BETHLEHEM, West Bank — On Monday, Maysoon Musa rose early for morning prayers, then helped harvest squash in the family fields. She acted “perfectly normal,” said her mother, who described her daughter as “just a quiet girl, as shy as a chicken.”
Then the 19-year-old university student went to Checkpoint 300 in Bethlehem, a busy, depressing turnstile through the high gray concrete wall that separates the Palestinian territory in the West Bank from Israel. There, according to Israeli authorities, Musa removed a curved dagger from her bag and then stabbed and wounded a female Israeli military police officer in the neck. The victim was Liron Yisraeli, also 19.
The assault, a few miles south of Jerusalem’s Old City, was one of seven major attacks against Israelis in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem over the past two weeks. The pace and mixed style of violence — ambushes, stabbings, drive-by shootings — have broken a months-long period of relative calm and set many on edge.
There has also been violence from the Israeli side, including the fatal shooting Friday morning of a 17-year-old Palestinian who had thrown rocks at a senior military commander’s vehicle.
Israeli military and police — and ordinary Israelis and Palestinians — are now wondering: Is this another brief flare-up in the conflict or the beginning of a larger conflagration?
The first attack against Israelis occurred June 19 near a popular spring west of Ramallah and close to a Jewish settlement in the West Bank. An Arab assailant fatally shot an Israeli hiker and escaped.
Two days later, a Palestinian stabbed a border police officer at the Damascus Gate outside the Old City. The attacker was shot and wounded.
A few days passed, and then, at a checkpoint in the Jordan Valley, a Palestinian opened fire with a handgun at Israeli soldiers. He was shot dead.
Days later, a gunman fired multiple rounds into a car carrying four young Israelis near another Jewish settlement in the West Bank. They had just finished playing basketball. One of the Israelis was killed. The assailant escaped.
Israelis are especially anxious about whether the attacks are the work of organized cells directed by armed factions, such as the Islamist group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip and is present in the West Bank; or if the violence is being driven by “lone wolf” perpetrators who strike out for personal or political reasons, or both.
Was Musa recruited to a cell? Her attorney, Ameer Yasin, told The Washington Post that Musa confessed to Israel’s domestic intelligence agency that she came to the checkpoint to attack a soldier. The attorney said he did not know whether Musa acted alone. He said he was worried, though, about her mental state and had convinced the Israelis to allow a psychological evaluation.
Musa’s mother said her relatives don’t know what happened. Her family has nothing to do with politics, neighbors said. Musa’s mother said her daughter was engaged to be married — a date had been set for August and the wedding dress ordered. Musa studied English literature at a West Bank satellite of Al Quds University.
The recent spate of attacks coincided with the start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, when the devout fast during the day — forgoing food, water, cigarettes — and then celebrate with evening prayer and feasts after sundown.
“We don’t know, is it Ramadan? Or is it a strategic change?” Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon, commander of the operations branch in the Israel Defense Forces, said in an interview.
“Under the surface, the temperature is very high,” Alon said. “We try to put the cover on the pot, but it is an unstable situation.”
Alon said the past decade of Israeli counterterrorism efforts, coupled with cooperation from Palestinian security forces, has crippled the organization of large-scale attacks from the West Bank. Alon conceded that it is difficult to detect small terror cells and almost impossible to predict when a Palestinian is going to decide to ram his vehicle into a group of police at a tram stop — a common strategy six months ago.
Early Friday, Palestinian Authority forces arrested more than 100 Hamas members in the West Bank who were planning on carrying out attacks, a Palestinian official told the Associated Press. It was biggest raid of its kind since 2007.
A spokesman for Palestinian security, Adnan Dameri, told the news agency: “We will not let Hamas undermine our security and draw our country to bloodshed. We will not let Hamas carry out attacks in the West Bank.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new coalition government is howling for the military and police to take stronger action and reverse decisions to loosen travel restrictions to Jerusalem during Ramadan to allow Muslims from the West Bank and Gaza to visit al-Aqsa mosque in the Old City, the third holiest site in Islam.
“The terrorist organizations must receive the message that the blood of Israeli citizens, especially residents of Judea and Samaria, cannot be shed with impunity,” Israeli Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel told Netanyahu, using place names from the Hebrew Bible to refer to the West Bank.
“The month of Ramadan has become a holiday of sacrifice in which Jews are the victims,” he said.
On Tuesday, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon accused the Palestinian Authority of inciting the attacks, alleging that Palestinians spend the day watching anti-Israel programming on TV and then head out to kill civilians.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has not spoken about the recent spate of attacks. The Palestinian Authority, however, has countered that Israelis are partly responsible for the soaring tensions. Israeli troops have stepped up raids and arrests across the West Bank, Palestinian officials say.
However, Amos Yadlin, director of the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv and a retired Israeli general, said he believed the recent attacks on Israelis were the “work of an organized cell.”
“It is no longer just someone waking up in the morning, going to the mosque, hearing incitement and carrying out an attack,” he said. “It is people working with guns; it is ambushes."
Sufian Taha and Ruth Eglash contributed to this report.