Behind the Wave of Violence in Israel, Jerusalem and West Bank Are Angry Palestinian Youth and Women

A female Palestinian protester drops stones to the ground during clashes with Israeli troops near the Jewish settlement of Bet El, near the West Bank city of Ramallah October 10, 2015. (PHOTO CREDIT: Reuters/Mohamad Torokman)
A female Palestinian protester drops stones to the ground during clashes with Israeli troops near the Jewish settlement of Bet El, near the West Bank city of Ramallah October 10, 2015. (PHOTO CREDIT: Reuters/Mohamad Torokman)

The teenage Palestinian girls helping to carry rocks to the frontlines of stone-throwing protests in Ramallah have their nails brightly painted, are dressed in tight jeans and carry the latest smartphones in their fashionable handbags.

“My family does not know I am here,” said one young girl, a high-school student in Ramallah, where daily, almost ritualistic clashes have taken place with Israeli paramilitary police over the past two weeks, as a growing wave of violence has swept throughout Israel, Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank.

The stone-throwing, stabbings and shootings – in which seven Israelis and 27 Palestinians, including nine alleged attackers and eight children, have died – have prompted comparisons with previous Palestinian uprisings in the 1980s and early 2000s, even if the violence is not yet equivalent.

But what marks the current wave of turmoil out from earlier eras is the fact that the knifings and attacks on police are mostly being carried out by teenagers, female as well as male, without political ties or apparent coordination from above.

“I came here after I saw on television what happens at Al-Aqsa,” the Ramallah student said, talking through a gap in the black-and-white keffiyeh wrapped around her face and collecting stones to take to the young men at the head of the fighting.

Others, most of them students at nearby Birzeit university who come to join the stone-throwing after class, echoed her words on Al-Aqsa, the holy site in the heart of Jerusalem’s Old City that has become a rallying cry for angry, hope-drained Palestinians determined to challenge Israel.

“We want the occupation to end and we want violations against Al-Aqsa to end,” said an MBA student standing nearby, a young man masked by a keffiyeh and using a sling shot to hurl stones at the Israeli forces some 200 metres away.

The people who began using knives in sporadic but almost daily attacks this month have been described by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as “lone wolves”, their anger ignited by Facebook postings and shared on social media, making it almost impossible to predict who will strike next.

Mohammed Halabi, a 19-year-old law student from Ramallah, wrote on his Facebook page hours before stabbing dead two Israelis in the Old City: “Defending Al-Aqsa … is our honour and defending it by all means and forms is legal.”

In an attack on Monday, Israeli police said two Palestinian boys, a 13-year-old and his 15-year-old cousin, stabbed two Israeli boys in a settlement to the north of Jerusalem. One attacker was shot dead and other hit with a car and wounded.

Some of the assailants are so young they were not even born when the last uprising, or intifada, broke out in September 2000. They are a generation that has grown up on failed efforts towards Middle East peace, is angry with its own leadership and is losing faith in the prospect of a Palestinian state.

In the absence of any negotiations towards a two-state solution to the conflict – the last talks with Israel collapsed in April 2014 – Al-Aqsa has taken on a national symbolism beyond its religious significance for all Muslims.

Walls in Gaza are spray-painted with images of the mosque and the golden Dome of the Rock at the centre of the compound, Islam’s third holiest shrine. The area is also revered by Jews, who call it Temple Mount, the site of two ancient temples and the holiest place in Judaism.

Anger over Al-Aqsa is fuelled by the perception among many Palestinians that Jewish groups are being given freer rein to visit the site and frequently try to pray there, despite non-Muslim prayer being banned since the 12th century.

Netanyahu has repeatedly said he has no intention of changing the status quo, but his reassurances have done little to calm Palestinian anger. Every perceived violation is quickly shared on social media, creating an echo-chamber of outrage.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, 80, appears to have been caught off-guard by the disparate, Internet-generation nature of the violence. While he has used traditional language to praise “martyrs” killed by Israeli forces, sources say he has also urged Palestinian media to stop glorifying attacks and replaying video of violent incidents.

With its stone-throwing, the current violence mirrors the first Palestinian uprising that ran from 1987-1993, before the Oslo peace accords brought some calm to the region. But in its focus on Al-Aqsa, today’s unrest is more like the second uprising, often called the Al-Aqsa intifada.

That unrest began shortly after Israel’s then opposition leader, Ariel Sharon, visited Temple Mount in 2000 and ended five years later, after a campaign of suicide bombings of cafes and buses had left 1,000 Israelis and 3,000 Palestinians dead.

Since 2003, Israel has built a vast steel and concrete barrier cutting most of the West Bank off from Israel and East Jerusalem. While thousands of Palestinians cross the barrier every day for work, checks and searches are common and smuggling a car bomb or other bulky weaponry is significantly harder.

As a result, the violence now has mostly been carried out with easy-to-conceal knives and screwdrivers. While there are signs of a shift in tactics – there was a shooting on Tuesday and a suspected car bombing attempt on Sunday – Palestinian media are referring to it as the knife intifada.

Many of the latest assailants are residents of East Jerusalem, who are able to travel without restrictions because Israel regards that area as an integral part of the country.

Two elements remain the same: Israelis are again living in fear and panic, and Palestinians seem despairing at the failure of peace efforts and the sense that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and settlement building, will never end.

“Negotiations have gone nowhere, they are pointless,” said Hanan Ashrawi, a senior member of the Palestine Liberation Organization and a veteran statehood campaigner. “The Palestinian leadership has lost support. The Palestinian electorate is very frustrated… There is a loss of hope.”

Even so, some Palestinians question where the current wave of violence will lead.

“This is not an intifada, for an intifada to continue there should be a leadership to conduct it,” said Khamis Anabtawi, a man in his 20s watching the stone-throwing in Ramallah.

“There must be an armed intifada. If the situation remains as stone throwing only and nobody helps organise the youth or takes care of the wounded it will not last long.”

SOURCE: Reuters, Luke Baker and Ali Sawafta