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Here's Why the Latest Spate of Violence Between Israelis and Palestinians Won’t Stop Soon

More than 100 Israelis and Palestinians have been killed in a two-month spate of violence that shows no signs of dying down. We take a look at some of the reasons why it won't slow in the near future.

by Harriet Salem
Dec 7 2015, 1:20pm

Photo by Alaa Badarneh/EPA

Since October 1 at least 88 Palestinians and 19 Israelis have been killed in an uptick in violence that has seen renewed clashes between Israeli security forces and Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and a spate of vehicle, stabbing, and shooting attacks by Palestinians. Here's a quick look at some of the reasons why the violence won't stop soon.

The "Facebook Intifada": Violence Without a Leader

On October 13 Bahaa Allyan boarded a number 78 bus in Jerusalem. Along with one other accomplice the graphic designer waited for the doors to close then began stabbing and shooting the passengers. The assault left three dead and wounded a dozen more.

Like many of the young Palestinian men and women behind the recent spate of attacks, Allyan is believed to have been inspired not by rousing political speeches but by violent videos and memes shared online; a trend that has led to the unrest being dubbed the 'Facebook' or 'Lone Wolf' intifada (uprising).

Less than 48 hours before he went on the bus rampage Allyan wrote an online status update berating Palestinian leaders and "mainstream media" coverage of the conflict. His Facebook page was a stream of reposted viral images of dead youths killed while carrying out attacks or in confrontations with Israeli security forces. 

In December 2014 Allyan posted a "martyr's will" to his profile warning Palestinian political factions not to claim responsibility for his actions and telling his followers he would "see them in heaven."

In recent years the number of Palestinians, particularly young people, using social media has grown exponentially with recent estimates suggesting some 1.5 million active Facebook profiles in Gaza and the West Bank — equivalent to around one-third of the population.

For many users, however, social media are not just a way to stay in touch with family and friends. According to an October survey by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Social Research only 21 percent of Palestinians believe their media are free, while 70 percent said they were afraid of publicly criticizing the authorities. As a result, many young people say they consume their news online via social media, and the Facebook pages of Palestinian news sites — including some believed to be associated with militant groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad — have garnered millions of followers.

Yet while many use the internet as a space to freely express their thoughts and access content uncensored by politicians, it can also be a tool of radicalization. According to Israeli security services, unlike in previous intifadas, most attackers are not affiliated or organized by militant or political groups and 82 percent of the perpetrators are aged between 16 and 25.

"What has been going on is due to the combination of the internet and Islamist extremism," Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu said of the recent spate of attacks. "It has been Osama Bin Laden meets Mark Zuckerberg."

In October some 20,000 Israelis filed a complaint against Facebook for allowing posts that "incite violence" against Jews and enabling would-be attackers to connect with radicalizing forces via hashtags such as "stab" and "intifada." Among the hundreds of posts cited in the 112-page complaint were anatomical diagrams instructing would-be attackers how to carry out deadly knife attacks and violent memes glorifying killers as martyrs.

Experts, however, warn of the difficulties of trying to stop the spread of ideas online. "It's like treating the symptom of the diseases, it's not a cure," said Orit Perlov, an expert in social media trends in the Arab World at Israel's Institute for National Security Studies. "You can take down one page or 10 but 100 will come back in its place. Sure, you can take down videos, but even if a video is only up seven minutes that's already a lifetime on YouTube. It's already been viewed and downloaded hundreds of times."

Overall the picture is largely one of angry youths, many just teenagers, working on their own, and carrying out attacks with just a few hours of planning. Many appear to have been strongly influenced by posts made on social media and do not have strong ties to political or militant organizations. 

This not only makes it incredibly difficult for Israeli security services to police and disrupt would-be attackers, but also indicates that Palestinian leaders are unable to exert much influence on the violence. Experts say pulling down violent social media posts online will be hard to achieve.

Related: Facebook is Being Sued by 20,000 Israelis for Inciting Palestinian Terror

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No Hope: The Peace Talks Are Dead

US secretary of state John Kerry delivered a stark warning to Israel at the Saban Forum in Washington on Saturday: With no changes on the ground, he said, it was heading toward a "one-state reality." His comments drew a sharp response from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who promised Israel would never become a binational state.

As the leader of Israel's most right-wing government ever, though, Netanyahu has little maneuvering space. He won a March election on the back of a dramatic 11th-hour rightward swing, the Likud leader's coalition government has just a one-seat majority, and depends on support from pro-settler and religious parties. Even if he wanted to renew talks with the Palestinians, he would find little support from his partners.

On the other side, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has repeatedly threatened to dissolve the Palestinian Authority (PA) and end security cooperation with Israel — a move that would essentially force Israel to assume full responsibility across West Bank as an occupying force, both militarily and financially. But in practice few Palestinians believe that 80-year-old Abbas is willing to relinquish power in order to do this. He is 10 years into a four-year term, after all, and last year described security coordination as "sacred."

The ageing leader's failure to follow words with actions has frustrated many, with some 65 percent of Palestinians saying they want Abbas to resign as president, and two-thirds dissatisfied with the PA's security arrangements to prevent settler attacks. Yet he has no clear successor: talk of a replacement often centers on similarly grey-haired politicians such as Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, who command little public support themselves. Neither the current president nor the next one would enjoy much of a mandate to push a controversial peace agreement.

A recent report by Israel's internal security service, Shin Bet, attributed much of the recent violence including 60 attacks by Palestinians against Israelis in October alone to a "bleak reality" which many "perceive as unchangeable."

"[The attacks show] a lack of organizational-political framework for a clear, coherent conceptual plan of action, or an organized leadership, leading the protests," it concluded.

On top of a lack of political will a two-state solution is also hampered by a massive expansion in the Jewish presence in the West Bank over the last decade.

In practical terms settlements such as the sizeable Har Homa, and Givat Hamatos which is still in planning stages, serve to near-sever Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem from the West Bank; making a Palestinian state, which would have its capital in Jerusalem, logistically difficult without mass relocation of Israelis living beyond 1967 lines.

"You're talking about nearly half a million settlers living in West Bank," said Yossi Mekelberg an associate fellow and Middle East researcher with Chatham House. "That's not a situation that's just going to go away overnight. It's a major obstacle [to a two-state solution] but still there's more building going on and every expansion makes this problem bigger."

While both sides remain theoretically committed to a two-state solution in practical terms, unless there's a change in leadership in Israel or the Palestinian territories — or both — there's a widespread recognition both at home and abroad that any resolution is distant and the current situation is the new status quo.

Related: Israel Acts to Expand Settlements in the West Bank as Netanyahu Meets Obama

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Young and Angry: Violence Begets More Violence

Even during times of relative calm, for many Israelis and Palestinians living in the West Bank, violence, and the fear of violence, is part of their day-to-day lives.

In August Shin Bet recorded a total of 171 attacks against its citizens in the West Bank, Jerusalem, and Gaza: five stabbings, one hit-and-run, four small arms shootings, 22 IEDs (including pipe bombs and improvised grenades), 136 firebombs, and three rocket attacks. That figure was up on July, which saw 107 violent incidents.

Between August 2014 and 2015 Yesh Din, a NGO working to protect Palestinian human rights, recorded 45 attacks on Palestinians and their property in West Bank — a figure it said was up nearly 98 percent on the previous year.

Part of this cycle of violence is the emergence of the so-called "hilltop youth." This group, of a few hundred hardline young Jewish settlers, have adopted an anarchist-messianic view and express a strong distrust of the state. Based in far-flung outposts in the West Bank their activities have been hard to police, although Israel's security services have frequently implicated members of the group in so-called "price-tag" (revenge) attacks on Palestinians, mosques, churches, and Israeli soldiers. Members of the group are believed to have carried out an arson attack in Douma, a small Palestinian village in the West Bank, killing an 18-month old toddler, his mother, and brother in July.

On the other side the abject failure of peace talks, alongside the weakness of their leadership in the face of routine settler attacks, is also driving support for violent confrontation among Palestinians. According to a recent social survey in October 54 percent of Palestinians living in the West Bank said they supported an "armed intifada," a figure up 20 percent from March.

"There's a lot of loss and lot of pain and that's been going on a long time. If there isn't a real reconciliation process [between Israelis and Palestinians] there will never be peace there will only be a ceasefire," said Robi Damelin, the founder of Parent Circle Families Forum, an NGO working with the bereaved. "The reality is you can't take your child and make them grow up in a violent place and expect them to turn out to be Martin Luther King. That's the case on both sides."

A whole generation of Israelis and Palestinians have now grown up in conflict. Intermingling between the two sides is uncommon, increasing fear and suspicion of the other. With violence and anger deeply entrenched in society a political resolution will need to be accompanied by a meaningful reconciliation process to bring about a truly peaceful resolution on the ground.

Related: Palestinian Baby Burnt to Death in Suspected 'Jewish Terror' Attack