Israelis had just finished celebrating their 74th Independence Day when ax-wielding terrorists from the West Bank struck in Elad.
The attack inverted the normal Israeli calendar. Usually, we go from the bereavement of Remembrance Day to the celebration of Independence Day. This year, we went from solemnity to festivities, and then right back to solemnity, with three new names immediately added to the list of terror victims for next year’s commemorations: Oren Ben Yiftah, Boaz Gol, and Yonatan Havakuk.
The security services have been challenged by the recent wave of deadly attacks. In the past, terrorists were generally linked to an organized cell, often penetrable by Israel’s counterterrorism professionals, who could attain actionable intelligence to thwart future attacks. But today’s lone-wolf terrorists, like those of the 2015-2016 Knife Intifada, are not necessarily connected to any organizational structure.
Neither armed with live weapons nor handed a specific attack plan from above, this new generation of terrorists is aroused by incitement. The recent inflammatory speech by Hamas leader Yayha Sinwar is a case in point. Sinwar’s call for knife and ax attacks motivated the Elad murderers to do exactly that, the terrorists choosing a location with which they were familiar (both having worked in Elad).
Since the 1990s, Israeli governments have repeatedly stressed before international interlocutors the dangers of incitement, with examples not confined just to the extreme propaganda disseminated by Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Vile, vociferous and violent anti-Jewish hate speech, together with the glorification of terrorism and martyrdom, are common across the Palestinian Authority, finding expression in the pronouncements of the leadership, school curricula and sermons in mosques, all amplified through traditional and social media.
But for the most, Israel received only a pro forma acknowledgment of these concerns, with too many foreign governments seemingly ready to tolerate incitement.
It was often suggested that in the current situation Israelis can hardly expect Palestinians to love them, incitement viewed as stemming from the reality of people living under a foreign military occupation; the logic being that systematic hate speech will continue until Palestinians achieve independence and sovereignty in a state of their own.
Consequently, when Israelis raised incitement and noted the ensuing terrorism it produces, many abroad viewed it only as a secondary matter, a diversion from the essential issue, which is the need to move ahead energetically on a political solution. Their bottom line: Israelis would be experiencing less terrorism if they had the courage to make the political choices necessary for a two-state solution, which would end the conflict once and for all.
Although widely held, such an approach fails to explain the following: Why did Palestinian incitement and terrorism mushroom during the heyday of Oslo in the 1990s; when Israel was led by Labor prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres; signed a series of political agreements with the PLO; and pulled out of cities across Gaza and the West Bank?
In September 1993 Israel signed the Oslo agreement, the famous declaration of principles epitomized in the iconic White House photograph of Rabin hesitantly shaking hands with a smiling Yasser Arafat, while a beaming Bill Clinton looked on. Despite some last-minute brinkmanship by Arafat, in May 1994 the Gaza-Jericho Agreement was signed in Cairo. And in September 1995 Oslo II was signed with great fanfare in Taba.
These agreements allowed the PLO leadership to relocate to the West Bank and Gaza, taking control of the newly created Palestinian Authority, which received jurisdiction over the vast majority of Palestinians in the territories. The agreements also set out a framework for dealing with all the final status issues – Jerusalem, borders, settlements, refugees and more – the Palestinians undoubtedly receiving a very tangible political horizon.
Oslo created an initial euphoria, galvanized almost wall-to-wall international support and generated an impressive diplomatic momentum, but these were nevertheless followed by a series of Palestinian terrorist attacks; the October 1994 Dizengoff Street bus bombing murdering 22 people and the January 1995 Beit Lid double bombings killing 21 people, being the deadliest.
But Palestinian terrorism reached a crescendo after Israel’s January 1996 elimination of Hamas chief bomb-maker Yahya Ayyash. The following two months saw consecutive suicide bombings on Jerusalem’s No. 18 bus line in which 45 people were murdered, and a suicide bombing outside Dizengoff Center in Tel Aviv killed 13 people.
In total, from the signing of Oslo through to the end of Peres’s premiership with the May 1996 election, Palestinian terror attacks killed some 150 people.
Of course, terrorism was not perpetrated by Palestinians alone. Most infamously, in February 1994 Kahanist Baruch Goldstein murdered 29 Palestinian-Muslim worshipers at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. Yet a crucial distinction exists; while Goldstein was unequivocally condemned by the Israeli leadership, the Palestinian Authority remained at best tepid in its response to Palestinian terror atrocities, often concurrently censorious and condoning of a murderous attack.
Back then, when confronting Palestinian terrorism, Israelis were told that those conducting attacks were the enemies of peace, extremists determined to undermine the historic process of reconciliation. Paradoxically, today when terrorists remain determined to kill, Israelis are told that it is because there is no peace process and no political horizon.
With the birth of the new century, Israelis once again saw the confluence of peace talks and terrorism. At Camp David in 2000 the Palestinians were offered a serious political proposal. Prime minister Ehud Barak was willing to offer unprecedented Israeli concessions, accepting a Palestinian state on over 90% of the territories and the division of sovereignty in Jerusalem. President Clinton’s ensuing parameters for a permanent status agreement were even more forthcoming.
But the process failed because of Arafat’s intransigence, then-Saudi ambassador to the US Prince Bandar Bin Sultan characterizing Arafat’s behavior at Camp David as criminally negligent. Nonetheless, Palestinian society, schooled on years of anti-Zionist and antisemitic incitement, did not admonish the PLO leader’s failure to deliver a compromise solution for statehood and peace but automatically united behind Arafat’s nihilistic Second Intifada with its thousands of Israeli and Palestinian victims.
Accordingly, those who seek to advance Israel-Palestinian reconciliation need to appreciate that tolerating Palestinian incitement is gravely counterproductive. The constant propagation of a message that Jews are an evil and nefarious enemy not only motivates young Palestinians to murder in the present but also poisons hearts and minds with hatred and extremism, making the prospect of future peace even more precarious.
The writer, formerly an adviser to the prime minister, is a senior visiting fellow at the INSS at Tel Aviv University. Follow him at @AmbassadorMarkRegev on Facebook.