Shaping the narrative.

Israel fights the Palestinian insurgency solely by military means, but it could act to douse the flames by political means.

A Palestinian throws stones at Israeli forces in a clash at Arroub refugee camp, February 11. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A Palestinian throws stones at Israeli forces in a clash at Arroub refugee camp, February 11.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
SINCE THE murder last October in the West Bank of Eitam Henkin and his wife Naama, we have sadly been inundated with almost daily knifing attacks by Palestinians on Israelis.
So far 34 Israelis have been killed and over 400 injured; besides the knifings, there have been more than a thousand stone-throwing attacks, dozens of fire bombings and deliberate vehicle rammings and a number of shootings.
In the violence, 185 Palestinians have been killed either by security forces or armed civilians. Most of the dead were perpetrators of the attacks, but some passersby caught in crossfire were also killed.
The experts say terror is intended to spread fear among a civilian population in order to weaken the resolve of an enemy government. In other words, violence to achieve political goals. According to this definition, not everything that has occurred over the past several months can be labelled terror. In the so-called “intifada of the knives,” in most cases there is no guiding hand or leadership seeking to achieve political goals.
The Israeli public is getting used to living with the violence and waiting tensely for what comes next as the security forces fail to find a way to douse the flames. For its part, the government blames the Palestinian Authority, arguing that it does nothing to curb incitement on Palestinian television, social media or through its official statements. Tactically, placing the blame on the PA and its leader, Mahmoud Abbas, helps to define the violence as terrorism, since it implies political sanction.
But Palestinian leaders categorically reject the accusations against them. They insist that the occupation and the settlements are the twin engines driving the violence. In other words, a spontaneous popular uprising against what they see as a foreign oppressor. The Palestinian leaders make it clear that their call is for non-violent resistance: for example, civil disobedience and other non-violent expressions of the mounting anger at the lack of a political horizon holding out the promise of a life of liberty and dignity for the Palestinian people, now under occupation for almost 50 years with no end in sight.
Moreover, far from stoking the flames, Palestinian security forces are coordinating with the IDF and the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet), passing on key intelligence and helping to foil planned acts of violence. The IDF also operates unhindered in the Palestinian territories, despite Abbas’s complaints about infringement of sovereignty.
In the wake of years of disenfranchisement, incompetent leadership and an all-pervasive lack of hope for a better future, a great deal of anger and frustration has piled up in Palestinian society and in the media. It often takes the form of unrestrained rhetoric with strongly anti-Israel motifs.
The Israeli government claims it all stems from fanatic Islamist hatred; that it is totally unrelated to the occupation or the settlements; and that Hamas and ISIS draw their terrorist inspiration from the same anti-Western roots.
Rhetoric aside, the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah is under severe pressure to act – from the rival Hamas, its own Fatah rank and file, the urban grass roots, the refugee camps and the college campuses.
But when Israeli leaders call BDS “economic terror” and Palestinian appeals to international institutions “political terror,” what is left? Civil disobedience and popular resistance.
That is exactly what has been happening over the past several months. The violence is not being perpetrated by people who have undergone terrorist training or who are controlled by a terrorist high command. It is rather a case of individuals – especially young boys and girls – who have lost hope for the chance of a decent life in a free society. From their point of view the narrative is heroic: they are sacrificing their lives for the establishment of their state.
Nations that struggled for liberation from a foreign occupier invariably carried out acts of despair and terror, which they translated into a narrative of heroism and freedom. We Israeli Jews did so, too.
The pre-state paramilitary organizations fighting against the British Mandate employed violence – sometimes in extreme forms – in their bid to bring a speedy end to foreign rule. There was also cruel, vengeful violence against non-combatant Arab passersby. The Jewish freedom fighters in the pre-state days were considered terrorists by their foes and heroes by their supporters.
Israel defines the Palestinian insurgency as terror and fights it solely by military means. If it recognized the fact that it is rather a civil uprising, it would act to douse the flames by political means.
Both sides are now working assiduously on the narrative that will take root in the historic memory: terror versus freedom-oriented civil uprising. Everyone knows the political future will not be shaped by “the terror” or “the uprising” – but by the narrative. 
Ilan Baruch – a former Israeli ambassador to South Africa – is chairman of the policy committee at the ‘Peace NGOs Forum,’ a coalition of over 80 Israeli and Palestinian peace organizations