Wave of Terrorism in Israel Defies a Clear Narrative

TEL AVIV — The current upsurge in terrorist attacks in Israel has been presented by Palestinian parties and militant groups as a logical consequence of the entrenchment of Israel’s 55-year occupation of the West Bank, Israel’s control over sensitive religious sites in Jerusalem and the diminishing commitment of some key Arab leaders to the establishment of a Palestinian state.

The varied origins of the attackers, however, have left Palestinian and Israeli analysts and officials uncertain about the relationship between the attackers, their respective motivations and the timing of their attacks.

In the deadliest wave of violence since 2016, there have been four attacks in four Israeli cities since March 22, involving five Arab assailants who killed 14 people, including two Arab policemen and two Ukrainians. But beyond their murderous endings, the four episodes do not fit easily into a simple narrative.

The two most recent attacks – in Tel Aviv and Bnei Brak – were perpetrated by Palestinians from the occupied West Bank. Although hailed by several Palestinian movements, no group has officially claimed responsibility.

The previous two attacks were carried out by three members of Israel’s Arab minority who had sympathies with Islamic State, the extremist group that has no ties to the Palestinian national movement and which has claimed responsibility, possibly be opportunistically, from one incident but not the other. .

While the deadly result of the first attack on March 22 may have inspired others to follow suit, a senior Israeli military officer said there was currently no evidence that any of them was orchestrated by a major Palestinian group, let alone by the same network. Analysts also noted that the attackers in the first two incidents had no ideological connection to the latter two.

“Honestly, I don’t think it’s the same,” said Bashaer Fahoum-Jayousi, chair of the board of directors of Abraham Initiatives, a nongovernmental group that promotes equality between Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel. Israel. “There are huge differences between the profiles of these people.”

By supporting a pan-Arab caliphate, Ms. Fahoum-Jayousi said, three attackers distanced themselves not only from the Palestinian cause, but also from the grievances of Israel’s Arab minority. About 20% of Israel’s population is Arab, most descended from Palestinians who remained in Israel after its founding in 1948 and are still seeking greater rights and recognition within the Jewish state.

By contrast, the motivations of the two Palestinians from the West Bank “have more to do with the occupation and the injustices they suffer, not that it justifies anything,” said Fahoum-Jayousi, a Palestinian citizen of Israel.

“But why now? she added. “What exactly changed at that time?”

For some, the timing of the violence is hardly a surprise, and has even been predicted for a long time.

Next weekend, the religious holidays of Passover, Ramadan and Easter will overlap in a rare convergence that will bring unusually high numbers of Jewish, Muslim and Christian worshipers to Jerusalem’s Old City. This increases the risk of clashes between Muslims and Jews and heightens long-standing Palestinian resentment over restrictions on access to and control of the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

But if there have been clashes in recent days around the Old City, tensions are less there than last year. Israel has allowed more Palestinians from the West Bank to attend prayers in Jerusalem than in 2021. And Israel’s Supreme Court has postponed the eviction of dozens of Palestinian residents in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah, whose circumstances have contributed to the unrest of Ramadan last year.

In recent months, the Israeli government has attempted to ease economic and social tensions in the occupied territories by granting Israeli work permits to tens of thousands of Palestinians; giving legal status to thousands of Palestinians in the West Bank who previously lived in legal limbo; and by lending $156 million to the Palestinian Authority, which controls about 40% of the West Bank.

While groups like Hamas, the militant Islamist movement based in Gaza, have issued several recent statements inciting against Israel and praising the wave of terrorism, Israeli officials do not believe the group is currently seeking to organize its own operations, according to the senior Israeli army officer. officer, speaking on condition of anonymity to comply with Israeli military protocol.

In this context, the precise timing of the violence has puzzled experienced analysts, although they agree that the inherent instability of life in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza always makes violence possible.

Anyone who “has identified a pattern or a reason for ‘why now’ and ‘why this way’ is just mind-blowing,” said Ehud Yaari, a prominent Israeli analyst on Palestinian affairs. “The most important element is how random it is,” he added.

But for many Palestinians, the structural reasons for the violence are obvious, even if these specific attacks and their perpetrators lack a clear unifying narrative.

Although Israel’s recent piecemeal concessions to the Palestinians have improved lives in small ways, the most basic Palestinian aspiration – a sovereign state – remains distant. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett opposes Palestinian sovereignty and has ruled out peace talks during his tenure.

Mr. Bennett’s government has announced that it will construct thousands of new buildings in Israeli settlements in the West Bank, bolstering Israel’s 55-year occupation of the territory. It still maintains a two-tier legal system there — one for Palestinians and one for Israeli settlers — and still restricts Palestinian movement in parts of it. Along with Egypt, Israel also still maintains a blockade on the Gaza Strip.

“For Israelis, the occupation is invisible,” said Nour Odeh, a Palestinian political analyst and former Palestinian Authority spokesperson. But for the Palestinians, “it’s a dead end everywhere you look,” she said.

“Of course, the Palestinians will appreciate the improvements in their standard of living,” Ms. Odeh added. “But they won’t forget they’re busy.”

A recent summit meeting in the Negev desert between four Arab foreign ministers and their Israeli and American counterparts has also heightened a sense of hopelessness among many Palestinians.

The meeting was the first diplomatic gathering of so many Arab dignitaries on Israeli soil and was held near the grave of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister. It was also near land at the heart of a lingering property dispute between Bedouin families and the Israeli state – a case that, for young Palestinians, has become emblematic of their plight.

For many Palestinians, this combination of factors made the meeting a scene of “utter humiliation”, Ms Odeh said. “I don’t think anyone in Palestine hasn’t seen these images and got angry.”

In addition, a small minority of young Palestinians may increasingly turn to violence due to their growing anger against Palestinian leaders, analysts said.

Initially seen as a state-in-waiting government, the Palestinian Authority is now considered by a majority of Palestinians, according to polls, to be synonymous with corruption.

The authority’s chairman, Mahmoud Abbas, is seen as increasingly autocratic. He canceled Palestinian elections last March, nominally because Israel would not allow Palestinians to vote in Jerusalem, but also because he privately feared losing, according to people familiar with his thinking.

“The vast majority of the younger generation has lost faith in all Palestinian institutions,” said Mr. Yaari, the analyst.

Young Palestinians see “that the Palestinian national struggle is going nowhere, and that it is being carried out by people they don’t trust”, he added. “So some of them, not too many, but some of them decide to pick up a gun and do something with it.”

Israeli intelligence failures may also have played a role in the two attacks on Israeli citizens, Yaari said. Two of the three Israeli Arabs had been imprisoned for their ties to Islamic State, but after their release, he said, the authorities “didn’t really monitor them or maintain surveillance”.

Similarly, the failures of the Palestinian Authority may also have allowed the two West Bank Palestinians to prepare for their attacks undetected. The men were both from the Jenin area in the northern West Bank, an area that is nominally ruled by the authority, but which the authority’s security forces have struggled to control in recent months. said the senior Israeli officer.

Jenin’s recent history also provides particularly fertile ground for Palestinian resentment, Odeh said.

The attacker who killed three Israelis this week in Tel Aviv was from the Jenin refugee camp. He was 8 years old when Israeli troops, fighting militants in the camp in 2002, destroyed hundreds of buildings there.

“He was a young boy who opened his eyes to Jenin in 2002,” Ms Odeh said, “and to the total destruction of the camp.”

Jonathan Rosen contributed reporting from Jerusalem.