JERUSALEM — Young Palestinians with kitchen knives are waging a ceaseless campaign of near-suicidal violence that Israeli leaders are calling “a new kind of terrorism.” Four attacks occurred in the past 48 hours alone — two stabbings and two vehicular assaults.
There have been about 120 attacks and attempted assaults by Palestinians against Israelis since early October, an average of more than one a day. At least 20 Israelis have been killed; more than 80 Palestinians have been shot dead by security forces and armed civilians during the assaults.
There is a numbing repetition to the news: A knife-wielding Palestinian at a military checkpoint or bus stop is shot dead at the scene — or “neutralized,” as the Israeli news media say. Many of the assaults or their aftermaths have been captured on cellphone video.
A review of the violence, alongside interviews with Israeli and Palestinian officials, reveals attacks that do not fit past patterns. There is a sense on both sides that something unprecedented is happening, a shapeless rebellion of individuals driven by an unknowable combination of hatred and despair.
The past cycles of violence — the first and second intifadas, the stone throwers in the 1980s, and suicide bombers in the 2000s — were embraced by the Palestinian leadership and steered by armed factions. The current uprising appears to be leaderless, the assailants “liked” by friends and followers on Facebook but decoupled from traditional Palestinian politics.
Palestinian officials are struggling to find the words to describe the attacks — calling them “acts” or “events” and the slain assailants “victims” or “martyrs.” They have been reluctant to publicly encourage the attacks, but they have not condemned the killings or called for them to stop.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently described the violence as “a new kind of terrorism.”
Israeli security forces have not been able to stop the attacks, which are carried out mostly by unmarried youths who decide on their own to pick up knives or axes or potato peelers.
Netanyahu says the attacks are inspired by radical Islam, but his military intelligence officers are reluctant to make such a direct link, saying instead that the motivations are a mix of personal and political factors.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has called the daily attacks a “justified popular uprising . . . driven by despair that a two-state solution is not coming.”
Israel’s minister of public security, Gilad Erdan, said in an interview that the violence is nearly impossible to forecast and disrupt because, unlike operations directed by groups such as the Islamist militant organization Hamas, there are no cells for intelligence operatives to penetrate, no phones to tap, no targets for undercover operations. The pool of possible assailants is as large as the number of frustrated Palestinians.
“In the past, we could find the organizations and send agents in and try to prevent it before it happened,” Erdan said in an interview. “Today, it is individuals making their own decisions.”
The attacks appear to be spontaneous and opportunistic, poorly planned and badly executed — although some are deadly. Most attackers display little or no training. The most common weapon is a kitchen knife. The second most common is the family car.
There also have been drive-by shootings and coordinated ambushes, but these number only a few of more than a hundred attacks.
If the death of an Israeli soldier or Jewish settler is what a Palestinian assailant seeks, the attack is often a failure. Most victims survive; many of the soldiers, who wear body armor, are only lightly injured, if at all.
The same is not true for the attackers. Dozens of Palestinian assailants have been shot dead. In most cases, the Palestinians tried to kill Israelis, according to Israeli authorities; in a few others, Palestinians say, the alleged assailants either did not possess weapons or posed no serious threat to troops or civilians. In parallel violence, 45 Palestinians have been killed in demonstrations against Israeli forces since the beginning of October, as Israel deployed snipers who fired live rounds.
Israel defends the harsh countermeasures as legitimate self-defense. Palestinians say that Israel should detain more alleged attackers. The Israeli human rights group B’Tselem alleges that an unwritten “shoot to kill” policy has led to “street executions” of wounded or prone assailants.
At least 20 Israelis have been killed in the knife, vehicle and gun assaults since the start of October. An American student, Ezra Schwartz, 18, studying at a yeshiva during a gap year, was killed while distributing food to Israeli soldiers in the West Bank. A Palestinian mobile phone salesman, Shadi Arafa, 24, was killed in the same attack while on his way home. An Eritrean refugee mistaken for a terrorist was shot and then beaten to death by an Israeli mob during an attack at a bus station.
Four of the Israelis killed were active-duty soldiers; several of the dead were in the army reserve, but it is unlikely the assailants would have known this, because the victims were in civilian clothing.
Twelve lived or studied in the Jewish settlements that the international community considers illegal, although Israel disputes this, on lands that Palestinians want for a future state.
The attackers killed six rabbis. Two of the dead were women and six were older than 50; two were men in their 70s.
One of the dead Israelis, Aharon Banita Bennett, 22, was pushing a baby stroller when he was knifed; a couple, Eitam and Naama Henkin, were shot dead in their car in the West Bank, their four children sitting in the back seat.
In more than 50 attacks, the perpetrators were teenagers.
The Israeli dead include Nehemia Lavi, 41, a prominent activist for Jewish settlements in the Arab Quarter in Jerusalem’s Old City; another was a peace activist, Richard Lakin, 76, whose Facebook page called for the sides to “co-exist.”
Although the Palestinian leaders say they are committed to nonviolence, they consider the attacks acts of “popular resistance” against Israel’s 48-year military occupation of the West Bank.
“If you slap me, I will react,” said Jibril Rajoub, president of the Palestinian Football Association and a former West Bank chief of security, who on Palestinian television has praised the “bravery and composure” of the assailants.
“This is caused by our humiliation and suffering, under this fascist system, that day and night is trying to eliminate the Palestinian people. This is the source of everything,” Rajoub said. “The only way to discourage this is to give us some hope.”
The attackers sometimes give clues to their motivations on social media. Some family members praise the acts, and others profess ignorance.
In November, Rasha Ewaisi, 23, approached an Israeli military checkpoint near Qalqilya. Ewaisi emerged from her car with a knife, Israeli officials said. She was shot immediately.
There was a letter in her purse. “I don’t know what will happen to me at the end of the road,” it read. “I am fully aware of what I am doing. I am [doing this] in defense of my homeland, the young men and women . . . I can’t suffer anymore.”
Mohammad Shtayyeh, director of the Palestinian Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction, insisted, “We’re not sending people out to the streets with knives.”
He said Palestinian authorities “are not initiating the violence. It is the Israelis who are pushing us in that direction.”
Israeli parliamentarian Anat Berko, a criminologist who has written extensively about the motivations of suicide bombers in the Palestinian conflict, sees the “normalization of violence” among youths in Palestinian society, a phenomenon she called “martyr-mania.”
A survey released Monday by the respected pollsters at the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah found that two-thirds of Palestinians support the knife attacks. More than half of those surveyed support armed struggle against Israel and want their leader, Abbas, to resign from office.
American diplomats have called this a recipe for chaos.
“When they look at the Palestinian Authority, this young generation sees a dysfunctional authority that is corrupt and does not represent them,” said Kobi Michael, former head of the Palestinian desk at Israel’s Strategic Affairs Ministry.
“They have no expectation from the Israelis, they feel neglected by the Arab countries and they understand that the international community is more concerned with ISIS or extremist terrorism that it no longer gives attention to the Palestinian issue. They feel very alone.
“This creates a huge darkness, and they want to change or undermine the order,” he said, “even though they don’t know what should replace it.”