West Bank violence jumps, but this time it’s more personal

MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/REUTERS - Arsonists recently burned the home of Khaled Dar Khalil, a Palestinian, and left a spray-painted message indicating that the act was revenge for an Israeli soldier’s death.

JERUSALEM — A retired Israeli military officer was beaten to death with a pickax in his front yard. A Palestinian man was fatally shot after ramming his tractor into an Israeli army gate.

These and other enigmatic, seemingly unrelated killings, all originating in the West Bank, have left four Israelis and at least 24 Palestinians dead this year — a notable increase from last year.

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The jump in violence follows the relative calm of 2012, which was one of the least-deadly years in decades for Israelis. It comes as stalled peace talks give rise to concerns about more killings to come.

This year’s attacks have claimed the lives of three Israeli soldiers and a retired colonel, each in a separate incident. During the same period, 24 Palestinians have died at the hands of Israeli soldiers in the West Bank, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. In each Palestinian death, Israeli officials say, security forces were responding to a potential threat.

By comparison, in the first 11 months of 2012, nine Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces in the West Bank. No Israelis died in political violence in the West Bank that year, for the first time since 1973, according to statistics compiled by Israel’s Shin Bet domestic intelligence agency.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who is due to return to the region this week, has linked the slow progress in peace negotiations to the apparent rise in violence.

“The alternative to getting back to the talks is the potential of chaos,” Kerry said during a recent trip. “Does Israel want a third intifada?”

But Israeli army intelligence officers and Palestinian analysts say the latest bloodshed is markedly different from the violence that defined the intifadas, or uprisings, of the late 1980s and early 2000s.

During each of those periods, an outpouring of Palestinian anger at Israel led to a rash of targeted attacks and suicide bombings, triggering a brutal crackdown by the Israeli military. This time, the Israeli and Palestinian experts say, the violence by Palestinians in the West Bank appears to be more intimate and less sophisticated; more spontaneous than organized; and carried out, for the most part, without any apparent backing by militant or political organizations.

An “intifada of individuals,” the defense analyst for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Amos Harel, called it.

Among the Israeli deaths was a solider shot by a sniper near a shrine in Hebron, and an off-duty air force sergeant lured to the West Bank by a Palestinian co-worker who killed him and tossed his body down a well.

“What has increased in the conflict is the emotions of individuals, including deep hatred and a desire for revenge,” said Ronni Shaked, a scholar at the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Israeli officials seem to view the violence as something they can deal with — even though an incident last week in which three members of a radical Islamist cell were killed in an exchange of fire with Israeli military forces has given rise to suggestions that at least one new group with ties to al-Qaeda might have gained a foothold in the area.

Palestinian leaders have complained more vocally about Israeli settlement expansion than about the two dozen Palestinians killed by Israeli forces this year.

“For an uprising to happen, you need a leadership of sorts, and we just don’t see it here,’’ said Diana Buttu, a Palestinian analyst and former legal adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team. “It will not turn into something huge.”

Israeli intelligence services closely track what they call “the spirit of resistance” and find that Palestinians are most worried about economic conditions, angry not only with Israelis but their own leaders.

“You can say there has been an upward trend toward violence, but these have been personal decisions,” said a senior Israeli military intelligence officer who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The killers had a grudge, the officer said, and acted out.

The most recent Israeli victim was 19-year-old Eden Attias, a solider in uniform asleep on a bus traveling inside Israel. He was stabbed to death by a 16-year-old Palestinian from a West Bank village near Jenin, who after being caught told his interrogators that he was angry that no one remembered his uncles in prison, according to Israeli news accounts.

The most recent Palestinian death occurred Saturday, when an Israeli border police volunteer opened fire and killed a 20-year-old Palestinian worker who, the volunteer said, had tried to stab him.

In some cases, Israeli intelligence officers said, Palestinian assailants have attacked Israeli army installations in desperate acts. They compared those attacks to “suicide by cop” cases in the United States, in which an individual threatens law enforcement officers in such a way as to get shot.

One example they cited was an attack last month by a Palestinian man named Yusef Ahmed Radaida, who used a tractor to ram the gates of an Israeli army base north of Jerusalem. The Israeli news outlet Walla reported that Radaida’s family members had recently received a demolition order for their East Jerusalem home. Radaida was shot and killed by soldiers at the scene.

Israel’s top security chief suggested that U.S. pressure might be helping to ignite some of the Palestinian anger. “Our victims are victims of the diplomatic process,” Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said. “When we stand firm and do not look like we are about to give up, that’s when we receive quiet.”

Although Yaalon warned of an “infectious wave of terror attacks” and the potential for copycats, he dismissed Kerry’s suggestion that a third intifada is in the offing.

Palestinian analysts say the attacks against Israelis are being carried out by frustrated citizens rather than trained militants — the bitter harvest of a grinding military occupation. They also point out that tensions between Jewish settlers and Palestinians, including revenge attacks, continue unabated.

After Attias, the soldier on the bus, was stabbed to death last month, arsonists set fire to a Palestinian home in a village near Ramallah.

“Suddenly, we heard noises and windows broken, then there was smoke,” recalled Khaled Dar Khalil, standing in front of his still-smoldering home in a village on the outskirts of Ramallah.

Flames blocked the front door. The father of five and his wife, Rawaida Dar Khalil, sought safety on the roof, where they waited 40 minutes before a fire truck arrived. “They tried to burn us alive,” Rawaida Dar Khalil said.

On the wall, someone spray-painted a message: “Regards from Eden, revenge.”

 
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