What compels young Palestinians to opt for violence?
Only six months into what has been described as a new Palestinian Intifada (uprising), Israeli security forces have reportedly shot and killed at least 200 Palestinians following alleged attacks on Israelis and during protests in the occupied Palestinian territories.
At least half of the Palestinian victims were fatally shot after an alleged stabbing, shooting or car ramming incidents in Jerusalem, the West Bank and inside Israel. A total of 34 Israelis were killed in these attacks.
But with nearly a quarter of the Palestinians involved in the alleged attacks being minors, based on the Palestinian Ministry of Health’s figures, the question to ask is: What has compelled these young Palestinians to carry out such violent and often face-to-face acts, knowing that the attacks will certainly fail and that they will most likely be killed?
Israeli security officials and politicians attribute the attacks to incitement campaigns by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority and the media.
But Abbas sees the behavior of these young Palestinians as acts of despair.
“The difficult and grave conditions our people have to endure as a result of the endless Israeli occupation, the murderous acts of the settlers, the persecutions, the detentions, the execution of our young people, the stifling economic blockade and the lack of a political horizon have all given birth to despair, discontent and loss of hope in the future. It has caused our young people to react in the way we see nowadays,” Abbas has said, when explaining the attacks.
However, some Palestinian factions have challenged Abbas’ reasoning.
They accuse him of limiting the reasons for the violence to despair and hopelessness, as if young Palestinians want to commit suicide simply because of economic conditions or domestic problems.
They attribute the main reason for the uprising to the decades-long struggle for liberation and independence, and to some extent, to the growing religious sentiment against Israel’s schemes to change the status quo at Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third holiest site.
Political analyst Jihad Harb tells Newsweek Middle East the terms used by Abbas refer more to political despair.
“Their despair is created by the political situation, and not the social or economic status… Loss of hope means that people do not have any hope that the occupation is going to end. On the contrary, they see it further spreading and strengthening its status,” he says.
Many of those who have carried out attacks were not poor, hungry or desperate, he says.
“They are rather accomplished and non-partisan individuals, whom no one would ever expect [to] carry out such attacks.”
A closer look at the profiles of some of the Palestinian attackers shows many to be proficient individuals, who do not fit the typical definition of a dissatisfied person seeking death as a way out of his or her misery.
Muhannad Halabi, 19, from the West Bank city of Ramallah, belonged to a well-to-do family.
Yet ignited the current Intifada after carrying out the first stabbing attack, which killed two Israeli settlers, in the heart of Jerusalem’s Old City on October 3, 2015. He was shot and killed on the same day.
A day before his attack, Halabi wrote on his Facebook page: “From what I see, the third Intifada has started… What is happening to the women of Al Aqsa is what is happening to our mothers and sisters. I don’t believe that we are a people who will accept humiliation. The people are going to rise.”
Commenting on a video of Israeli policemen arresting a Palestinian woman at Al Aqsa Mosque days earlier, Halabi wrote: “Oh God, look at the situation we’ve reached. This is unbelievable. Fury, fury and more fury. Wake up from your slumber and save Al Aqsa. Let the revolution begin.”
The same goes for Bahaa Elyan, 22, from occupied East Jerusalem, who was an exemplary community leader despite his young age.
He spearheaded fundraisers to help Palestinian communities, and launched the Reading Chain initiative in Jerusalem’s Old City in March 2014, to encourage people to read and support Palestine’s claim to Jerusalem.
Yet a population that believes it is being humiliated by the Israelis at every chance, and is deprived of its basic human rights, has a tipping point.
Father of three, Ala Abu Jamal, 33, had a good job working as a technician with the Israeli telephone company Bezek.
Everything was going well for him. But on October 6, 2015, Israeli soldiers demolished his cousin’s house, located in the same neighborhood as Abu Jamal’s.
The soldiers forced everyone in the area out of their homes, including Abu Jamal’s family, and made them to stand in the cold night for several hours.
The soldiers humiliated the women and cursed them. When Abu Jamal stood up to them, the soldiers brutally beat him up, leaving no part of his body unharmed.
They ended their assault by stepping on Abu Jamal’s face as he lay on the ground, in front of his wife, children, friends and neighbors, a friend of his tells Newsweek Middle East on the condition of anonymity.
A week later, Abu Jamal rammed his car into a group of Israelis in West Jerusalem and attacked them with a knife, killing one and injuring others.
Abu Jamal was not affiliated with any political group and had no interest in politics in general, says the friend.
“He was someone who liked to go out with friends on the weekend and have a good time.”
The Driving Factor
Ala Rimawi, director of the Ramallah-based Jerusalem Center for the Study of Israeli Affairs, has done extensive research into the wave of attacks since they started last October.
He tells Newsweek Middle East that the common factor among all the attackers is their desire to see an end to what they call the Israeli occupation.
“Everyone is now convinced that the political track is long gone and ineffective, and therefore there must be alternatives,” says Rimawi.
Images from the 2014 Israeli military assault on Gaza have also left the impression that face-to-face combat was the correct way to confront the occupation, he adds.
In addition, pictures of Palestinian women being humiliated at Al Aqsa Mosque were a strong instigator for the attackers, especially among conservative Palestinians.
“You simply cannot see women being humiliated like this and children being killed in cold blood and not do anything about it,” he says.
Fakher Khalili, dean of the College of Psychology at Al Najah University in the West Bank city of Nablus, who has also done research on suicide bombers, says that several factors drove the Palestinians to violence.
“Some of the attackers came from excellent backgrounds, which means the economic factor was not a reason for what they did,” he says.
“It is not a spur of the moment act,” he adds. “Something must have accumulated over time and now the time has come for them to vent this suppressed rage,” adds Khalili.
But in addition to the psychological factor, Khalili says there is also the religious factor, which is the desire to become a martyr and go to heaven. Furthermore, many of these young people simply do not see any future for them, be it political, economic or social, without having an independent and free homeland.
“When their opportunities become limited, they start looking for alternatives and this road (violence) is one of them,” he tells Newsweek Middle East.
“These young people are eager to be free and to make their own choices in life, but when the occupation denies them this right, it drives them to react.”