The Knife-Attacks. What Provokes Them?

This past Saturday, in separate incidents, four young Palestinians—three of them teen-agers—were shot dead after knife attacks on Israelis, three on police, one on an armed settler. Since the beginning of October, ten Israelis and dozens of Palestinians have been killed in attacks or suspected attacks, or confrontations at street demonstrations. Many more on both sides have been wounded. “These random, unpredictable attacks have stumped Israeli police,” CNN reported last Thursday, just after police killed a young Palestinian man, dressed in combat fatigues, who had attempted a stabbing near the Damascus Gate of Jerusalem’s Old City. Israeli authorities, the report continued, could not find any connection between the attackers and organized groups such as Hamas and Fatah, and so found it “difficult to devise a streamlined strategy to fight them.”

The attacks have targeted soldiers, police, and Jewish civilians, most often in and around the Old City—where the Haram al-Sharif, or Temple Mount, has been increasingly contested by rogue zealot members of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Cabinet—but also near West Bank settlements, especially around Hebron, and in Israeli cities as far away as Beersheba. Last Friday, about a hundred Palestinians torched Joseph’s Tomb, in Nablus, as if answering last February’s “price tag” torching of a mosque by Jewish settlers in Al-Jaba’ah, near Bethlehem. In Jerusalem, Mayor Nir Barkat, who wrestled a would-be attacker to the ground in February, has called for new police checkpoints to monitor the comings and goings from Arab neighborhoods, and for all Israeli Jewish citizens to arm themselves. The centrist leader Yair Lapid, otherwise stridently secular, has found inspiration in Talmudic precepts: “The rabbis teach that if someone comes up against you to kill you, you should kill him first,” he said. “That should be our working model.” He added, “Don’t hesitate. Even at the start of an attack, shooting to kill is correct. If someone is brandishing a knife, shoot him. It’s part of Israel’s deterrence.”

These horrible attacks have left Israelis questioning whether the violence is a new Palestinian uprising, incited by a weakened, opportunistic Palestinian Authority—if not directly led by underground Hamas cells—or, rather, a passing expression of rage by Palestinian youth. Social-media posts have encouraged Palestinians to participate in the “Knife Intifada,” and have even given instructions on how to stab victims. President Mahmoud Abbas has condemned the violence in vague terms, and the attack on Joseph’s Tomb more pointedly. In 2011, he told me he would “never” return to armed struggle. But he has seemed to signal tolerance for these new attacks. On September 16th, Abbas said on Palestinian television, “We welcome every drop of blood spilled in Jerusalem. This is pure blood, clean blood, blood on its way to Allah.” Two weeks later, the stabbings began. One cannot help but be reminded of the grotesque suicide bombings of the al-Aqsa Intifada, which began almost exactly fifteen years ago.

Now as then, parents are keeping their children away from shopping malls, and guards are appearing at the entrances to restaurants. It is impossible, especially for those of us who have lost loved ones to terror, to see the knifings and hear talk of martyrs and not respond with instinctive revulsion. But there are proximate causes, and then there are material ones. Today’s attacks may appear “random” and “unpredictable,” but an increase in their incidence and intensity is entirely predictable. In 2012, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel found that eighty-four per cent of Arab children in East Jerusalem fell below the poverty line. The unemployment rate among Arabs in the city was about forty per cent among men and eighty-five per cent among women, Haaretz reported in 2012. Three hundred and twenty thousand Arabs live in East Jerusalem—although estimates vary depending on the inclusion of neighborhoods behind the separation wall—and constitute about thirty-eight per cent of the total population. Arab residents of East Jerusalem have no Israeli citizenship, only permanent-residency cards, which means that they are eligible for medical insurance and also have to pay Israeli taxes. They do not vote in national elections, though Israeli governments have claimed the united city as the country’s capital. Then there are the open provocations: not only the public agitation by government ministers for equal Jewish access to the Haram al-Sharif but also the encroachment by rightist archeological organizations on the neighborhood of Silwan, and the marches by tens of thousands of radical nationalist yeshiva students through Nablus Gate on Jerusalem Day.

But the statistics and political encroachments, however dramatic, do not fully capture the ambient pressure on Arab families—the humiliating limitations that steer most Jerusalem Arabs, no matter their intelligence or ambition, to the counters of delis and the steering wheels of delivery trucks. A number of highly educated Arabs find medical positions in Jerusalem’s hospitals or management positions in its hotels. They testify to the possibility of coexistence. They are also anomalous. A 2013 United Nations report found that more than half of employed Arabs work in “services, commerce, hotels, and restaurants,” and another quarter in construction and agriculture. In 2008, I told the story of Abed, who stayed in Jerusalem to marry, and hoped to start a business during the heady days of the Oslo peace process. He ended up running the meat department of our local supermarket and, after twenty years, had saved enough to build a stately home in a northern suburb. But then the separation wall, begun in 2002, put his new house beyond his reach, in so-called Palestinian territory. If Abed occupied it, he would lose his Jerusalem residency and health insurance; he had less than a week to move his family of five into a two-room apartment. (“It is a home for the birds now,” he told me, adding, “Bless God,” his eyes welling with tears.) Abed’s brother then tried to expand his home in the mixed neighborhood of Abu Tor, but was denied a permit, again and again. He put on an addition anyway, as Jews often do, and Jerusalem authorities demolished the entire house. More recently, Abed considered opening a fish store on the commercial street where he has worked for a generation. (I helped him with the business plan.) But he soon determined that an Arab could not hope to get kosher certification or a loan from Israeli banks—and no Arab banks are permitted to operate in the city. I have not seen Abed’s son, who is now a teen-ager, since he was a toddler. But I can only imagine the sting he has felt watching his father go off to work each day. Multiply such a sting by many thousands.

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