“The popular intifada will continue until the occupation is over and there will be no return to negotiations without full recognition of Palestinian rights. Movement towards a settlement will be achieved through international intervention.”1
– Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian Authority President and head of Fatah, January 6, 2015
Abbas’ assertion casts doubts over the assumption that the current wave of Palestinian violence is unplanned and uncontrolled. In reality, it appears that this ongoing violence is part of a multi-layered and far-reaching strategy. According to this strategy, the Israeli approach of achieving a two-state solution by way of negotiations is incorrect, since Abbas is relying on other factors to bring about a resolution: “Time and demographics are the two basic elements that will bring about the demise of Zionist theory.”2
Abbas’ demographic element is simple: Once there are more Palestinians than Jews west of the Jordan River, the Palestinians will be able to call the shots. The time element appears to be slightly more complex. In conjunction with demographic shifts, the idea is that with the extension of time, constantly brewing tensions will lead to the accumulation of pressure on Israel. In response to this pressure from the Palestinians and then subsequently the international community, Israel has the choice to either offer concessions or experience unceasing violence.
However, as far as action is concerned, Abbas has set clear parameters for acts aimed at supporting this dynamic: No guns and no bombs. Abbas’ model of resistance relies on easily obtainable weaponry – stones and knives. These weapons are not meant to be used by trained operatives and militants, but rather by the untrained – mostly teenagers and relatives of fallen compatriots. In this way Abbas differentiates himself from Hamas and its brutal tactics and creates a facade of a popular uprising by the masses.
Editor’s note: The three terrorists who carried out a coordinated attack on police at Damascus Gate in Jerusalem on February 3, 2016, were equipped with assault rifles and pipe bombs. Their joint attack with “hot” weapons seemingly broke Abbas’ mold, but it appears that the three from Kabatiya in the West Bank were not part of a cell larger than three friends seeking revenge for the death of another friend.
According to the concept Abbas promotes, this wave of terror was planned to be unplanned, and the appearance of spontaneity is crucial for its success. Everything is geared to create a popular and uncontrolled uprising. For this reason Abbas refused the demand made by the fighting factions active in the previous uprisings to set up a joint operations command center; the resulting coordination could impede the spontaneous and popular appearance Abbas is hoping to achieve.
Rather than plan and coordinate violent attacks, Abbas uses the Palestinian public debate and the media as a mechanism for instigating waves of violence. The public debate also uses a dialogue based on cultural codes which broadcast a specific, pre-defined meaning to the Palestinian listener. When President Abbas says that “they [the Jews] have no right to defile them [the al-Aqsa mosque and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher]…we will not allow them, and we will do everything in our power to protect Jerusalem,”3 he is in fact giving permission and legitimacy to intensify the struggle. Within the context of the struggle this is an authorization to move from stone-throwing to knifing and vehicular attacks, as was indeed the case.
On Sept. 16, 2015 Abbas proclaimed on official PA TV: “The al-Aqsa [mosque] is ours… and they have no right to defile it with their filthy feet… We bless every drop of blood that has been spilled for Jerusalem, which is clean and pure blood, blood spilled for Allah, Allah willing.”4 The PA leader’s exhortations were followed by Palestinian terrorist attacks.
The recurring theme of “Martyrs and Prisoners” and its constant use in the public debate assures the perpetuation of violence and provides a morbid channel for political participation. According to this narrative, the establishment of the Palestinian state depends on the individual’s willingness to sacrifice his or her life for the cause, and martyrdom is considered as the greatest votive offering one can make to the cause of Palestinian statehood. This narrative is constantly reinforced by Palestinian leaders.
In his speech representing President Mahmoud Abbas, District Governor of Hebron Kamel Hamid stated: “I convey the president’s greetings to you. Our martyrs and prisoners will remain the beacon of our magnificent glory until the dream of the martyr and [Fatah] founder Yasser Arafat, [Hamas founder] Ahmed Yassin and all the [other] martyrs is fulfilled with the establishment of our Palestinian state. We must be loyal to these heroes in all aspects.”5
Specific versus from the Koran are also used regularly in the public discourse to promote or further intensify violence. Among these is Surah 22, verse 39: “Permission [to fight] has been given to those who are being fought, because they were wronged. And indeed, Allah is competent to give them victory.”6 When this verse is used in regard to a martyr – it is in fact a call for vengeance. The fallen martyr must be redeemed by another terrorist attack.
The Origins of the Current Wave of Violence
The term habba, used to describe this wave of violence, refers to a constant “buzz” of low-intensity violence utilizing stones, knives, firebombs, and vehicular attacks perpetrated by random and unorganized civilians. The initiation and parameters of the habba, which defines the current wave of violence against Israelis, was actually conceived at the Sixth Fatah Conference held in Bethlehem on August 4, 2009.7 Fatah’s position, both within Palestinian politics as well as its connections with Israel and the outside world, were at an all-time low; the humiliation of being expelled from Gaza was still fresh. In Ramallah, the Western powers had forced the Palestinian Authority to set up a government headed by Salam Fayyad, who was supposed to weed out Fatah entrenchment in the political system.
Fayyad presented an alternative strategy to that of Fatah: on the internal level he promoted the formation of a meritocratic bureaucracy able to support an ongoing nation-building process. On the external level he put the emphasis on a concept of “victimhood” as a method of evading any Palestinian responsibility for the constant deterioration of Israeli-Palestinian relations. Fayyad was not a member of Fatah and actually contested both Fatah and Hamas dominance over Palestinian politics by forming his own party – The Third Way – which ran in the Palestinian legislative elections of 2006.8 He was given control over the security apparatus – which gave him de facto control over Fatah. With its military capabilities and options significantly diminished, it was time for Fatah to reposition itself, and the Sixth Fatah Conference laid down the infrastructure for the future habba.
At the conference, Fatah agreed to promote “popular resistance” to serve as a lever for asserting pressure on Israel. This ability, in turn, gave Fatah an advantage over both Hamas and Fayyad. If Fatah were to reposition itself as the leader of the resistance against Israel, it would help its popularity versus that of Hamas. At the same time, the more Fatah controls the flames of the habba, the more it becomes the relevant player when it comes to Israel and the United States. Fatah understood that Hamas-style armed terrorism does not necessarily gain them support abroad. Therefore, Fatah opted to substitute its model of armed struggle, one that could be presented as a popular struggle, supplemented by unilateral diplomacy, action through the UN, and the promotion of boycotts.
The Beginning of the Habba
The actual start of the renewed wave of Palestinian violence traces back to Abbas’ speech at the UN on September 30, 2015, with the ongoing tension surrounding the Temple Mount as the background.
Abbas’ speech was echoed in a New Year’s Eve interview with Riad Mansur,9 Permanent Observer for Palestine to the UN, where he spoke of the escalation of the popular Palestinian habba in response to the perceived endangerment of sacred Islamic places. Mansur described the topic of Haram al-Sharif [Temple Mount] as a matter relating to the entire Arab world as much as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:
Action against Israel at the United Nations is currently not taking place due to American objections and various excuses such as Iran or Syria. America keeps postponing such action but the situation cannot tolerate being postponed anymore, especially now with the popular Palestinian habba and the danger to the Islamic holy places such as al-Aqsa….This is a pan-Arab interest and the Palestinian reaction is one of frustration and desperation and the habba carried out by our youngsters may escalate. Those who pushed the problem aside will be forced to deal with it after the Palestinian forces will prove that the Palestinian problem cannot be ignored as it is the central problem of the Middle East.10
The various factions in the West Bank, reluctant to stay behind, demanded that Abbas set up a joint command and control center for coordinating various activity relating to the habba. Abbas rejected this and ruled out the participation of the various armed factions in order to allow for the more authentic grassroots appearance of the habba. To allow this, an alternative method of communication and messaging had to be developed, supplementing the old-school shahid (martyr) posters. Spontaneous social network pages started to appear and gain momentum online; many of these coincide with the focal points declared by Abbas at his UN speech as well as other popular messages.
The Purpose of Incitement
It is entirely possible that Abbas, Fatah, or the Palestinian Authority did not give a direct order for the outbreak of violence. There is, however, no doubt that Fatah agreed upon, planned, created, and continues to maintain the infrastructure that facilitates and promotes this violence. This is mostly achieved by two methods: support and incitement.
Regarding support, Jibril Rajoub, a prominent Fatah Central Committee member and former head of the Palestinian Preventive Security Force, announced that Fatah regards the fallen (Palestinians who carried out terrorist attacks against Jews and were killed while doing so) as martyrs – shahidis – and called upon young Palestinians to follow in their footsteps.11 This statement contains within it support and legitimacy from two of the highest authorities: the political one, as expressed by Fatah encouragement, and the religious one, as expressed by declaring the fallen as martyrs.
While Hamas would like to maintain a constant “buzz” of incitement in order to facilitate and promote constant violence, its end goal remains the liberation of Palestine by means of armed jihad. PA President Mahmoud Abbas, conversely, wishes to maintain political control by ensuring that the violence remains at the popular level – namely, stone-throwing and stabbings – as this type of violence is perceived by many in the Western world as legitimate and viewed as a fight for freedom and independence rather than terrorism.
From an internal-political point of view, this is a source of conflict between the Palestinian Authority and its main adversary, Hamas.
Hamas incites in order to promote armed struggle against Israel and thereby label itself as the leader and central actor of the resistance. Abbas is tasked with governing the Palestinian Authority and, therefore, has an interest in maintaining control over incitement, tying it to the varying needs of the peace process as well as internal Palestinian needs. This is specifically demonstrated by Abbas’ ability to assert power and control over the violence by considerably limiting incitement to terror on its media channels, as well as sending the PA security apparatus to control violent demonstrations and prevent clashes with the IDF – if and when possible.12
However, official Palestinian control over lone, young, and unaffiliated assailants remains limited, a fact which conveniently aligns with Abbas’ agenda to create the appearance that the current violence is an unplanned popular uprising and that his ability to control or quell it is limited. At the same time, Abbas, like other Palestinian factions, openly voices his support for the violence.13 He condemns the use of explosives or “hot” weaponry,14 but avoids condemnation of violence which falls within the parameters of the habba, even when called upon to do so by U.S. President Obama.15
Israeli security forces have commented that behind Abbas’ restraint is the PA’s fear that Hamas would use the escalation of violence for two parallel moves: (a) “hijacking” the agenda and turning it into a full-blown armed intifada including firearms and suicide bombers, and (b) a renewed attempt to destabilize the Palestinian Authority in order to bring about its collapse. This difference defines the ways these actors utilize incitement: Hamas uses it in order to support armed struggle and resistance, while Abbas and the Palestinian Authority use incitement as a tool for applying pressure on Israel in order to bring about Israeli concessions. In this way, violence brought about by incitement can be seen as a complement to the peace process: The more violent the conflict, the more pressure on Israel to conduct negotiations and make concessions.
Varying Levels of Incitement
Levels of incitement – as well as the objectives they serve – vary according to intensity, specificity, and targeting. The more specific the focal point of the inciting narrative, the more specific the outcome. For example: presenting this narrative: “The Jews are threatening the physical stability and the religious sanctity of al-Aqsa,” results in this outcome: attacks against Jews associated with al-Aqsa.
These codes provide Abbas with a regulating system. He maintains a certain degree of control and has the ability to raise or lower the levels of violence according to his varying needs. When Abbas speaks publicly about “Jews desecrating and defiling the al-Aqsa mosque,”16 he is essentially turning on a green light for violence against Jews. The ability to regulate the levels of incitement and the level of violence allows Abbas to utilize the already present incitement not only to prevent or produce violence, but also to re-focus global attention, thereby creating international pressure on Israel to reignite the peace process, all the while simultaneously refusing to come to the table.
At the time when the negotiations surrounding the Iranian nuclear issue were drawing to a conclusion (September–October 2015), the United States was not actively participating in an Israeli-Palestinian peace process. In fact, the Palestinian topic was not a focal point of attention by the international community. The speech given by President Obama at the United Nations on September 28, 2015, did not even mention the Palestinian issue.17 This served as a warning sign for the Palestinian leadership that it was becoming irrelevant and needed to take action. Civil demonstrations against the Palestinian Authority over its high levels of corruption, on the one hand, and its willingness to cooperate and coordinate certain actions with Israel and the IDF, on the other, served as further warning signs to Abbas and the PA. This wave of demonstrations took place in major Palestinian cities such as Ramallah, Bethlehem, Nablus and Tulkarm, and quickly escalated to violence against Palestinian security forces.18 Threatened with the escalation of internal strife which could endanger both Abbas’ rule and person, diverting public attention and rage from the PA to Israel by way of incitement seemed like a successful strategy.
Re-establishing Relevance: Fatah’s Habba
The videos of ISIS atrocities established the knife as a powerful symbol of Islamic resistance. While many of the recent attacks by Palestinians against Jews in Israel are knife attacks, Abbas originally opposed the use of the knife and adopting it as a symbol precisely because of its association with ISIS.
This matter was discussed at a meeting with the Fatah leadership on October 8, 2015. Abbas opposed the use of the knife and using it as symbol of the habba. However, he met with significant objection from the representatives of the fighting factions. The next day Abbas’ emissary and senior member of the Fatah Central Committee, Nabil Sha’ath, appeared on Palestinian television and was asked if the knife was to become the icon of the habba. Sha’ath replied:
The relevant icon is the popular struggle itself and the challenge it poses to the occupation. Use of the knife is precisely where Israel wants to drag us. We stand in the middle of two populations: our own population and that of the world. The world is watching our media closely and following what we say. Our message to the Palestinian people is to abide by the popular revolution and not follow the path the enemy would have us follow, which leads to a trap. The enemy is armed. Our strength lies in our people’s willpower. I am following global media and it is reporting all of Israel’s crimes. We must work to reaffirm this because this is a war crime and a crime against humanity. When they kill children – this is genocide. Their intention is to annihilate us.19
The lower echelons of Fatah, however, continued to support the use of knives since these are an easily obtainable and effective weapon for perpetrating physical harm against enemies while simultaneously matching the popular uprising image that it wished to maintain.
On the ground, the knife also allowed for renewed Fatah-Hamas cooperation. Hamas criticism had long blamed Fatah for giving up the armed struggle and cooperating with Israel by way of security coordination. In order to placate the public and maintain its relevance, Fatah needed to show that it was still a fighting force to be reckoned with and was still capable of promoting and waging violence against Israel. However, Fatah continued to shy away from attacks that could be compared to ISIS, assaults perpetrated by relatives of Hamas members, violence that may appear overzealous and cruel, as well as attacks utilizing firearms or explosives.
Ironically, it was the knife that initially gave these two parties the ability to conduct limited cooperation. Hamas and Fatah have both routinely raced to take credit for attacks. Hamas was quick to “hijack” the habba’s agenda and position itself through its solid support base in Hebron as the leader of the knife attacks. Hamas was in a unique position, able to conduct both armed attacks and popular struggle at the same time, thereby increasing its popularity. Association with Hamas also increased the level of the habba’s religious element.
Links between the Palestinian Leadership and Control over Incitement
According to Fatah logic, there is a need for a constant proliferation of incitement material in order to serve and promote the interests of the popular struggle against Israel. Therefore, the matter of incitement is not discussed as something to be fought against, but rather controlled and manipulated according to the constantly changing conditions, both on a micro level – allowing the local population and the lower levels of the struggle to “vent” their antagonism and cultivated hatred of Israel – and on the macro level – to serve as a strategic tool in the continuing armed and political conflict with Israel.
In order to understand this phenomenon there is a need to identify the delicate balance between two interrelated types of incitement:
- Subdued and controlled incitement, which will nurture hatred but will not directly promote violent action. This allows the Palestinian leadership to maintain a public mindset which fosters antagonism and is therefore willing to accept, support, and carry out actions against Israel when incited. This also allows the Fatah/PLO – and subsequently the Palestinian Authority – to counter claims from extremists such as Hamas that the Palestinian Authority is a tool for cooperation with the enemy and that it has abandoned the cause of liberating all of Palestine by force. This form of incitement does not directly call for violent action against Israel, but it reaffirms and enforces the centrality of the struggle for Palestine as part of the Palestinian experience. It serves as a cohesive experience for the masses (like the concept of the habba) because it is the place where both main political factions – Fatah and Hamas – can openly express their will for continued struggle against Israel without paying a cost politically or compromising the Palestinian Authority’s ability to call for a peace process. This type of incitement will usually result in low-intensity popular resistance and localized action, such as demonstrations or roadside stone-throwing.
- Specific incitement creates a receptive and encouraging environment for individuals who are willing to carry out actions based on or relating to a specific and clearly defined agenda (such as “defending” the al-Aqsa mosque). It provides a defined platform for all acts of antagonism through which any Palestinian can take part in the Palestinian struggle regardless of that individual’s reasons and motivation. The effects of this type of incitement can vary from random violence and terrorism to a full-blown intifada. The message is designed to achieve a specific level of violence without completely losing control over the masses. The result of “random terror,” mostly carried out by unaffiliated individuals, allows the Palestinian leadership to maintain a certain degree of deniability and claim they are not promoting violence and “their people” are not involved in said violence. The appearance of spontaneous violence is seen to be coming from the Palestinian street, over which the Palestinian leadership supposedly has little or no influence.
Blood Money Incitement
The Palestinian Authority (PA) is responsible for one more nefarious form of incitement to attack Jews – paying large bounties to the attackers and their families. An attacker can go out to commit murder assured that if he is arrested he will receive a monthly salary; if he is killed, his family will receive a monthly pension; and if his family home is destroyed, the family will receive a very generous award to rebuild their home.
Rather than being deterred by the harsh consequence of their terrorist attack at Israel’s hand, the perpetrators are actually encouraged and incentivized by the Palestinian leadership. According to one study published by the Gatestone Institute, “Terrorists in prison receive higher average salary than PA civil servants and military personnel.”1
An Israeli government 2014 memorandum, citing official PA budgetary reports, noted that $75.5 million had been paid out in stipends to convicted terrorists and their families in 2012.3
The instructions for compensation payments come from the highest levels of the Palestinian Authority, according to the Al-Araby Al-Jadeed website in February 2014: “The Jerusalem Martyrs’ families and the National Campaign to Return the Bodies of the Martyrs confirmed that President Mahmoud Abbas promised to compensate the Jerusalem Martyrs’ families for their homes, which the occupation forces demolished or damaged.”4
In a long-standing practice, the Palestinian Authority grants large bonuses to prisoners – even terrorists – when they are released from prison. The longer the stay, the more the pay. These grant payments reached more than $6 million, creating a serious crisis, according to Director of the PLO Commission of Prisoners’ Affairs Issa Karake.5
The British Telegraph provided more details on April 27, 2014:
Based on Palestinian documents, Palestinian Media Watch says that the longest-serving terrorists receive £2,075 [British pounds] per month, plus bonuses for wives and children. Grants made upon release can be as much as £50,000. The average Palestinian wage is about £312 per month. In 2013, the Palestinian Authority (PA) paid more than £60 million to those convicted of terror offences; of this, £9 million was paid as bonuses when terrorists were released. In February, the Palestinian Authority announced that this bonus pot would be increased to £27 million.6
Meanwhile, a bidding war has erupted between the PA/Fatah on one side and Hamas/Iran on the other. Iran accused the PA of failing to deliver aid it sent to the terrorists’ families. In reaction, Iran announced the formation of another organization to provide funds to Palestinians; the grants would amount to $7,000 to every family of a shaheed (martyr) and $30,000 to rebuild any house destroyed because of a family member’s involvement in a terrorist act.7 The Iranian accusation further weakens the Palestinian Authority, seen by many Palestinians as a corrupt organization.
American lawmakers are angry over the Palestinian Authority’s involvement in incitement. On September 25, 2015, the State Department informed Congress that it would cut economic aid for the West Bank and Gaza by 22 percent. “There were several factors contributing to this decision,” a State Department official said, “including unhelpful actions taken by the Palestinians and constraints on our global assistance budget.”8
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1 Itamar Marcus, “Palestinian Authority Paying Salaries to Terrorists with U.S. Money,” Gatestone Institute, July 28, 2011, http://www.gatestoneinstitute.org/2302/palestinian-authority-terrorist-salaries
2 “Palestinians raise funds to rebuild demolished home,” Al Jazeera, January 12, 2016, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/01/palestinians-raise-funds-rebuild-demolished-home-160112180212101.html
3 “Israel takes aim at PA payments to Palestinian prisoners,” Ynet News, June, 26, 1914, http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4534940,00.html
4 Palestinian Media Watch, http://www.palwatch.org/main.aspx?fi=1005&doc_id=17339
5 “PLO director of Prisoners’ Affairs urges PA to pay grants to released prisoners and announces that Abbas issued order to pay them,” Palestinian Media Watch, citing Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, November 17, 2015, http://palwatch.org/main.aspx?fi=922&doc_id=16670; “PLO organization approves list of ‘Martyrs,’ pays allowances to families of terrorists,” Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, January 13, 2016, translated by Palestinian Media Watch, http://www.palwatch.org/main.aspx?fi=1005&doc_id=17280
6 Jake Wallis Simons, “Palestinians reward terrorists from British aid,” The Telegraph, April 27, 2014, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/palestinianauthority/10790490/Palestinians-reward-terrorists-from-British-aid.html
7 “Palestinians reject direct Iran aid as ‘interference,’” The National (UAE) and AFP. http://www.thenational.ae/world/middle-east/palestinians-reject-direct-iran-aid-as-interference
8 Julian Pecquet, “U.S. sends ‘message’ to Abbas with $80 million aid cut,” Al-Monitor, October 22, 2015, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/10/abbas-netanyahu-palestinian-authority.html#ixzz41f2zEz1i
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1 Yossi Kuperwasser, “The Real Abu Mazen” (Hebrew), Ha’aretz, January 11, 2016, http://www.haaretz.co.il/opinions/.premium-1.2819568
7 Sousan Hammad, “Smoke, mirrors and acrimony: The 2009 Fatah congress,” August 6, 2009, Electronic Intifada, https://electronicintifada.net/content/smoke-mirrors-and-acrimony-2009-fatah-congress/8380
8 Chloé Valdary, “ An Unwelcome Palestinian Reformer,” Wall Street Journal, July 29, 2015, http://www.wsj.com/articles/an-unwelcome-palestinian-reformer-1438210446
9 Riad Mansur, Interview on Ma’an radio, December 29, 2015.
13 “Abbas: Palestinian Terrorist Violence Is ‘Justified Popular Uprising,’” Associated Press, Breitbart, December 15, 2015, http://www.breitbart.com/middle-east/2015/12/15/abbas-palestinian-terrorist-violence-is-justified-popular-uprising/
15 “Remarks by President Obama and President Rivlin of Israel Before Bilateral Meeting,” White House, December 9, 2016, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/12/09/remarks-president-obama-and-president-rivlin-israel-bilateral-meeting
17 “Remarks by President Obama at the UN General Assembly, September 28, 2015, White House, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/09/28/remarks-president-obama-united-nations-general-assembly