be repeated. Behavior that is punished, may spike temporarily, but it will eventually wane when it is realized that the result of violent actions will only result in pain for the perpetrators, their families and their society – and that the pain far outweighs the rewards. It is, therefore, crucial that the Israeli government should offer no compromises during periods of violence, lest the wrong lesson be learned.

While in the West, compromise is seen as the sensible path forward in resolving disputes, in the Arab world, as stated above, it is viewed as an opportunity to further seize the initiative. Those who seek compromise are doing so out of necessity, fearing that they will lose the battle and be left destitute. The lesson for the Palestinian Authority should be clear: rewards can only be won at the negotiating table; they cannot be won in the streets.

The Netanyahu government should stay the course, inflict measured punishment and always speak in a clear voice rooted in determination and the absolute resolve that the intifada will be defeated. In the Middle East, respect is earned by standing firm in your convictions and by being perfectly willing to fight for them. Whether Westerners like it or not, this is the culture of the region. Recognizing this truth matters, grasping it matters even more.

Home demolitions of terrorists, a technique the government employs, should be continued. But, it is apparently not enough to deter some. Further measures which would serve as disincentives should be enacted. For example, to this day the bodies of slain terrorists are returned to their families for a proper Islamic burial. I see no reason for this policy to continue. After all, why should a murderer be afforded this posthumous respect? Without a proper Islamic funeral, the gates of paradise would be closed and the promised seventy-two virgins would not be waiting. My guess is that many young men of perfect religious faith would not act on their violent impulses when this reward is removed for the shahid.  

At the same time, the government should intensify its policy of condemning the international press when they morally equate those who are the aggressors with those who are defending themselves. Biased media outlets often accuse Israel of employing disproportionate force. But the proportional use of force does not mean the equal exertion of firepower. It does, in fact, mean expending the force needed to quell murderous attacks upon the population. Members of the press who regularly offer journalistic anti-Israel fatwas and dishonest, tendentious reporting should be barred from conflict zones. There is no honor in extending press freedom to those journalists who serve a hidden agenda rather than seek the truth. Here too, biased media coverage serves to incentivize acts of terror.

Our own mistakes can be as deadly as our enemy’s designs.