The Hamas time bomb in Gaza/ Palestinian views on terror
Apr 1, 2016
Update from AIJAC
April 1, 2016
Number 04/16 #01
This Update features two valuable pieces on the situation in Gaza – which looks very likely to deteriorate into another round of conflict in the not too distant future. It also includes an important analysis of the polling data on Palestinian views on the current round of terrorist violence – which also offers bad news about the prospects of a lull in the violence emanating from the West Bank.
First up is a good piece from Jerusalem Post security affairs correspondent Yaakov Lappin – who focuses on how economic forces are likely to force an explosion in Gaza, given Hamas’ failed economic policies there and the build-up of tunnels and rockets to prepare for a new conflict with Israel. He notes that unemployment is very high, especially among the vast contingent of young people, most Gazans are dependent on UN aid, population is growing unsustainably, and yet Hamas represses any complaints. He says Hamas is making promises of economic improvements it cannot keep, while the only party attempting to help the Gaza population is Israel, via the reconstruction mechanism it has facilitated. For Lappin’s complete look at the sources of the next Gaza conflict, CLICK HERE.
Next up, Avi Issacharoff, Palestinian affairs correspondent for the Times of Israel, looks at a new political force which is shaping Hamas’ plans – the rise of a populist military leader named Yahya Sinwar, who is challenging Hamas’ established leadership, acting contrary to their instructions, and pushing the organisation in a more militant direction. In particular, Sinwar, who was jailed for 22 years but then released in the Shalit prisoner exchange in 2011, is responsible for Hamas’ growing links with ISIS in Sinai, and also for trying to retain ties with Syria and Iran that the Hamas leadership abroad is trying to distance the organisation from. For this important insight into the reality of the politics going on within Hamas, CLICK HERE.
Finally, Israeli political scientist Dan Polisar – who did an important longer piece a few months ago on Palestinian attitudes toward peace and violence over time – analyses the latest polling on Palestinian attitudes to the current “lone wolf” violence directed against Israelis in recent months. While he finds that there is declining support for the sort of knife attacks we have seen, this news is not as good as it appears, because most Palestinians would prefer to see the knife attacks morph into an “armed intifada” – that is attacks with guns and bombs. A full 65% expressed support for attacks on Israeli civilians within Israel, a figure higher than at any point in decades. For this disheartening news about Palestinian attitudes to terrorism, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in:
- Hamas and Fatah ostensibly announce agreement on national unity government and elections – but this has happened so many times few take it seriously.
- Numerous commentators in official Palestinian Authority media react to the Belgium terror attack by saying Israel must be behind it.
- Douglas Murray on why Europeans never consider offering any solidarity to Israel when it is a victim of terrorism, unlike other countries like Belgium or France.
- Israeli strategic expert Eran Lerman offers more insights into what Israel can teach Europe about fighting terrorism.
- A new Palestinian social media clip again accuses Israel of planning to destroy the al-Aqsa Mosque by supposedly digging underneath it.
- Columnist Jeff Jacoby on why it should be a no-brainer for governments to move their embassies in Israel to Jerusalem, as new Australian Senator James Paterson recently urged in his maiden speech.
- Two good academic articles on Israel’s options in the wake of the reality that a negotiated two-state solution with the Palestinians looks unlikely in the near future – from Shmuel Evan and Hillel Frisch.
- An Egyptian journalist offers an account of what he learned on a visit to Israel.
- Isi Leibler writes about the dilemma created for American Jews by the rise of Donald Trump in the current presidential election campaign.
- Sharyn Mittelman on how a new Israeli Supreme Court decision looks likely to jeopardise the diplomatic and economic benefits Israel hoped to achieve from its giant offshore gas finds.
The Gaza Time Bomb
by Yaakov Lappin
IPT News, March 30, 2016
Behind the scenes, pressure within the Islamist-run enclave is gradually building again, just as it did prior to the 2014 war.
Gaza’s civilian population is hostage to Hamas’s dramatically failed economic policies, and its insistence on confrontation with Israel, rather than recognition of Israel and investment in Gaza’s economic future.
Ultimately, the civilian-economic pressure cooker in Gaza looks likely to explode, leading Hamas to seek new hostilities with Israel, for which it is preparing in earnest.
Right now, Hamas remains deterred by Israel’s firepower, and is enforcing its part of the truce. Hamas security forces patrol the Strip’s borders to prevent Gazans from rioting, to stop them from trying to escape Gaza into Israel, and to stop ISIS-affiliated radicals who fire rockets at Israel.
Hamas is using the current quiet to replenish its rocket arsenal, dig its combat tunnel network, and build up sea-based attack capabilities. It is investing many resources in cooking up new ways to surprise Israel in any future clash. These efforts have not gone unnoticed by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
Hamas has not fired a single rocket into Israel since August 2014, but it encourages violence in the West Bank as part of a strategy to destabilize its Palestinian rival, the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority. Hamas in Gaza also works remotely to set up and orchestrate terrorism cells in the West Bank, while plotting way to overthrow Fatah from power. The Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic intelligence agency, has successfully foiled nearly all of these efforts thus far, saving many Israeli lives, and the PA’s rule, too.
A deeper look at processes under way in Gaza reveals why the status quo seems untenable in the long run. Thirty percent (910,000) of Gaza’s population of 1.85 million are aged 15 to 29, and out of these, 65 percent are unemployed. This represents one of the highest unemployment rates for young people in the world. Many are university educated and deeply frustrated. The overall unemployment rate in Gaza is 38.4 percent, and rising steadily. Eighteen thousand Gazan university students graduate every year. Most of them have nothing to do with their degrees, and return home to a life of idle unemployment. Many Gazans dream of leaving. The suicide rate is growing. Under Hamas’s rule, these young people see no change on the horizon.
Out of the total population of Gaza, 1.3 million receive assistance from United Nations aid workers, without which, a humanitarian crisis would likely ensue.
Those who dare complain, such as Gazan bloggers, find themselves whisked away into Hamas police custody, where they receive firm warnings to remain silent, or else.
Meanwhile, the Gazan population is growing at an unsustainable rate. Since Israel pulled out all of its soldiers and civilians in 2005, 600,000 Gazans have been born. This is a generation that has never been to Israel (unlike the older Gazans), and its only experience of Israel is through air force missiles fired at Hamas targets following clashes sparked by the jihadist regime’s military wing.
Many of these young people are exposed to the propaganda of Hamas’s media outlets, like the Al-Aksa television station, which is a major source of incitement. Some are also exposed to the wider world through the Internet, and are aware that life can be different for them.
By 2020, Gaza’s population will hit 2.3 million people. It could run out of drinking water. This might prompt a civilian revolt, which could push Hamas into starting a new war with Israel to distract attention.
To try to relieve the pressure, Hamas leaders make promises that they cannot keep, such as the setting up of a sea port, and the opening of the Rafah crossing with Egypt, which the anti-Hamas Egyptian government opened just 18 times in 2015 for fear of allowing jihadists in Gaza to pour into the restive Sinai Strip.
A Hamas delegation traveled to Egypt earlier this month to try to mend relations with the Cairo government. The effort resulted in failure, after Egyptian officials accused Hamas of failing to acknowledge its collaboration with the ISIS-affiliated Sinai Province insurgents.
Changes are underway within Hamas itself, which are causing the Izzadin Al-Qassam Brigades military wing to gain power at the expense of the political wing, which is led by Ismael Haniyeh.
Yiyhe Sinwar is a senior Hamas member with growing power, operating in the gray zone between both wings. He is close to military wing chief Muhammed Def, and to Haniyeh. Sinwar’s power represents the rise of military wing’s influence, where many members are finding their way into political elite positions in Gaza.
Marwan Isa is another senior Hamas member, influential to both wings. While the political wing has, behind closed doors, been hesitant to support the military wing’s disastrous adventures against Israel, its ability to veto future attacks may vanish.
Additionally, Hamas is running out allies as it did before the 2014 war.
Iran continues to fund its military wing, as well as Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Yet Tehran’s ability to traffic weapons into Gaza has been ruined by Egypt’s tunnel demolition drive.
Iran’s overall influence on Gaza, therefore, is limited.
The Muslim Brotherhood-friendly Qatar has also stepped back from Hamas, limiting its funding projects in Gaza to civilian reconstruction only, building a modern highway in Gaza and a fancy new neighborhood in Khan Younis. However, no Qatari funds go to Hamas’s military build-up. Turkey’s assistance to Hamas is limited, too. It paid for a new Gaza hospital and 11 mosques, but beyond that, its support is mostly rhetorical.
The Arab world is indifferent to Gaza, meaning that Hamas is in strategic distress.
ISIS-inspired ideology is penetrating Gaza, and a few thousand former Hamas, Fatah, and Islamic Jihad members have defected to small Salafist-jihadist groups there. These groups have been responsible for all rocket fire into Israel since the summer of 2014.
In fact, the only state that makes major efforts to care for Gaza’s civilians is Israel. Israel provides 60 percent of Gaza’s electricity (30 percent is locally produced and Egypt provides the remaining 10 percent).
In 2015, Israel allowed 104,000 Gazans through the Erez border crossings to assist traders and humanitarian journeys. At the Kerem Shalom vehicle crossing, 900 trucks pass each day from Israel into Gaza, carrying all manner of goods, from fuel, to construction materials and commercial goods.
For Gaza civilians, the only ray of light seems to shine from the reconstruction mechanism, which Israel quietly set in motion after Hamas cynically used Gazan civilian areas as rocket launching zones and urban combat bases.
Israel set up a computerized reconstruction system that closely monitors and enables the rebuilding, while preventing the use of concrete and dual use items from falling into Hamas’s hands. Gaza contractors who cannot account for their materials on the computerized systems are immediately removed from their positions, a heavy price to pay in the unemployment-rife Gaza Strip.
Funded by international donors and the Palestinian private sector, the mechanism, which Israel pushed to set up, has repaired 80,000 of the 130,000 housing units damaged during the conflict. Another 20,000 are currently being repaired.
Of the 18,000 homes completely destroyed in 2014, nearly 11,000 have already been rebuilt, and material for nearly 2,000 more homes has been bought and paid for.
The reconstruction program is providing jobs and a little hope for Gazans. But it is unlikely to be sufficient to stave off an economic collapse. Again, the rebuilding effort is funded almost entirely by outside sources while Hamas invests tremendous resources into terrorism-guerilla capabilities and denies the Gazan people the opportunity of economic development by refusing to recognize Israel.
Until Gaza is run by people with different priorities, its residents have little hope their lives will improve.
Yaakov Lappin is the Jerusalem Post’s military and national security affairs correspondent, and author of The Virtual Caliphate (Potomac Books), which proposes that jihadis on the internet have established a virtual Islamist state.
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Inside Hamas, a bitter and very personal battle for control
Qatar-based political smoothie Khaled Mashaal is gradually losing authority to ruthless ex-prisoner Yahya Sinwar, the peoples champion who is directing operations from Gaza
When Khaled Mashaal, head of Hamass political wing, was interviewed on the France 24 television channel this week, his statements about a possible escalation in Gaza were unequivocal. Hamas is not seeking war [with Israel]. We are eager to avoid it, he said. He added that while Iran had supported Hamas in the past, it had reduced its assistance since Hamas came out openly against Syrian President Bashar Assads regime. Currently, Mashaal said, Hamas was working to develop additional funding sources.
So he said but plenty of people in the Gaza Strip were none too bothered. Although Mashaal supposedly still holds the highest position in Hamas, his status as the organizations top leader does not seem as strong as in past years. He is no longer the sole decision-maker in Hamas, certainly not when it comes to the Gaza Strip.
As The Times of Israel reported in December, a new leader by the name of Yahya Sinwar has emerged in the Strip. A charismatic man, Sinwar is leading an intensifying challenge to Mashaals leadership and to Hamass senior echelons abroad. While Mashaal, who was born in the West Bank village of Silwad, stays in luxury hotels in the Gulf states and meets with world leaders such as the president of Turkey, Sinwar lives in the Khan Younis refugee camp and is seen as the champion of the oppressed, suffering alongside them.
Sinwar spent 22 years in Israels prisons until he was released in the 2011 Shalit prisoner-exchange deal. A man who avoids the limelight, he is considered a radical hardliner who inspires the loyalty of the leadership of Hamass military wing.
The clash between Mashaal and Sinwar is at the heart of a growing rift between Hamass Gazans and the ones abroad. The resolution of issues such as Hamass reconciliation with Fatah, its relations with Egypt and its own broad strategy hinges on the result.
Oil and water
To begin to understand the clash, a good place to start is with the natural competition between the West Bank and Gaza not just inside Hamas but within Palestinian society.
It is no secret that the inhabitants of the West Bank look down on the Gazans. This was even more the case in Hamas after the killing of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in March 2004 and the elimination of Abdel-Aziz al-Rantisi a few weeks later. Hamas had lost its two most prominent leaders in Gaza.
Still, many of their counterparts in the West Bank were either imprisoned in Israel or had been assassinated, so the killing of Yassin and al-Rantisi marked the beginning of a golden age for Hamass leadership abroad. Ex-West Banker Mashaal and other exiles like his deputy Moussa Abu Marzouk were considered the highest-ranking and most important people in Hamas everywhere, including in Gaza, and the military wing took its orders from them. Even when Hamass Gaza terror chief Muhammad Deif and, later on, Ahmed Jabari began rising to prominence, there was still no doubt as to who gave the orders.
Sinwars release from prison wrought a change in the structure of the entire leadership. Sinwar began asserting himself as Hamass Number One man in Gaza: One of the founders of the Izz a-Din al-Qassam military brigades, he had tried to scuttle the Shalit deal, even though it wound up securing his freedom after 22 years, because he felt it made too many concessions. That helped him solidify the respect of all Hamass members.
Sinwar has worked to change Hamass priorities. For him, Gaza is not a stepping-stone in a wider strategy of taking over the West Bank and the PLO, as it is for Mashaal. Rather, Gaza is a separate and sanctified goal: the first and only entity where the Muslim Brotherhoods doctrine held sway. The members of the political bureau abroad see a takeover of the entire Palestinian leadership as an end that justifies any means, including concessions in Gaza if required. Not so, for Sinwar.
Another strategic issue on which the two camps are divided has to do with the clash of civilizations in the Middle East and the fight between the Sunnis and the Shiites. While Mashaal and his group made clear their reservations regarding the Shiite axis as far back as 2011, Sinwar and his comrades in the Gaza military wing refused to part ways with their friends in Tehran and Damascus.
Mashaal tried several times to draw close to Saudi Arabia and even visited there. But the members of the military wing, led by Deif and with Sinwar above him, kept in close contact with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Al-Quds Force and continued to receive funding through various channels.
But Mashaals all-too-overt support of Riyadh, together with his firm opposition to the Houthis activity in Yemen, led to a significant cutback in Iranian aid to the Gaza Strip (at least for the military wing).
The Mashaal-Sinwar disagreement is also evident regarding relations with the Egyptians.
A Hamas delegation, including Abu Marzouk, visited Cairo this week and met with heads of Egyptian intelligence (the Mukhabarat), which is trying to court the leaders of the political wing, in Gaza and abroad, to counter the actions of Sinwar and the military wing. Evidence presented to members of the delegation that Hamas activists trained the assassins of Egypts prosecutor general astonished them.
Plainly, the military wing is pursuing, under their very noses, an independent policy regarding relations with Islamic State personnel in Egypt. Transferring wounded members of IS in Sinai for medical treatment in the Gaza Strip, digging tunnels into Egypt, moving arms and ammunition to Sinai, and training Islamic State fighters all these activities are taking place as an organized project of the military wing, with the knowledge of Yahya Sinwar, but without the consent of the members of the political wing in Gaza, and certainly without the consent of Mashaal in Qatar.
Mashaal has urged his fellow Hamas members to stop all smuggling from the Gaza Strip to Sinai and sever all contact with Islamic State. But Gaza has needs of its own, and he has been ignored. Officials of the military wing have decided to keep communication channels with Islamic State open because the smuggling of arms and funds to and from Sinai is deemed so important.
The ideological disputes are causing practical difficulties regarding the way Hamas should be run. Its not always clear exactly who is making the decisions: Is it Ismail Haniyeh or Mahmoud a-Zahar, both of whom are considered senior members of the political wing in Gaza? Is it Mashaal and Abu Marzouk, who live abroad? Or are Sinwar and Deif now the ones in charge?
One illustration of this confusion is last months execution of Mahmoud Eshtawi, who had been considered the battalion commander of Gaza Citys Zeitoun neighborhood, on charges of collaborating with Israel. Eshtawi, a prominent member of Hamass military wing, came from a family with deep roots in the organization. The decision to execute him aroused a great deal of anger among Hamas supporters, and its still not clear whose decision it was: the political wing, Sinwar and Deif, both?
Or take statements made by members of Hamass political wing after a series of tunnel collapses in recent weeks. A-Zahar gloatingly announced that Hamas was digging tunnels into Israel, but members of the military wing then took him to task, asking, in effect, where he got the authority to make such statements. He then claimed to have been misunderstood.
New elections for the Hamas political bureau are to be held over the coming year, and it is not clear whether Mashaal will be re-elected. The balance of power is tilting rapidly in favor of Gaza, and it is likely that Sinwar will want to be installed as head of the political wing or will select one of his close associates for the post.
For Sinwar, there is quite a bit of historical and social baggage here: He is the representative of the refugees and the prisoners the underprivileged Gazans who have always been considered second-class. And while he and his close associates suffer in the dust of Gazas tunnels, it is galling for them to see others such as Mashaal the far-seeing statesman born in the West Bank, the consummate politician who has never known the sound of gunfire or the stench of prison live in luxury at Gazas expense and claim Gazans fealty.
Hamas is not about to fall apart, and the rifts are not unbridgeable. But for the next few months at least, Mashaal will likely keep on giving orders from Qatar, and the military wing and Sinwar will keep on ignoring them.
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What Palestinians Think about the Knife Intifada
Six months after the current wave of violence began, some observers think it might be running out of steam. But what next?
Is the knife intifada beginning to run out of steam? Some observers say so. Yet this Friday, April 1, marks an impressive half-year since the launch of the current wave of Palestinian violence. Characterized largely by stabbings carried out by youngsters, generally acting alone or in pairs, this round of attacks has already claimed the lives of 29 Israelis, two Americans, an Eritrean asylum seeker, and a Palestinian bystander, and caused more than 400 injuries.
During this time, according to official Israeli sources, there have been over 200 stabbings or attempted stabbings at an average pace greater than one per day, as well as 40 car-ramming assaults and 80 shootings. Though perpetrated almost exclusively by Palestinians living in Jerusalem and the West Bank, and focused largely on these areas, the attacks have also reached Israels coastal cities, most notably Tel Aviv. And though not yet nearly so long-running as the first (1987-1991) or second (2000-2004) intifadas, the current wave, given that it appears to be driven by individual initiative rather than by organized militant groups like Hamas or Fatah, has shown remarkable staying power.
What explains its endurance? One reason may be that the perpetrators both reflect and are largely motivated by Palestinian public opiniona subject to which I devoted a comprehensive essay in Mosaic last November. Here I want to explore what has changed over the last six months in how Palestinians see their conflict with Israel, and especially the desirability and efficacy of resorting to violence. In doing so, Ill rely principally on polls conducted during this period by three of the leading Palestinian polling institutes whose published results reliably indicate what Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza think.
To begin with, most Palestinians, despite the fact that their countrymen are the ones initiating attacks on Israelis, see themselves as being under attack by Israelon both the national and the individual level. In a December 2015 poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR), 51 percent of respondents were convinced that Israels long-term goal with respect to the al-Haram al Sharif area in the Old City of Jerusalem (known to Jews and many Christians as the Temple Mount) is to destroy [the] al-Aqsa and Dome of the Rock mosques and build a synagogue in their place. Among Palestinians in the West Bank and Jerusalem, that figure rose to 66 percenta significant datum given that residents of these two areas are almost exclusively responsible for the current uprising and that their views exert a corresponding influence on its course. Far from being a one-time fluke, this finding extended a pattern observed in surveys during the previous year, and was replicated in PSRs most recent poll in March 2016.
What makes this Palestinian fear particularly remarkable is that the Israeli government has repeatedly gone on record opposing any change in the core element of the status quo put in place on the Mount in 1967, which is that Muslims worship there en masse in a number of structures dedicated to that purpose, but no place exists for Jewish communal prayer and Jewish visitors are forbidden from praying there even as individuals. Not a single party or leading figure in Israels current government or any of its predecessors has proposed the building of a synagogue on the Mount, or suggested harming the Muslim holy sites that have stood on it for the past thirteen centuries. Similarly, no Israeli government has taken any steps that could plausibly be interpreted as indicating an interest in such actions.
Yet none of this seems to have the slightest effect on the sense among most Palestinians not only that Israel aims to destroy the Muslim holy sites in the future but that an attack against them is already under way. In a November 2015 survey conducted by the Center for Opinion Polls and Survey Studies at An-Najah National University, respondents were asked several questions that assumed as muchand their answers made it clear that they accepted the premise. To one such questionDo you think that the continuous assaults on al-Aqsa Mosque by settler groups are encouraged by the Israeli government?92 percent answered affirmatively. Among residents of the West Bank and Jerusalemwho, being much more frequent visitors to the Mount, presumably should have more accurate information than their counterparts in Gazathe figure was an astonishing 94 percent.
Here again one would search in vain for a factual basis to this claim. There have been no reliably reported instances of Israeli settlers attempting to enter the al-Aqsa mosque in the last several months, let alone any attacks on the structure or its worshipers. True, there has been a modest increase in the number of religious Jews visiting the Mount, where the First and Second Temples stood for around a millennium, and a small number of these visitors might well have prayed there surreptitiously; but if so, such acts did not take place in or near the al-Aqsa mosque, and could hardly be considered an assault in any reasonable sense of the term.
Perhaps most noteworthy of all was the response to the following question in the December 2015 PSR poll:
Two months ago, large-scale confrontations broke out in the Palestinian territories against the occupation forces and the settlers in which many Palestinians fell after being shot by the Israeli army or settlers claiming that they stabbed or tried to stab Israelis. Do you think that most of those Palestinians have indeed stabbed or tried to stab Israelis or that most of them did not stab or try to stab Israelis?
Among residents of the West Bank and Jerusalem, 57 percent averred that most of them did not stab or try to stab Israelis, despite the widely available videos of the stabbings, despite the fact that family members of many of the perpetrators publicly took pride in what they had done, and despite the fact that leading Palestinian figures and media often celebrated these attacks.
Most Palestinians, then, especially in the West Bank, see themselves as on the defensive and thus justified in supporting and encouraging attacks on Israelis. At the same time, most have also shown record levels of pessimism regarding the prospect of establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel in the next five years.
Just before the outbreak of the current uprising last fall, PSR, which has consistently asked about this subject over the last nine years, registered a record 78 percent viewing the chances of a two-state solution in the next five years as low or non-existent. Three months later, with the knife intifada in full swing, the figure fell only slightly to 75 percent.
One factor here is that Palestinians have become less flexible regarding a possible deal with Israel. To take but a few examples: 76 percent of those surveyed by PSR in December declined to accept Israeli sovereignty over western Jerusalem in exchange for Palestinian sovereignty in the eastern parts of the city, the highest percentage of nay-sayers in a decade; 62 percent, the highest ever, rejected a deal for a two-state solution modeled on the Clinton parameters (widely perceived to be at least as generous as any Israeli government is likely to be in the foreseeable future); and another record-breaking 61 percent rejected the idea of mutual recognition between Israel as the state of the Jewish people and Palestine as the state of the Palestinian people.
In all of these cases, the figures are even higher among Arab respondents from the West Bank and Jerusalem. Though reflective of a rejectionist attitude that has been developing over the course of a decade and a half, through periods of greater and lesser conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, these latest polls have indicated an even stronger unwillingness to compromise on core issues.
Given this congeries of views, it is no surprise that most Palestinians were supportive of the current uprising when it first broke out. In the December 2015 PSR poll, for example, support for the use of knives to attack Israelis was at 67 percent overall and commanded a majority among virtually all sectors of the population, including residents of the West Bank and of Gaza, adherents of Hamas, Fatah, and other parties, and all age groups.
And yetheres where things get complicatedby the middle of March, two weeks ago, a PSR poll was showing that overall support for knifing attacks was down to 58 percent, while in the West Bank, whose residents were bearing the brunt of the negative consequences from these attacks, it had dropped to 44 percent. These findings corroborate a JMCC poll in early March showing a similar decline in support for knife attacks and for continuing the current uprising more generally.
Of course, the current level of support is still quite significant, which might account for the fact that so far in March, there have been a dozen knifing attacks, four shootings, and three attempts to run Israelis over. But the drop and the reasons behind it are worth noting for what they may signal about the future.
What has changed, it seems, is the belief that the attacks are an effective means of securing gains. In PSRs December poll, 51 percent of respondents thought that continuing the uprising would advance Palestinian rights in ways negotiations could not. By March, only 43 percent were telling PSR field workers that continuing the current confrontations would serve Palestinian national interests more effectively than negotiations. Meanwhile, the corresponding figure in the West Bank decreased to 36 percent.
Its not hard to make sense of these figures, which seem rationally grounded in experience. Generally speaking, the attackers, and especially the knife-bearers, who have become the symbol of the uprising, have been thwarted. All told, more than 200 stabbing attacks have led to a relatively modest total of fifteen deaths, most of them during the first three months of the uprising, with a comparable number of Israelis killed in the 120 car-rammings and shootings. The perpetrators have fared far worse, as virtually all have been killed, seriously injured, or arrested.
Thus, if the goal has been to bring about substantial Israeli casualties at a tolerable price, one cannot view the uprising as a success in its own terms. Nor has it succeeded in instilling fear in Israelis, compelling them to alter their way of life or leading them to pressure their government to change its policies or to try and topple it through elections. After a few weeks of modifying their habits to lessen the chances of being attacked, the vast majority of Israelis have largely resumed normal life, albeit with greater vigilance and, for those licensed to carry guns, with personal weapons frequently at the ready. The government, for all its internal difficulties, appears to be suffering little from adverse public reaction to the violence or to its handling of it.
The uprising has also failed to elicit substantial sympathy for the Palestinians or to blacken Israels reputation in significant circles in the Westdespite the potential David versus Goliath appeal of teenage boys and girls wielding knives and scissors and dying or being disarmed and arrested at the hands of Israeli policemen and soldiers. To be sure, there have been the occasional egregious pieces of reporting, most notably by the BBC when it headlined a story about the stabbing deaths of two Israeli civilians by diverting attention to police actions aimed at stopping the perpetrator from continuing his killing spree: Palestinian Shot Dead after Jerusalem Attack Kills Two.
There have also been occasional statements by diplomats blaming Israel as the cause of the attacks, most prominently Secretary of State John Kerrys October assertion (subsequently walked back) that theres been a massive increase in settlements over the course of the last years, and now you have this violence because theres a frustration that is growing. In December, similarly, UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon declared that The anger we are witnessing is bred from nearly five decades of Israeli occupation. It is the result of fear, humiliation, frustration, and mistrust. But such statements, giving a public-relations victory to the perpetrators of violence, have been relatively rare and have gained little traction.
A host of factors help to explain this phenomenon. They range from the restraint employed by Israeli police and soldiers in neutralizing the attackers without killing those already disarmed (with the apparent exception, in circumstances not yet clarified, of a recent case in Hebron), to the sound decision by most Western leaders not to reward violence by condemning Israel or pressuring it for concessions, to the worldwide preoccupation with the incomparably worse carnage in Syria and with the refugee crisis it has helped to precipitate. Whatever the reasons, nothing in the international reaction has compared with the savaging Israel faced in many quarters after the Gaza wars of January 2009 and summer 2014.
Were this the full story, observers concerned with putting a halt to the current campaign and actually restoring calm might take heart from the Palestinian polls indicating that denying gains to those who use violence curtails public support for such violence, which in turn may translate into a reduction in its use.
Unfortunately, however, this is not the case. To the contrary, recent surveys show that a majority of Palestinians have reached quite a different conclusion: namely, that stabbings and car-rammings are too low-octane to achieve their ambitious national goals, and that doubling down by resorting to more deadly violence would be more effective.
In PSRs December 2015 poll, for example, 46 percent considered an armed intifada the most effective means of securing a Palestinian state, nearly twice as many as chose the second-place answer of negotiations. Moreover, two-thirds believed that the current uprisings developing into such an armed intifada would be more effective than negotiations in advancing Palestinian interestsa figure 15 points higher than for the options of continuing the current uprising as is or shifting to large-scale non-violent protests. That same month, the percentage of Palestinians saying they would support a return to an armed intifada and to confrontations if the path of negotiations were to fail reached 60 percent, the highest recorded level in the two dozen times this question has been asked in the last six years; likewise at an all-time high was the 20 percent saying they would certainly support that course of action.
Even more tellingly, 64 percent in the same poll indicated support for attacks on Israeli civilians within Israel, a figure higher than at any point during the second intifada, when such attacks, especially suicide bombings, were common and enjoyed substantial legitimacy throughout Palestinian society.
And the latest PSR poll continues the trend, showing that 65 percent of the public (including 59 percent in the West Bank) sees an armed intifada as more effective than negotiations in securing Palestinian gains. In the press release announcing its March results, PSR cited both the notable drop in the West Bank in the support for knifing attacks, due, it seems, to a rising perception of its inefficacy and the fact that a large majority continues to view an armed intifada as more effective than these attacks.
Public opinion among Palestinians is certainly not the sole determinant of what will happen next. Yet, as a powerful force driving the current uprising, it should be taken very seriously in thinking about the likely course of events and how to prepare for them. With Palestinians increasingly convinced of their victimhood, unwilling to compromise on key substantive issues, and beginning to believe that an armed intifada is the better way to go, policy makers and others interested in curbing the escalation of violence would do well to consider what steps can be implemented to prevent an explosion.