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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

The Psychology of “Lone Wolf” Palestinian Arab Violence: The Interaction between Religious, Cultural and Political-National Motives

Filed under: Israel, Palestinians, Terrorism
Publication: Jerusalem Viewpoints

Institute for Contemporary Affairs

Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation

No. 606January-February 2016

  • The outbreak of violence by mostly young individual Palestinian Arabs has been attributed to a variety of explanations that range from nationalistic motives to more religious ones.
  • Palestinian Muslim attackers are mostly young, appear to act outside of a formal organizational structure and by and large do not include Israeli Arab citizens of Israel. Psychological characteristics that typify group members of terrorist organizations may not be applicable to these individual (“lone wolf”) attackers.
  • Religious and nationalistic factors can both act as triggers for violence. What is termed “incitement” appears as a hybrid interactive process that combines a causative psychological igniting factor with pre-existing supportive cognitive fuel. Critical differences in this mixture accounts for the near absence of incitement related violence among Israeli Arabs.
  • While many attacks are described as “lone wolf” actions, the material and social support provided by the Palestinian Authority and the cultural support of Palestinian society serves as a steady framework for sustaining violence, even when one appears to act alone.
  • Those elements of Palestinian Arab society that have not participated in the violence are a key to understanding the phenomenon of incitement and its relationship with actual individual violent activity. While the presence of incitement in Palestinian Arab society appears to be correlative with violence, it is not at all clear if it is also always causative.
  • Understanding and potentially modifying violent behavior requires looking at both causative and supportive factors of the hybrid interactive process, its social, cultural and political context and its behavioral consequences. The role of incitement as we understand it at present may need to be reassessed in light of these factors.
  • Until empirical field research clarifies, isolates and validates the variables involved, all explanations remain in the realm of speculative hypotheses.
Attacker filmed by a security camera. He was shot and killed.
Attacker filmed by a security camera. He was shot and killed.

To many Western minds, the increasing amount of knife attacks by mostly individual young Palestinian Arabs on Israeli Jews is simply an expression of the despair and hopelessness that years of occupation and lack of freedom have nourished.1 To many Israelis, the violence is clearly a manifestation of endless incitement against Jews that includes false allegations and education based on hate.2 This discrepancy is at the root of a difference in worldview when it comes to how one views acts of violence against Israel as opposed to violence clearly seen as “terror” elsewhere in the world. What is missing from both views, however, is an understanding of precisely how factors interact to create the cognitive set or ideology that drives this behavior.

Many view Palestinian behavior in strict nationalistic terms, differentiating the accompanying violence from the “terror” that characterizes acts of violence elsewhere.3 Sociologist Eva Ilouz differentiates the terror seen in Europe from that seen in Israel by contending that Palestinian violence is “political, its background was national struggle, and it was motivated by nationalist self-interest and goals,” while in Europe, terror has “a civilizational rather than political flavor.” While Palestinian terror, according to Ilouz, will abate once their national goals are reached, the civilizational terror plaguing Europe “cannot be negotiated with.”4 Others, such as Amichai Magen, claim that the “security ecosystem affecting Israelis and Europeans had converged dramatically”5  and posit a more direct relationship between what Israelis experience and what seems to be emerging in Europe.

Current Israeli leaders do in fact link Palestinian acts to those of other terror groups around the world. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that “in Israel, as in France, terror is terror,”6 while Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat noted that both are part of the “same murderous hatred and extremist ideology.”7

As opposed to classical suicide terrorism where organizations prepare, arm and deliver the attacker to the target; the “lone wolf” attacks by Palestinian Arabs against Jewish Israelis appear to be more spontaneous and without the formal structure seen in other terror attacks. While incitement, frustration and nationalism are all valid constructs in understanding the nature of Palestinian attackers, a deeper look at the events shows that while these factors play a role and may be correlated with violent behavior, it may only be a sub-plot to a more overriding causative framework of behavior; one that may justify a fresh look at what Palestinian violence has evolved into. For those that stress the incitement factor, social media has emerged as a central tool for both Palestinians8 as well as others9 who use violence as a means to attain their goals. Kruglanski, however, posits a specific and common behavioral quality that is taken to extreme levels by potential terrorists. What he calls a “need for closure” is an aversion to ambiguity and uncertainty as well as a preference towards firm, definitive answers to questions.10 When this instinctual quality is manipulated by those who hold fundamentalist and extremist ideologies, it creates people who “derogated others who did not share their opinions, portrayed them as despicable, and felt morally licensed to destroy them by any and all means.”11 These individuals, according to Kruglanski, are the potential terrorists.

The incitement of social media, thus, can be a potent force, but it is ultimately a tool and not a root cause for this terror-related violence. Moreover, while Islam appears as perhaps another important element (especially as it relates to the clear misrepresentation that Israel is behind a plan to take over the Al-Aqsa compound), there seem to be other specific local social, political and cultural factors that interact to create the psychology and cognitive set behind those motivated to act. How this interaction is created and nurtured is a subject well worth exploring.

Knives in possession of attacker in Jerusalem.
Knives in possession of attacker in Jerusalem.

While it is tempting to present a broad and generalized concept such as “incitement” as “the” answer to the question of what is behind the violence, the reality may be that there is no one ultimate “answer” but rather a variety of interacting factors that may be responsible. Incitement, as it has been understood till now, seems to be correlated with violent behavior, but it is far from certain that it is also specifically and solely causative. At this point, the questions may be more important than the answers. Indeed, these questions provide a valuable insight into understanding the phenomenon and are critical to developing hypotheses that would need to be tested in more definitive empirical research.

Characteristics of Terror Attackers

Those carrying out the current series of attacks (from September through December 2015) have generally been both younger men and women ranging in age from their teens to their twenties (with some older), and, with some isolated exceptions, almost all Palestinian Arab residents of Jerusalem or from beyond Israel’s “Green Line.”12 All the attackers have been Muslim Arabs.13 The attacks have been opportunistic where the attackers have generally employed knives or vehicles as weapons, although other apparently premeditated attacks using firearms have also taken place.14 Most attacks appear to fall into a “lone wolf” model, where no formal organizational planning seems to be behind the decision to act. The characteristics and modus operandi of these Palestinian Arab attackers, however, appear different from what research in the United States found with regard to “lone wolves”; namely, a pattern of “… unemployed, single white males with a criminal record (and) compared to members of terrorist groups…older, less educated and more prone to mental illness” and a weapon of preference that includes “…a staggering range of high-velocity firearms.”15 Examinations of lone wolf attacks differ from previous work on Palestinian terrorists, including Berko’s work on suicide bombers, where the “dispatcher” and an organizational framework played a central role.16 But not all terrorists fit the same profile. Berko noted this in her work, stating that her sample differed from other samples in the past in that the attackers she studied were not typically “young, uneducated, single” and could not be described as religious fanatics.17 Post’s work also focused on formal terror groups and found that a central component of their success is an indoctrination process where “hatred is bred into the bone” of the potential recruit.18 He also observes that there are differences among terrorists, noting the different psychological profile of Palestinian suicide terrorists as compared to the 9/11 hijackers. Merari describes a profile that fits suicide bombers that includes a process of indoctrination, group commitment and a personal pledge.19 Kruglanski has also theorized that a quest for “personal significance” (in addition to the “need for closure” previously noted) plays a role in the motivational and decisional framework of the potential terrorist.20

Thus, while it is reasonable to assume that the Palestinian “lone wolf” may have much in common with others who start on the path to violent terror, research has shown that there are different patterns and profiles of terror and would suggest that it is not sound scientifically to conclude that all terrorists or terror attacks are totally alike.

Suicide, Self-Sacrifice or Martyrdom?

One of the characteristics of the “knife intifada” is the almost inevitable death of the attackers as a result of being shot by security forces or citizen bystanders. These attacks have resulted in serious injury or death for many Israeli Jews, but the majority of injuries have not been life-threatening. The same cannot be said of the attackers, whose fate is almost always being “neutralized” by being shot to death, raising the question of the cost-benefit in these actions by those deciding to attack. This lack of rationality and purpose in carrying out such attacks is reflected in the schizophrenic manner Palestinian media treats these incidents. On the one hand there is a reflexive denial of the perpetrators involvement in any attacks,21 with Israel accused of “executing” innocent Palestinians in cold blood.22 On the other hand, praising and glorifying the attackers for their “alleged” actions against Israeli Jews are common.23

Weapons taken off of would-be attacker in Jerusalem.
Weapons taken off of would-be attacker in Jerusalem.

As discussed elsewhere,24 self-sacrifice as an act of national or religious fervor is not unique to the Palestinian Arab culture and these acts must not be viewed in simple lay terms that focus on personal factors only. While it may be difficult to understand the motivation of young people who willingly sacrifice themselves in order to carry out such attacks, previous research has shown that it is important to avoid interpreting this pattern of behavior as stemming somehow primarily from personal mental distress as opposed to nationalistic or religious factors.25, 26 Economic distress or a low standard of living alone does not appear to be determining factors in violent Palestinian behavior. This is true with both recent events27 and going back as far as the first intifada in 1987 when, according to Shmuel Goren, former coordinator of government operations in the territories, the economic status of Palestinians was quite good.28

On the other hand, even Israeli military officials are reported to recognize that the “political situation” (in Hebrew-“matzav“),  exemplified perhaps by the continued Israeli military presence in the lives of many Palestinian Arabs, plays a role in the frustration and despair that Palestinian youth feel.29 This ironically echoes to some degree the reasons given by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for what he calls a “popular uprising.”30 Whatever the background, we still need to better understand the factors that lead any one individual to decide to act, especially in the absence of formal organizational backing. Here, psychological symptoms such as depression may indeed be contributory in some cases,31 although other models have been proposed that involve individual identification with social causes.32, 33 Whether or not the term “lone wolf” is even applicable to the Palestinian attacker is questionable. Unlike other individual acts of terrorism that lack an organizational framework, so-called Palestinian lone wolves do in fact receive considerable moral, social, cultural and material support from a variety of Palestinian social and political organizations, including the Palestinian Authority itself.34

The Motivating Ideology: The Question of Religion

Is religion “a” factor in these attacks or is it “the” factor?

The Hebrew media refers to these attacks as “nationalistically based”( על רקע לאומני). This expression is meant to connote a hate crime, one that is directed specifically at Jews.35 But many “nationalistic” attacks by Arabs, while directed at Jews, are qualitatively different from the typical hate crime. There can be multiple reasons for hate, and some stem from perceived injustice, while others from jealousy and ignorance.36 In the attacks we are describing, assailants often are heard shouting “Allahu Akbar” (,الله أكبر Allah/God is great) right before attacking.37 While the expression is not necessarily meant only as a battle cry, its presence in the constellation of these attacks seems at first to suggest a primary religious-cultural factor motivating the attacker. While nationalism, the desire for an independent Palestine, is part of the equation, and notwithstanding the identification that Palestinian Arab Christian figures claim with the Palestinian Arab struggle,38 the fact that all of the attackers have been Muslim would appear to indicate a clear religious-cultural aspect as well.

The role Islamic religious factors play, however, is an open question. Is the behavior we see purely religiously-based nationalism, or is it perhaps a religiously-based cultural phenomenon that may even include anti-Semitic elements,39 but is secondary to overt grievances and political factors? These questions have been discussed in the Palestinian Arab press. A review article in the Palestinian Arab publication “”40 presents the opinions of several Palestinian experts, all of whom tend to see the “uprising” in more secular terms, related to revolutionary zeal in Palestinian youth born of years of perceived political inaction. These experts cite frustration over the failure of the Oslo process and note that most of the attackers had stable personal lives and did not suffer from economic deprivation. In some parts of Palestinian society, religious themes appear especially salient, such as when the Palestinian media accused Prime Minister Netanyahu of “religious extremism” is speaking about Israel’s claim to Hebron.41 Certainly the Islamic focus of Hebron, as reflected in the highly charged religious aspect of the funerals of killed attackers,42 suggests that Islamism may play a greater role there than in other areas. This, however, seems to be contradicted by the impressions of observers who found a “split personality” among its residents who outwardly support Islamist groups but appear to do so for reasons of “resistance” rather than religion.43

In describing the attackers, however, the Arab language media consistently refer to them and their behavior in Islamic religious terms, using the terms “istishad” استشهاد)) and “shahid” (شهيد), i.e., “martyrdom” and “martyr,” to describe their behavior in Arabic,44, 45 all the while avoiding these terms in reporting the very same event in English.46, 47 Moreover, religious themes centering on the alleged Israeli attempts to “storm” the Al-Aqsa compound and to “Judaize” the area continue to be promoted in Palestinian media48 even though clearly secular Palestinian Arab figures also identify with the theme.49

A New Model: A Hybrid Interactive Process

What may indeed be operating here is a hybrid political-religious-cultural cognitive set that characterizes the behavior of the attackers. This hybrid process, however, is possible only because of relatively stable and ever-present cultural and societal values and narratives that include both political, national factors, on the one hand, and religious, social ones, on the other. Some of these cultural narratives (perhaps erroneously classified as “incitement”) are tradition-based, have been present for generations50 and are based, as Smooha writes, on an ethnocentric view of the world where the “other” is generally not accepted.51 

Indeed, political factors related to perceived injustices suffered by the population or the alleged colonial-foreign nature of the Jewish presence in the land as well as Islamic and Arab religious-cultural pride and sensitivity can combine to form the drive for those who decide to act on these motivating factors. For some, like Kuperwasser,52 these factors are part of a constellation that lead the Palestinian Arab leadership and, by extension, their public to refuse to accept the concept, much less the reality, of a Jewish state on any part of what is considered historic Palestine.

Both political-national and religious-cultural factors can fuel violent behavior in the presence of an adequate “trigger,” and they seem to interact with each other in the current spate of Palestinian Arab violence. Furthermore, while not all attackers (e.g., younger teenagers) may articulate or even fully understand this framework, the presence of models in Palestinian Arab society who act consistent with the paradigm offers opportunities for others to imitate what is perceived as desirable behavior. Indeed, we see this in the number of attacks where the perpetrators have been related to previous attackers who effectively may have served as role models for attacking Jewish Israelis. 53, 54

Refining the Concept of “Incitement”

If the model of hybrid interaction is correct, we may need to take another look at how we view “incitement.” Rather than referring to “incitement” in general terms, a more functional framework would be to conceptualize the process as requiring two stages; first, factors which create the fuel or basic motivation for the behavior, and second, an ignition process which sets off the behavior itself. Both factors are necessary for violent action to take place. Without the fuel, ignition would be ineffective, and without an ignition mechanism, the fuel would be meaningless. In the model presented here, the first set of factors, i.e., the motivational fuel, is conceptualized as a constant, stable cultural narrative that may include what is commonly referred to as “incitement.” The second set of factors, the “triggers,” are the psychological-cognitive processes that translate the fuel into a decision to personally take action, i.e., to attack.

This proposed interaction may be responsible for the different attitudes which researchers have found in the Palestinian Arab population at different times. In June 2014, for example, Pollock found that the population wanted “popular resistance” but not violence.55 But a more recent survey by Shkaki found a majority in fact supportive of the type of violence seen in the “knife intifada.”56 Telhami takes this even further by linking changes in the political reality to population attitudes and how actual progress between the parties would essentially make claims of “incitement” irrelevant.57 This adds to the notion that social and cultural norms may interact with other factors to influence attitudes at any given time.

As Victor notes, personal factors unrelated to the actual political situation58 and which may include some of the psychological issues referred to earlier also play a role. It also may include more nationalistic and political factors such as the “frustration” and “despair” noted earlier.59 With regard to the latter set of factors, while much attention has been paid to the methods Palestinian leadership use to manipulate world opinion,60 political and social forces may also be at play in regulating or “manipulating” the level of internal Palestinian Arab public opinion as well. This control is not always perfect, and, as noted by Eldar,61 the Palestinian leadership may be losing their ability to completely regulate the level of violence.

Stabber about to attack near Damascus Gate, Jerusalem.
Stabber about to attack near Damascus Gate, Jerusalem.

In the violence that started around 2015 against Israeli Jews, the fuel for the ignition process appears to be fairly clear; allegations of Israeli violations of Islamic holy sites, specifically, changing the status quo on the Temple Mount. Added to this has been the creation of a conspiracy narrative that claims young Palestinian Arabs are indiscriminately being targeted and killed; essentially being “framed” and falsely accused of knifing attacks.62 The Palestinian Arab press has gone so far as to claim that knives have been planted on the alleged attackers after they have been killed.63 Having a cultural-social root, adding a political-religious motivator and creating cognitive triggers though exaggerated and false claims is an example of how violence has been nurtured against Jews in (first) Palestine64 and now Israel for years. The particular analysis offered here of how each factor plays a role, however, may provide a different insight into the phenomenon.

The Socio-Political Environment as a Moderator of Incitement

The backdrop to the above is sociocultural and political factors that moderate this ignition process. Nowhere is this more clear than in the stark differences between Palestinian Arabs resident in Jerusalem or under the Palestinian Authority and those living in Israel with Israeli citizenship. Although they share a common language, common history, (mostly) common religion and, of critical importance, exposure to the same mass media and social media sources, they differ in their political reality. Simply put, Israeli Arabs may suffer from discrimination and may have issues with regard to their civil rights, but they enjoy a standard of living and political expression as Israelis that their peers in Jerusalem and over the “Green Line” do not. Furthermore, despite many (although not all) having a common view on the “colonial” nature of Zionism and a shared history of dispossession in 1948, their behavior is clearly different.

Two incidents exemplify this contrast. One is the arrest of Sheikh Raed Salah of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement (in Israel) who was accused of stoking violence by accusing Israel of infringing on Muslim rights at the al-Aqsa Mosque.65 While we see evidence of Salah’s rhetoric on Palestinian Arabs in Jerusalem and under the control of the Palestinian Authority, there has been little to no effect on Israeli Arabs, who have engaged in non-violent demonstrations66 but have largely refrained from participating in the nationalistic-related violence against Jews that characterizes what we see in Jerusalem and in the Palestinian administered areas.

A second incident which involved a confrontation between Nazareth mayor Ali Salam and Israeli Arab MK Ayman Odeh67 may provide another insight into the feelings of many Israeli Arabs. In a widely covered confrontation, Salam publicly on live TV accused Odeh of fomenting trouble and “ruining coexistence” and demanded that he leave the city. As journalist Khaled Abu-Toameh has noted, it may be that an increasing number of Israeli Arabs recognize the damage that support for MKs who represent more extreme political views presents for Jewish-Arab relations and ultimately their personal or national interests.68

The constant Palestinian institutional and social support of those who engage in violent behavior against Israelis somewhat blunts the idea that attacks classified as “lone wolf” can be fully described as such. While one may not have a direct and explicit order and directive for a specific attack, the atmosphere supporting these attacks and the systematic reinforcement, materially and socially, of those who engage in these attacks provides a constant reminder of societal approval at any given time, even in the absence of an organizational framework.72 Added to this is the stark contrast between the family and community condemnations of the isolated attacks committed by Israeli Arabs73 and the opposite reaction to the clearly murderous attacks committed by other Palestinian Arabs.74

Islamic Radicalism vs. Palestinian Arab Nationalism

For many who contend that incitement is primarily responsible for Palestinian Arab terrorism, Islamism is of prime significance.75 The question raised is whether the attacks and violence of Palestinian Arab youth are related to the general radicalization of Muslim youth that is taking place elsewhere. If so, would such violence be correctly classified as religiously-based rather than nationalistic-based terror?

It seems that the answer here is yes and no.

The nationalistic aspect of Palestinian Arab actions against Israel is reinforced practically and theoretically by the Palestinian secular leadership. When a Palestinian is convicted of murder or dies “for the cause” and is labeled a “martyr,” there is official recognition in terms of leadership statements76 and actions,77 including a wide range of financial support for their families.78

But religion also plays a key role, even as a cultural drive. In looking at the motivating factors behind why young people join ISIS (Da’esh), Shadi Hamid raises several points.79 While the perception is that ISIS followers are extremely religious, a great number of Muslims who are far less religious, even secular, can sympathize with the notion of an Islamic-based political entity. Hamid thus speaks of the culture of Islam having certain characteristics, such as conservative and traditional ways of behavior, but clearly sees the link these norms have with Islam as a religion.

This conceptual framework of Islamic religious dogma as cultural norm in Muslim life is one that theoretically fits well into the realpolitik of Palestinian Arab youth. There may be religious triggers or incentives for behavior, but the actual decision to act on those triggers may be more related to fulfillment of nationalistic desires or a need for civil independence and rights. As with ISIS, there is a desire for Muslim independence and sovereignty. As with ISIS, religious themes drive the attachment to the ideal. Moreover, the preponderance of young adherents to the cause that characterizes both ISIS and Palestinian Arab activism may share the same religio-romantic notion of independence and strong socio-cultural value of being rewarded by Allah. But unlike ISIS, Palestinian youth, whether as a result of their nationalistic upbringing and social environment or through their being subject to a constant nationalistic cultural narrative throughout their lives have a distinct attachment to their particular land as a national desire, not as one that is part of a global Islamic caliphate. This critical point is made by Samar Batrawi, who, in a Foreign Affairs article, states “The land of Palestine is not precious to Salafi jihadists in the same way that it is to the Palestinians.”80

The Question of “Why Not All” Palestinian Arabs

In hypothesizing why some Palestinian Arabs are motivated to violence, one must ask why others are not. Palestinian Israeli Arabs, who identify with other Palestinian Arabs culturally, religiously, linguistically, historically and, to some degree nationalistically, generally have not been involved in lone wolf attacks against Israeli Jews. Of note is that while Israeli Arabs and Christian Palestinians have not been central to these attacks, Israeli (Muslim) Arab involvement in ISIS- related activity has been an issue that has raised concern.81 In fact, the attack by an Israeli Arab on a street cafe in Tel Aviv has been described by Issacharoff as probably not related to the Palestinian cause at all, but rather more related to ISIS-type attacks and an example of a possibly new or different type of terror against Israelis that is distinct from the nationalistically motivated aspects of Palestinian terror attacks.82 The process of ISIS-related activity, however, would appear to be distinct from the issues related broadly to what has been referred to as Palestinian “resistance.”

To some degree, the question of “why not all” can also be asked of Jerusalem Arabs. While some apparently socially-integrated Jerusalem Arabs have clearly been active participants in the violence,83 it is common knowledge that there are thousands who go about their daily lives working in hotels and hospitals peacefully interacting closely with Jewish Israelis.84 Data shows that the percentage of Jerusalem Arab men in the workforce is 10 points higher than the percentage of Jerusalem Jewish men (59 percent as opposed to 49 percent), although overall participation by Jerusalem Arabs in the workforce is lower (37 percent versus 50 percent of the Jewish population).85 

One cannot ask why one segment of population behaves in a particular way without asking why a related segment does not. If we claim there are identifiable factors that are responsible for violence in one population but are not causative in a closely related population, what are the reasons? Moreover, if there are factors which may prevent or otherwise blunt violent behavior in one population, how do we identify them — and are they at all relevant to preventing violence in the other?

There indeed have been distinct attempts at classic “incitement” among Palestinian Israeli Arabs and certainly among Jerusalem Arabs.86 This includes support of acts of terror on social networks,87 calls to Israeli Arabs to forgo “political and social considerations” and join in acts of violence,88 and dozens of arrests of Israeli Arabs for incitement on social media postings89 including one of a well-known Israeli Arab lawyer defending a teenaged Palestinian terrorist.90

The most public example of alleged Palestinian Israeli Arab incitement is in the banning of the Islamic Movement and arrest and conviction of its head, Raed Salah.91 All in all, despite the exposure to and presence of messages that can be described as “incitement” in the Palestinian Israeli community, actual violent behavior of the type seen in other Palestinian Arabs is virtually nonexistent. Even when it does take place, the swift and wide condemnation of the behavior by community leaders92 stands in distinction from what is common in reactions by Palestinians living under an Israeli military presence. This is a phenomenon that is not insignificant in understanding what drives violent behavior among Palestinian Arabs in general.

It may be that a mixture of national and religious factors accounts for behavioral differences between Israeli Arabs and those Palestinian Arabs who live in Jerusalem or under PA control. While the land (Palestine) is precious to all, Israeli Arabs have civil rights, religious rights and social rights within the Israeli system and are considered “Israeli,” with a clear, distinct and even formal connection to the land, something lacking for other Palestinian Arabs. Although Jerusalem Arabs do have certain resident rights, they live under much less stable and less secure circumstances as non-citizen residents93 with significant factors that separate their daily social existence from Jewish Jerusalemites.94 As such, they are more likely to be influenced to act on social-cultural triggers than those who have attained legal parity with Jews in Israel, although less likely to than Palestinian Arabs living under Palestinian Authority control.

A study that measured the attitudes of Israeli Arabs conducted by Rafi Smith and the Achva Academic College supports the notion that there is a far lower need for expression of nationalistic needs in this population than in non-Israeli Palestinian Arabs. Among the more notable findings was that 86 percent of Israeli Arabs believed the Islamic State group was harming Islam’s image. Of even greater relevance was the finding that 55 percent of Israeli Arabs identify with the flag of Israel, as opposed to only 8 percent of Israeli Muslims who claim they identify with the Palestinian flag.95 And, as far as Jerusalem Palestinian Arabs go, their desire for Israeli citizenship is rising, with about half saying they would prefer Israeli over Palestinian citizenship.96 In practice however, their lives are clearly less stable than Israeli Arabs, with multiple factors responsible for the “in-between” status they have97 and the resultant greater probability that we have observed that they would be involved in violence.

The Limits of Theoretical Speculation and the Need for Empirical Field Research

As noted earlier, broader field studies would more definitively address the question of the relationship between religious, cultural, political and national motives and the expression of violence in individuals, but from the literature and experience of the last years, there is room to consider a more refined model for “incitement.”

It would appear that separating causative factors from supporting factors in isolating key variables of incitement would be helpful in understanding the dynamic. Causative factors are those that can potentially ignite a situation or individual and create a pathway for violent behavior. Supportive factors, on the other hand, are variables that are related to the general behavioral and cognitive norms present in the population or the individual and are often part of a cultural history. Neither factor alone is sufficient to create the violence that we characterize as “terror.” Supportive factors provide the fuel, but causative factors provide the ignition. Religious, cultural, political and national factors all can serve as either causative or supportive factors in incitement, and they all can be used to explain or modify behavior that leads to violence.

Despite all this, violence requires an individual to act, and while many Palestinian Arabs may currently support violence,98 only certain individuals will actually carry out a violent act.99  We still need to determine why and how certain individuals cognitively translate specific causative factors in a way that leads to violence and why others do not. While previous work of researchers like Post100 and Merari101 provide an insight into the motivations and process behind terrorists recruited by formal groups, the open question here is how individuals (“lone wolves”) decide to operate in the absence of this formal structure.

Key to understanding the interactive relationship between the variables is the unique status of Palestinian-Israeli Arabs and, to a lesser degree, Jerusalem Arabs. Both groups share religious and cultural values with the Palestinians Arabs of Gaza and the West Bank but also have significant differentiating characteristics defined by certain national or local municipal rights and identity that the others do not share. As a result, their behavioral and cognitive sets may not be supportive of the types of behavior other Palestinian Arabs may consider. The data and experience to date seem to support the notion of this difference, but a specific conclusion as to how these factors relate to actual violence is still in the realm of educated speculation.

What “causes” Palestinian Arabs to attack Jewish Israelis is hypothesized here to include a combination of a preexisting psychological and cultural set (“cognitive fuel”) that may be ignited by a variety of factors. Determining why any particular individual decides to act needs to take into consideration why others do not. Attributing violence as being related solely to the conventional form of “incitement” observed in Palestinian Arab society clouds the likely interactive factors that seem to be responsible for the variability that is present in their behavior. As noted earlier, correlation is not necessarily causation, and while the cognitive fuel of incitement is indeed present, other factors are likely responsible for igniting the decision to act and carry out the type of attacks observed.

Effective scholarship seeks to shed light on questions and issues so that we can better define strategies and practical mechanisms to actually change behavior or the “situation” on the ground. But until we conduct carefully designed empirical studies, all we are left with is academic guesswork.

* * *

















16 Berko, A. (2007) The Path to Paradise: The Inner World of Suicide Bombers and Their Dispatchers. Greenwood publishing, Westport, CT (page 8).

17 Ibid.


19 Merari, A. (2005) “Social, organizational and psychological factors in suicide terrorism.” In T. Bjorgo (ed.) Root causes of terrorism. Ch. 6, pp.70-86. Routledge, NY







26 Anat Berko has found that religious ideology provides a framework for tangible rewards for the terrorist in waiting (
































58 Victor, B. Army of Roses: inside the world of Palestinian women suicide bombers. Emmaus, Pa. : Rodale, 2003

59 Op. cit. 24













72 Op. cit. 22






78 Op.cit. 22




















98 Op. cit. 52

99 The data on Palestinian popular support for violence needs to be taken with a grain of salt. It is important to note that while Palestinian polls at different times have shown popular support for violence, at other times this has not been the case (e.g., Information gathering, as in the PCPSR poll, that relies on face-face interviews may be subject to an expectation effect. In a society where official and public embracing of violence is the norm, interviewees may be reticent to present any opinion other than what they believe is the “correct” one.

100 Op. cit. 15

101 Op. cit. 16