The Palestinian Knife Campaign:
A Policy of Limited Liability

Five months into the stabbing terror campaign, the Palestinian leadership keeps evaluating its costs and benefits to date and the prospects for its future. As described by Hirsh Goodman, the decision to embark on this course of action was a result of a combination of several factors:

  1. The availability of the stealth terror tool, which is a result of the long-time and ongoing incitement and the inculcation of the people in the pillars of Palestinian national identity,1 with particular impact on children’s psychological make-up.
  2. The ease of turning this option into action almost instantly by introducing religiously sensitive issues into the discourse such as the fate of the al-Aqsa mosque.
  3. The need to employ this activity to restore international attention to the Palestinian issue and compensate for the damage done by the regional turmoil to Palestinian attempts to present the case that Israel’s attitude is the main reason for the tension between the Islamic and Arab world and the West.
  4. The existence of a comprehensive Palestinian strategy adopted in the Sixth Fatah conference in 2009, which is based on a combination of unilateral diplomatic effort in the international arena and “popular resistance,” of which the current stabbing campaign is an example.
  5. The assumption that the costs to the Palestinians for this kind of terror campaign will be limited and the benefits will be much greater.

Apparently, not much thought was given by the Palestinian leadership to the potential dilemmas that a long terror campaign may eventually present. One reason is that a previous attempt to embark on such a policy, in the second half of 2014, was quite successful. At that time, PA President Mahmoud Abbas called for such a campaign, raised the al-Aqsa alarm, and quoted a well-known verse from the Quran,2 enabling him to halt the campaign after things went out of control following the November 18, 2014, attack in a Jerusalem synagogue in the Har Nof neighborhood where five rabbis were brutally murdered.

Arabic Caption: “We’ve come to slaughter you.” Published after the massacre of four rabbis and a Druze policeman in Jerusalem in November 2014.

A Palestinian cartoon after the Har Nof Synagogue attack

The Palestinian leadership was also not worried that the terror campaign would spin out of control and turn into something similar to the second intifada. This option, termed “the militarization of the intifada” (Askarat Al-Intifada) in internal Palestinian debate, was considered to be Hamas’ goal, but eventually was hard to execute because of Israel’s proven capability to thwart most of the terror attempts of this kind. Israeli security cooperation with the PA also helped prevent such violence.

In fact, the terror campaign so far has gone according to the characteristics designated by the leadership without the need for their direct, guiding involvement. The Palestinian leadership regained attention to the Palestinian issue in the international arena and in Iran, though, ironically, much less so in the Arab world which is totally preoccupied with its own problems.

Despite the vicious incitement and inhumane terror attacks that have provoked some criticism of the Palestinians, no threats or pressure has been directed at the Palestinian leadership. Rather, the international media and Western leadership echo the Palestinian claim that the attacks stem from Palestinian frustration due to the ongoing Israeli occupation and its settlements policy. No price was to be paid by the Palestinians for their support for the terror campaign. Moreover, due to the wide popularity of this campaign within the Palestinian community, the support of the Palestinian leadership for the campaign helps it mitigate public criticism and resentment for its conduct on all fronts (corruption, lack of governance, economic dysfunction, etc.) and raises its nationalist posture.

Israelis have shifted positions in recognizing that the Palestinian leadership is not a partner for a real peace, but the alternatives raised by some in the Israeli center-left – a unilateral separation – can also be interpreted as a sign of weakness and readiness to make concessions to the Palestinians unilaterally, without the Palestinians having to change any of their basic positions.

It is not surprising, then, that up to this point the Palestinians are quite satisfied with the results of the campaign, and in discussions held by the Fatah Central Committee and other leaderships forums, the decision was made to continue supporting and encouraging this effort unabatedly. The assumption of the leadership is that the terror campaign would continue as long as there is no decision to stop it. This is based on the assessment that the psychological inculcation of the Palestinian youth will guarantee that at any given time there will still be young Palestinians who will decide to go out and stab a Jew. Just like popcorn kernels explode in the microwave at random with no indication when the first will explode and which will not, so are the Palestinian youngsters randomly ready to explode when the indirect message comes from their leadership.

Will the leadership be able to control the level of violence if they so decide in the future? It might not prove to be that easy. It could put them in direct confrontation with a considerable part of the Palestinian public who support the continuation of the terror campaign. In a way, the leadership is short of options other than supporting the continuation of the terror campaign. Fortunately for them, for the time being, this campaign is paying off for them.

So what should Israel do in order to end the campaign and force the Palestinian leadership to move out of its complacency? So far Israel has taken direct steps against the terrorists and their families, adopted enhanced security measures, and criticized the Palestinian Authority, but it has refrained from taking any measures against the Palestinian leadership itself. Recently, Israel announced it is going to deliver half a billion shekels to the Palestinians in order to improve economic conditions in the Palestinian Authority, and has raised the number of permits for Palestinian workers in Israel. As long as this soft-glove attitude is adopted, it is hard to see any incentive for the Palestinian leadership to reconsider their policy. If eventually the Palestinian leadership decides to stop the attacks, they may still be able to do it, but only if the general population feels the price for the continuation of the campaign is too high. This was the case in most previous rounds of Palestinian terror and violence.

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Notes

1 The antecedents of these pillars can be found in the PLO’s Palestinian National Charter of July 1968 (http://www.iris.org.il/plochart.htm) and the Hamas Covenant of August 1988 (http://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/hamas.asp). They reflect the concept that the essence of being a Palestinian is to deny Zionism. The first pillar claims that Judaism is only a religion and not a nationality or peoplehood, and hence the Jews are not eligible to a right of self-determination. The second pillar denies any sovereign history of the Jews in Palestine (Eretz Israel). Based on those two pillars, the Palestinians believe that there is no place for a state for the Jews in Palestine and that its disappearance is inevitable. The third pillar is that the Jews are the vilest creatures ever created, which explains why stabbing them is an acceptable course of action for Palestinians, including youth. The fourth pillar states that the struggle against Zionism is on-going and diverse, and all its various means, including violence and terror, are legitimate. The fifth emphasizes the unbreakable bond between the Palestinians and the land of Palestine in its entirety and is reflected in the commitment to the eventual return of the Palestinians to their homes and the establishment of the Palestinian state over the entire territory. And the sixth is the identification of the Palestinians as victims, which spares them any accountability or responsibility.

2 Verse 39 from the 22nd Sura – ‘Al-Haj’.

Brig.-Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser

Brig.-Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser is Director of the Project on Regional Middle East Developments at the Jerusalem Center. He was formerly Director General of the Israel Ministry of Strategic Affairs and head of the Research Division of IDF Military Intelligence.