SAER, West Bank — After six months of attacks by Palestinian youths against Israeli soldiers and civilians, authorities have begun to hope the wave of violence is subsiding.
What did the Palestinians gain?
Funerals, many say.
No village in the West Bank generated more attackers per capita than Saer, a farm town of 20,000 people famous for its quarries and grapes in the hills east of Hebron, where everyone knows each other.
Some Palestinians began calling Saer the “capital of martyrs.” Israeli intelligence officials branded it a hotbed of a new kind of terror, pursued not by armed organized militants but by frustrated young “lone wolves,” goaded by official incitement and social media, and motivated by revenge, nationalism — and personal problems.
Over a three-month period, 11 teens and young men from Saer left home to try to attack Israelis, according to military officials. They were killed by security forces during the attempts. One extended family buried five people. In addition, a young man from Saer was killed during an undercover raid at a hospital by Israeli special forces disguised as women and patients.
None of the attacks launched by the men in Saer achieved their presumed goal — the death of an Israeli soldier or Jewish settler.
“We’ve lost enough sons,” said Awni al-Jabbarin, the father of 20-year-old Muayyad, who was fatally shot by Israeli soldiers after he lunged at them with a knife at a highway junction.
Asked what the death of his child meant, the father stared off into the distance. “It achieved nothing,” he said.
He added, “I pray to God he is the last son of Saer to die.”
More than 180 Palestinians have been killed in the past six months — 130 in attacks or attempted assaults against Israelis and 50 during riots and clashes, with increased use of live fire by Israeli forces presiding over a 49-year military occupation.
In the same wave, Palestinians killed 29 Israelis, along with four foreign nationals, including two visiting Americans.
Israeli officials say it is too soon to declare an end to the six-month surge in violence. A bus bomb exploded in Jerusalem on Monday, injuring 21 people, two seriously. Authorities branded it a terrorist attack; investigators are searching for clues about who planted the device and why. The Passover celebrations are approaching, when tensions often spike, especially around access to a holy site in Jerusalem’s Old City that is sacred to Muslims and Jews.
Still, the trend suggests the flames may be burning down to embers.
According to Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security agency, there were 20 significant attacks in March compared with 78 in October. This month, there have been four.
The most recent deadly Palestinian attack occurred during Vice President Biden’s trip to Israel last month, when an American combat veteran, Taylor Force, 28, was stabbed to death as he strolled the seaside promenade in Jaffa while visiting Israel on a school trip.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said a “strong, responsible and methodical policy” has led to the decline.
Israel’s domestic intelligence service credited counterterrorism operations, including pressure on the militant group Hamas, widespread arrests and selective punishment of restive villages such as Saer, whose main entrance was closed to traffic.
The agency chiefs also said that Israel’s military sought not to disrupt everyday life for the mass of ordinary Palestinians — and so they allowed Palestinians with work permits to continue to commute from the West Bank to their jobs in Israel.
In the early months of the violence, there were especially large crowds at funerals and at Friday clashes with Israeli soldiers. But the numbers have steadily dropped.
“The atmosphere has changed. The people are tired,” said a senior Israeli commander in the West Bank who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“Palestinians are understanding there is no efficiency in these terror attacks,” he said. “Most of the attacks do not succeed, and most of the time the Palestinian is arrested, wounded or killed, and no Israeli is hurt.”
The domestic security agency and the military say that Palestinian security forces helped reduce the attacks, although Israeli politicians tend to play that down.
The Palestinian intelligence chief, Majid Faraj, told Defense News in January that his security forces had foiled 200 attacks against Israelis over a three-month period.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, in an interview on Israel’s Channel 2, said his police were entering classrooms and searching for weapons.
“In one school, we found 70 students with knives, and we told them that this was wrong,” Abbas said. “I told them: ‘I do not want you to kill someone and die. I want you to live and for others to live, too.’ ”
Israeli leaders, though, have complained that Abbas, alongside official Palestinian media and schools, stokes hatred of Israelis and encourages the attackers by celebrating them as martyrs.
“I admit that we have incitement,” Abbas told Israeli TV viewers, “but you also have incitement.”
Abbas and other Palestinian leaders have walked a fine line, neither condemning the attacks nor generally encouraging them.
The assaults against Israelis were popular in the early months. But they are less so now.
Khalil Shikaki of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research reported that his latest polling in March found “a significant drop” in the support for lone-wolf stabbing attacks compared with his December survey. Now, a majority is opposed to such assaults, even as a growing number support organized armed attacks by militias to gain national rights.
What motivated the young men of Saer to stalk Israelis remains a subject of debate.
Some Israeli politicians say that the Palestinians are driven by bloodlust and want to kill Jews.
But the Israeli military found that most of the attacks were directed at soldiers and police — at symbols of the occupation — and not at civilians. That does not change the fact that most of the Israelis killed in the knife, gun and vehicular attacks were civilians, , including old men and a mother stabbed to death in her kitchen.
In a recent summary, Shin Bet concluded that although some of the attacks were inspired by “nationalistic motives,” most were carried out for “personal reasons,” driven by “economic or personal hardships.”
Funerals beget funerals, the Palestinians say, and among the dead in Saer were five from the extended Kuwasbeh family, three from the Shaladeh family and two from the Jaradet family. So it is likely that revenge also motivated some.
But there may be other reasons, too.
People in the town say that some of the young men had money problems, marriage woes or felt abandoned by their families. In Islam, suicide is a grave sin, but to die in an attack against the Israelis creates a martyr who is honored by mass funerals, murals and payments to the surviving families.
The family of Muayyad Jabbarin found a letter he left behind, according to the Maan news agency.
It read: “Please forgive me mom and dad. I will kill two Israeli soldiers and take revenge for all the Palestinians they killed. Mom! Do not be sad! Your son died a hero.”
“The village just wants quiet now,” said Hassan Froukh, whose son Fadi, 27, was killed in a stabbing attempt, just a few weeks after the birth of his first daughter.
“Enough is enough,” he said.
Hazem Balousha in Saer and Ruth Eglash in Jerusalem contributed to this report.