On the afternoon of Saturday, October 3, 2015, two Israelis were stabbed to death near Lions’ Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem.
Both were rabbis; one had come to pray at the Western Wall with his young family, the other had come to try to save them when he witnessed the stabbing attack in progress. Both were easily identifiable as Jews.
While just one of many hundreds of terrorist incidents perpetrated by Palestinians against Jews over the years, this attack was a moment in time: it marked the start of something new, a “Stealth Intifada”, an insidious wave of seemingly un-orchestrated attacks, perpetrated by unlikely assailants, and generally untraceable to any particular organisation.
These were also characterised by brutality, viciousness and randomness, and the purposeful use of the knife, to drive home the intent of bringing a new and unrelenting wave of slaughter to the Jews; a message to all Israelis that neither they, nor their children, will ever be able to live in this land in peace.
This message was delivered almost daily, sometimes several times a day, from mainly young Palestinians, fired by incitement from their leaders, accelerated by social media, and aimless other than in its mission of indiscriminate slaughter. Some were seeking martyrdom and others revenge. The message and the means, however, remained the same.
Recent months have also seen shooting attacks and, particularly in Jerusalem, nearly a dozen instances of Palestinians driving their cars into groups of Israelis waiting for public transportation.
Our focus, however, is intended to give frame and form to what we see as the roots of a new Palestinian uprising, one with no suicide bombers and explosives; no direct orders; no clear demands; a stealthy uprising because it brings the shadow of terror, death, and fear to every corner of the country in the most unexpected and unpredictable ways, starting in Jerusalem, then to other cities, and the West Bank.
IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot told a conference in Tel Aviv on January 18, 2016, that there is no early warning when it comes to random knife attacks. “We have had 101 such attacks over the past three months,” he said, “and have not been able to provide a warning in a single place.”
Ten years earlier, when he headed the Judea and Samaria Division, Eisenkot said, good intelligence allowed for pre-emption. “Now,” he said, “the knife-attack phenomenon, for all intents and purposes, leaps over what was our most important asset in fighting terror – intelligence.”
Killed in the October 3 attack were student-rabbi Aharon Banita-Bennett, a 22-year-old Breslov Hassidic resident of Beitar Ilit, and Nehemia Lavi, 41, a long-time resident of the Old City and rabbi at Yeshivat Ateret Kohanim for the last 23 years. Rabbi Banita’s wife, Odele, was seriously injured; the couple’s two-year-old was slightly injured. Their infant remained unharmed.
The violence of the attack was shocking and captured, in full, on video. The film shows the chaos in the Old City market as a young Palestinian man runs amok after a Jewish family, apathetic Palestinian shopkeepers watching as a woman screams for help for her family. It is an act of rage and hatred for all to see.
Chief of Staff Eisenkot is right. With all the resources available to him, he could not have predicted that Muhannad Shafiq Halabi, a 19-year-old law student at al-Quds University in Jerusalem, would become a multiple killer that afternoon.
Not unless he had read his Facebook page that morning where Halabi explains his intentions with utmost clarity: revenge for the death of a friend, Dhiaa’ al-Talahme, killed in clashes with Israeli forces two weeks before; “what is being done to al-Aqsa and our other holy sites; what is being done to the women of al-Aqsa is also being done to our mothers and sisters.”
“The third intifada,” he declared, “has begun.”
Social Media in the Service of Death
Social media is the new enabler of random terror. It spreads rumours and lies, and provides role models and incentive for copycats. It gives instructions on how best to kill, who to kill and why to kill, all without fingerprints. There is no organisation to formally accept responsibility for its actions, no recruiting bureau where potential recruits can be watched, no ammunition belts, explosives and arms, all of which leave behind intelligence trails.
It is also the builder of symbols and legends. Halabi has become a role model, touted as a hero on social media by the Palestinian Authority (PA), the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hamas and even the Palestinian Bar Association. A monument depicting his face has been erected on a stone shaped to include all of Palestine, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, and framed by the Palestinian flag. The PA and Fatah have sponsored a sports competition in his name.
Halabi’s face and name and the narrative of his “legacy of martyrdom” have flooded Palestinian social media sites. Many have cited him as an inspiration and many have since October 3 chosen to follow in his path.
On October 6, two Associated Press correspondents filed a story titled, “New Generation of Disillusioned Palestinians Drives Unrest” from Halabi’s home town, Surda, six kilometres northeast of Ramallah in the West Bank. They wrote in their opening paragraph:
“A new generation of angry, disillusioned Palestinians is driving the current wave of clashes with Israeli forces. Too young to remember the hardships of life during Israel’s last clampdown on the last major uprising, they have lost faith in statehood through negotiations, distrust their political leaders and (believe) Israel only understands force.”
They went on to quote, among others, Malik Hussein, a 19-year-old fellow law student and friend of Halabi at al-Quds, as saying: “We are all impressed by what he has done. The day after the attack, university students took to the streets and clashed with Israeli soldiers. Mohannad’s way is the only way to liberate Palestine.”
They quote Halabi’s 22-year-old cousin, Ahmed, as saying he hopes a new uprising will erupt. “What is going on here is unbearable: al-Aqsa; the settlements, and the killing in the streets. We have to move. We cannot stay silent,” he said, repeating, virtually verbatim, the messages that had flooded his social media of late.
Halabi’s father, Shafiq, spoke to the reporters in his newly-built two-storey home, saying that while his son followed events at al-Aqsa closely and was known to be a supporter of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad students association at al-Quds, he was not particularly religious and that his son’s violent act had come as a surprise.
He was “proud of him,” he said and ended with an observation: “This generation cannot be controlled by family or any other authority. Even we, the family, couldn’t tell Mohannad what to do.”
His words were echoed by 21-year-old Bassel Obeida, who said the unrest would continue regardless of the decisions of the Palestinian leadership. “If Abbas is against us… we will reject his words and start the intifada. We don’t want any leaders to tell us what to do.”
But, as this document will show, the Palestinian President and those under his authority are very much telling the youngsters what to do. Not sending them into battle as soldiers, but goading them into action through deliberate messaging, distortion and fabrication, sometimes stated openly by senior Palestinian officials, but mostly insidiously, aimed at keeping the conflict alive and portraying the Palestinians as the victims; a whitewash of terror by other means.
There is a guiding hand in all this, the PA and the Palestinian faction that leads it, Fatah. What is being witnessed today is the end-game of a strategy adopted by Fatah in 2009 and culminating in Mahmoud Abbas’ speech to the UN General Assembly on September 30, 2015, when he announced that the Palestinians are no longer bound by the Oslo (peace) Accords.
“We cannot continue to be bound by these signed agreements with Israel and Israel must assume fully all its responsibility as an occupying power.”
Muhannad Halabi was not created in a vacuum.
The PA’s Agenda
The new curve of violence started to escalate around mid-September 2015, two weeks before the Jerusalem Old City stabbings. Earlier, the country’s capital had seen an erratic series of attacks, primarily by Palestinians deliberately driving their vehicles into bus stops and other public areas near highways and roads, hoping to kill as many innocent civilians as possible, usually with some modicum of success.
The randomness began to take on form on September 13, 2015, the eve of the Jewish New Year, when a series of clashes broke out on the Temple Mount between youths who had armed themselves with pipe bombs and stones in preparation for an attack on Jewish pilgrims to the site the following day and Israeli police.
Palestinian media constantly replayed videos of the incident. The perennial incitement over official PA media, statements by the highest levels of the Palestinian leadership, and vitriol spread by the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement – a now-illegal, Israel-based, Islamic fundamentalist movement – proclaimed that Israel and the Jews were trying to take over al-Aqsa, Islam’s third holiest site.
The reasons for this, from the PA’s point of view, were manifold: al-Aqsa in east Jerusalem is the only issue of international Islamic concern that makes the Palestinians relevant. With geo-strategic realities focused on the tragedy in Syria, the American-Iranian nuclear agreement, manifestations of an escalating Sunni-Shi’ite rift as demonstrated in Yemen, the situation in Iraq, the phenomenon of ISIS, NATO-Russia tensions over the Ukraine and Crimea, and instability in Turkey, the Palestinian issue had become marginalised on the international agenda, so much so that the Palestinian issue was not even mentioned by the US President in his extended overview of world affairs in his speech at the UN in September 2015.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict had taken a backseat on the international stage and, in consequence, the Palestinian leadership decided to ignite the explosive issue of al-Aqsa.
Internally, as well, the Fatah-controlled PA needed to re-assert itself, fighting for relevancy against its principal rival, Hamas, the militant Islamic arm of the Palestinian movement, isolated in Gaza as a result of the 2014 Gaza War, but still active and growing in influence in the West Bank.
A poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in September 2015, before the Abbas UN speech, indicated that two-thirds of Palestinians wanted their 80-year-old president to stand down; 57% supported an armed intifada in the absence of peace negotiations, up from 49% three months earlier.
A Failure of Leadership
From the Palestinians’ perspective, Mahmoud Abbas had failed to deliver a single item on the Palestinian national agenda. He rejected an intensive US-led peace initiative in 2013-14 and formed a Fatah-Hamas government of national reconciliation instead. The supposed reconciliation, however, quickly fell apart when Fatah refused to transfer any funds or authority to Hamas personnel, embittering even further Fatah’s already noxious relationship with that organisation.
In terms of his own constituency in the West Bank, Abbas, elected president of the PA for a four-year-term in 2005, has unilaterally suspended all further electoral processes, including the 2009 election as demanded by Palestinian law.
He instituted measures of repression over a free press and the arrest and intimidation of journalists. There was an endless stream of reports of corruption among the Palestinian leadership, of featherbedding and patronage for those families close to the centres of power, and of an entrenched bureaucracy.
Abbas tightened his control over the police and security forces, unencumbered by the rule of law or transparency in the way they are deployed – this despite their training undertaken and financed by the international community, and their positive interaction, when convenient, with Israeli security forces in controlling Hamas terror.
Against this backdrop, the frustration among young Palestinians takes on a new perspective. It is a frustration with the inability of their leaders to offer them a vision of a future where they will be able to lead fruitful and open lives, a society where they can express their opinions, a place where their children will want to live.
They see no road to progress, no negotiations underway to change the current reality, but rather an unmovable, entrenched, corrupt and repressive leadership whose only “achievements” to date have been getting esoteric and meaningless resolutions passed in the UN that do not impact on their daily quality of life by one iota.
Instead of holding elections in 2009, as the law required, Fatah, the arm of the PLO headed by Abbas, held a convention in Bethlehem, where it adopted a new course of action. The plan called for something different from the second intifada, which was characterised as an armed struggle, but where violence would be used differently. It would be a war of attrition, termed as “popular resistance,” to include the use of “low-intensity” violence without resorting to firearms or explosives, while, at the same time, keeping the flame of resistance alive by seeking Israel’s delegitimisation internationally, promoting the BDS campaign against Israeli services and products, and, at the heart of it, incitement as a valve to turn on and off as required, as witnessed initially with calumnies that Israelis were defiling al-Aqsa and, later, randomly slaughtering innocent Palestinian children in the streets.
In tandem, and with a great degree of sophistication, a parallel policy was decided on, a policy spoken in English, not Arabic, to ostensibly keep a door open for negotiations with Israel, Fatah not wanting to be perceived as opposed to peace or to antagonise its international supporters and, critically for the Palestinians, the Israeli peace camp.
PA security forces also continued cooperating with their Israeli counterparts in preventing terror, but only with regard to quelling Hamas, one interest shared by both the PA and Israel.
Typical of this dichotomy were two reports published on January 19, 2016, in Al Quds, the largest Palestinian daily, of a statistical study noting “direct executions and excessive use of force were the main reasons for martyrs, with a rate of 84% martyrdom in this way.”
In an interview published the same day in the US magazine Defence News, the head of the Palestinian intelligence services, Majed Faraj, said that the PA security services “were able to foil 200 attacks against the Israeli occupation throughout the past three months since the start of the Quds Intifada.”
The difference between the two reports is both typical and apparent: Al Quds’ report of executions was in Arabic and designed to incite; the Defence News interview was in English and designed to curry international favour. Together they epitomise the meaning and intention of the strategy adopted by Fatah at its 2009 convention.
On January 15, Amos Harel, defence correspondent of Ha’aretz, reported that for the past month, Israeli divisional commanders had been interviewing young Palestinians apprehended while planning or executing an attack to try to understand what was motivating them.
The prison meetings, he reported, had been arranged by the IDF Central Command, and focused on what the military called “lone terrorists” or “lone wolves” – those unaffiliated with any specific terrorist or political organisation.
These meetings, he continued, pointed to two main understandings: Israel is facing a long-term phenomenon; and that while Israel’s tactical responses in the deployment of its security forces have managed to reduce casualties, the present response is far from complete, particularly in terms of intelligence.
The far more interesting observation, however, was what they heard from the young Palestinians in terms of their motives – an observation that ties this new wave of unrest to a coordinated incitement campaign, carried on official Palestinian media, from mid-September 2015 and onwards.
In October it was fear for al-Aqsa that motivated the attacks. In November there was a general atmosphere of preparations for a third intifada. In December, those questioned mainly talked about being inspired by the deeds of others and imitating other attackers. In January it was about exacting revenge for the alleged slaughter of innocents.
On January 24, 2016, in an unusual press release to the local and foreign media, the Israel Security Agency (ISA) reported that a minor from the village of Beit Amra, near Hebron, was apprehended on suspicion of stabbing and killing Dafna Meir, a mother of six, in the neighbouring Jewish settlement of Otniel on January 19.
“Released for publication,” the press release continued, “was that during questioning by the ISA (Shabak) it transpired that prior to committing the attack, the youth was watching Palestinian television portraying Israel as ‘killing Palestinian young people.'”
It was then, while watching the program, that the 15-year-old decided to “commit a stabbing attack with the goal of murdering a Jew.”
The television broadcast that sent the youth on his mission of death was yet another careful calibration of incitement, policy and cynicism, which has brought the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a new level, one that generates terror without fingerprints, but which adroitly serves Fatah’s strategy, which may differ from that of Hamas in terms of tactics and the use of violence, but which is identical in its ultimate goal: an endless war of attrition, by varying means, against Israel.
Timeline of Terror
An unofficial log of the violent events that occurred in the first 100 days and more mounts up to scores of pages of single-spaced text, each line a description of another horrific attack and its consequences.
The first fatality in this new phase of confrontation was 64-year-old Alexander Levlovich on September 14, 2015, killed while driving home from a family dinner on the Jewish New Year, when stones hit his car and caused him to crash.
Three youths, two 18-year-olds and one 17, were later arrested in the east Jerusalem village of Sur Baher and admitted to the attack.
The next day, September 15, saw a third day of clashes on the Temple Mount. The Waqf, the Muslim authority on the Mount, issued incendiary statements that “Israeli forces had penetrated the southern mosque as far as Saladin’s Minbar (pulpit) and witnesses said that stun grenades had set fire by the mosque’s Bab al-Janaez (funerals door),” intimating that Israel was wilfully violating the inner sanctums of Muslim holy sites.
However, Israeli UN Ambassador Ron Prosor wrote to the UN Secretary General and the Security Council that “at no point did Israeli police forces enter the mosque. All damage sustained at the mosque was a direct result of the activities of the militants.” Moreover, Israel Police spokeswoman Luba Samri said Palestinians threw rocks, firebombs and fireworks at police from within the al-Aqsa mosque and the firebombs sparked a fire at the entrance to the holy site.
In the following days, Molotov cocktails were hurled at Israeli army checkpoints. Firebombs were also thrown at and destroyed a bus in the Jerusalem neighbourhood of Armon Hanatziv.
Clashes on the Temple Mount became more aggressive. Riots began to flare up in major Palestinian cities as well, and on September 21, 2,000 Israelis visiting Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus were violently attacked by some 60 Palestinian teens. Serious injury to the group was avoided thanks to a quick and efficient response by the IDF in coordination with the PA security forces.
If, in the smoke of unrest, one can point to a seminal moment when the new Palestinian intifada emerged, it would be September 22, 2015, on the outskirts of the West Bank village of Khursa, near Hebron.
On that day, Diyaa Abdul-Halim Talhama, 21,was killed by Israeli forces during a violent demonstration, some say by a bomb of his own making, against what he considered Israel’s abuses on the Temple Mount.
On that day, at Talhama’s funeral, Muhannad Shafiq Halabi, Talhama’s fellow law student at Al-Quds University, kissed the dead man’s forehead and swore revenge.
On October 3, outside Lions Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem, Halabi exacted it, knife in hand, insanely slashing away at the Benita family, with the intent to kill all in his wake, including their infant child, leaving the cobbled path covered in blood.
Also on that day, September 22, and also on the outskirts of Khursa, Hadeel Al-Hashlamoun, a 19-year-old married student, dressed herself in a black traditional niqab, her body and face fully covered, and approached Israeli soldiers standing casually by a roadblock.
Footage, taken from behind, as if to document her journey, shows no particular tension among the soldiers as she came close to them. The footage, later to become viral on Palestinian social media, then stops and the next image is of her body, as if callously killed by the soldiers for no reason other than for being a Muslim woman in traditional garb. The knife she pulled out of her bag as she lunged at the unsuspecting soldier was never shown, and when pictures of the knife were later released by Israel, they were deemed forgeries by Palestinian activists.
Defending Women’s Honour
Within hours, driven by a social media frenzy, Al-Hashlamoun became a symbol of a violated Muslim woman, killed for her traditional garb, a victim of the Israelis in their war against Islam, another crime against Muslim women.
It is now known that Al-Hashlamoun had asked her husband for a divorce the previous day. From the footage and the way it was edited and distributed on social media after the fact, she was clearly sent on this carefully choreographed mission with a purpose in mind.
Al-Hashlamoun’s portrait has become, and remains, a feature intrinsic to much of the incitement that has led to the current situation and which frames the “Stealth Intifada” Israel now faces. Her profile appeared on a poster with the Kaaba in Mecca, Islam’s holiest site, a rare honour, maybe unprecedented, for a Muslim woman.
In Khursa, a street was named in her honour. The real reasons for her deed are long forgotten, but her legacy of hate lives on and thrives and her actions have been emulated by an inordinate number of young women since.
The Spread of Hate
At first, the main violence seemed to be in and around Jerusalem, with sporadic armed involvement by Hamas operatives, trying to ride the wave of stabbings and motor vehicle attacks. Then the attacks started to spread throughout the country, from Beersheba in the south, to Afula in the north of Israel, as well as Gush Etzion and, in particular, the Hebron area in the West Bank.
The spread and intensity of these attacks makes for numbing reading. Here is a partial report for October 8, 2015: Subhi Ibrahim Khalifeh, 19, stabbed a 25-year-old Haredi man in French Hill; a Palestinian stabbed four soldiers near IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv with a screwdriver; a Palestinian stabbed a settler, 25, inside Hebron; a Palestinian stabbed an Israeli soldier, 20, in Afula; a Palestinian died in a confrontation with Israeli forces in Shuafat; Palestinians attack Israeli soldiers in Bethlehem; Tha’er Abughazaleh, another teenage Palestinian, was shot dead after stabbing an Israeli soldier.
The litany of violence is endless.
On October 12, two cousins, 13-year-old Ahmed Manasra and Hassan, 15, rode their bikes from the prosperous Palestinian neighbourhood of Beit Hanina and stabbed an Israeli man and a 13-year-old Israeli boy as they came out of a candy store in the shopping centre of Pisgat Zeev, east of Jerusalem.
PA President Mahmoud Abbas declared that “Israel is responsible for the execution of our children in cold blood, as they did with the child Ahmed Manasra.” Hardly had the ink dried on the calumny, when Manasra appeared in the media, bandaged and in treatment for a slight head wound, at an Israeli hospital. The mistake, however, did not deter PLO Executive Committee Secretary Saeb Erekat from sending a formal letter of complaint to the UN Special Envoy on October 16, demanding an international investigation into the “extrajudicial killings being carried out against the Palestinians in the past few weeks.”
And thus it has gone, from day to day, almost every day, for over 100 days. The attacks have been inside Israel, in the territories, on buses, on trains, in shopping malls, on the streets, outside synagogues, on the roads, at junctions where Jews and Palestinians share traffic routes, and, in a different direction, in the last week of January, inside settlements in the West Bank.
On January 17, as noted, Dafna Meir was stabbed to death in the doorway of her house, in full view of her children, in Otniel. Michal Froman, a pregnant woman, was wounded in a separate attack while shopping in a clothing store in the settlement of Tekoa the next day. Both attacks were carried out by 15-year-old Palestinians.
A week later, on January 25, two Palestinians from the village of Ur-al-Tahta stabbed women shoppers in neighbouring Beit Horon, killing Shlomit Krigman, 23, and moderately wounding Adina Cohen, 58. In this attack, however, in addition to knives, the assailants brought three home-made pipe bombs, intended to be used in the attack, but which failed to explode.
These bombs, like the instructions on how best to stab Jews, were produced from lessons broadcast over social media, indicating, perhaps, that the “Stealth Intifada” may be headed in a more explosive direction.
The Victims Are to Blame
Hours after Shlomit Krigman of Beit Horon died on January 26, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon addressed the current situation at the UN Security Council. While condemning the current wave of attacks against Israeli civilians, he added the unilateral perception that what we see now is a result of “Palestinian frustration… growing under the weight of a half century of occupation and the paralysis of the peace process… It is human nature to react to occupation.”
In what the New York Times termed “an unusually personal retort,” Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is quoted as saying, “The words of the UN Secretary General give a tailwind to terrorism. There is no justification for terrorism. The Palestinian murderers do not want to build a state – they want to destroy a state and they say that out loud.”
The Israeli Prime Minister is not alone in this perception. As opposed to other Palestinian uprisings against Israel, where the Israeli pro-peace camp remained intact, this situation of random terror in Israel’s heartland, as well as in the territories, has changed the way many Israelis think. It has deepened scepticism that peace with the Palestinians is possible.
In a stunning turn-about, in early February, the Israeli Labor Party, long the advocate of a two-state solution, formally changed its position to one of unilateralism, whereby Israel would unilaterally withdraw from those Palestinian areas whose retention they consider poses a security threat to Israel, including the Palestinian neighbourhoods in east Jerusalem, while retaining those areas of the West Bank they consider vital to Israel’s security. A two-state solution was the core of Labor’s thinking. Now, hopes for peace have become a vision of unilateralism; a one-sided divorce with no negotiation.
While the current wave of violence has succeeded in placing the Palestinian issue back on the international agenda to some degree, it has lost the Palestinians a valuable asset: the Israeli political centre. No polls are necessary here: the Labor Party’s formal decision to adopt a policy of unilateralism says it all.
Israelis have lost trust in the Palestinians and their leaders, even those Israelis who believe that Israel should relinquish the territories as part of a peace agreement between the sides.
No society can live in fear and with anarchy at its doorstep, where suspicion lurks at every turn.
And no society can live with and tolerate the hatred being spewed against them, via social media and other means, with calumnies and lies reminiscent of the dark days that led to even darker days in the not-too-distant past of the Jewish people.
Israel will learn and adapt to this new situation as it has done in the past, its security relations with the Palestinians resulting in a constant learning curve. The question is whether the Palestinian leadership will do the same and come around to understanding that the monster they have created, a generation of children led to believe in the culture of death, is not in their own best interest.
The international community has not yet fully comprehended the change that has occurred here. This is not the same conflict they knew. A quest for justice has been replaced by a lust for revenge and an ideology that slaughtering the enemy, not negotiating with him, is the path to true salvation.
This current reality may not have been foreseen by Fatah when it adopted its policy of “popular resistance” back in 2009. But what we are witnessing now are the consequences, intended or otherwise, and a future riddled with more violence and blood.
Israel can control the damage, but only Fatah and the PA can end it, and it is they, the Palestinian leadership, who have to do so if the path to negotiation and conciliation is to be opened again.
Hirsh Goodman established the Program on Media Strategy at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. He is a former military correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, was Editor-in-Chief of the Jerusalem Report and was a strategic fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. © Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs, reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.
This article is featured in this month’s Australia/Israel Review, which can be downloaded as a free App: see here for more details.