RAMALLAH, West Bank — The Israelis are clear. They call it “terrorism.” Yet after five months of near-daily violence against Israelis, Palestinian society struggles with how to describe the wave of knife, gun and vehicular attacks targeting Israeli soldiers and civilians.
Is it an “uprising” or “upheaval” or “awakening” — or personal “despair”? Are the assailants “martyrs” or “victims” or both? Are the teens wielding kitchen knives “heroes” or “children” — and after they are shot and killed by Israeli soldiers during the attacks, should they be celebrated as “warriors” for the Palestinian cause or pitied as unstable individuals who “snapped”?
If Palestinians on the street are uncertain about what to call the ongoing violence, the Palestinian leadership appears paralyzed over word choices.
The aging, unpopular leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organization are careful to neither openly support nor oppose the attacks, adding to the aimless narrative of the current violence. Are the attacks helping the Palestinians get a state — or lose one?
The Palestinian political class is wary of offending the international community, which has universally condemned the attacks. At the same time, Palestinian officials are afraid of getting in front of their own people, who tell pollsters they support “armed struggle” and are tired of the old leadership, which has failed to win them a nation.
The words Palestinians use to describe the attacks are important. Language reveals meaning and intent, especially in conflict.
Israelis dismiss the Palestinian vagueness as weakness or guile. Israeli officials say, “Look, the Palestinians cannot control their own children” — and say they are silent because they either fear their people or hope to gain some tactical advantage from the violence.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently offered his own explanation: The Palestinians are stabbing Israelis because they celebrate a “culture of death.” The Palestinians blame the almost 50-year military occupation of their home, which they condemn as 21st-century apartheid.
Interviews by The Washington Post with Palestinians and their leaders reveal deep divides over language, in Arabic and English.
Since the beginning of October, Palestinians have killed 28 Israelis and four others, including an American. More than 160 Palestinians have been killed — 111 during attacks and 50 in clashes with Israeli forces.
Palestinians often decline to describe the stabbings and shootings as “attacks.” Instead, they call them “acts” or “incidents” or “operations,” though the word “operation” implies militant organization and direction from above, which they deny.
Mohammad Shtayyeh, a government minister and director of the Palestinian Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction, said: “We’re not sending people out with knives. We’re not throwing our children into the fields to die.”
“We are encouraging resistance in a peaceful way,” he said.
When asked what he would call the spate of violence, Shtayyeh blamed “certain personal initiatives.”
And what of the Israeli targets — who are they?
Palestinians and their media use the default terms “settlers” and “occupiers” to describe Jewish victims in the occupied West Bank, home to 400,000 Jewish settlers.
They struggle, though, to explain how a Jewish mother of six stabbed to death in her kitchen is the same value target as an Israeli soldier with a gun at a checkpoint.
Al-Quds University sits on the outskirts of Ramallah, where the first assailant in this wave of attacks attended school. Muhannad Halabi, 19, slashed at an ultra-Orthodox couple with a baby stroller in Jerusalem’s Old City, killing the father and a rabbi who came to his aid. He was fatally shot by police.
Young people milled in the courtyards between classes on a recent day. Abdul Ayad, 20, a law student, said: “These acts should be politically directed, but they’re not. They are individual attacks. I don’t see any politics. I see rage. The death of the young is a waste. He tries to knife an Israeli and he is shot. I understand it, but what is the point?”
In conversations, many Palestinians stress that the assailants are “children,” though most are older teens and young adults — the same age as Israeli soldiers.
Are their acts “heroic” or “courageous,” to be celebrated with waving flags and mass funerals, as Jibril Rajoub, former chief of Palestinian security forces and president of the Palestinian Football Association, said on Palestinian TV?
Asked how he would describe the violence, Rajoub said in an interview with The Post: “Do you want me to call it terrorism or to call them martyrs? They were victims.”
“I promise you, behind every one of these there was a personal act by a settler or a soldier, either to him or to his mother or father. There is a reason,” Rajoub said.
Some Palestinian officials have told Western diplomats and journalists that they believe at least some of the attackers have “snapped” from the pressure of living stunted lives under occupation. There was some psychological trauma that induced them to rush toward Israeli soldiers with a knife in their hands to commit a Palestinian version of “suicide by cop,” they say.
Mustafa Barghouti, the secretary general of the Palestinian National Initiative, said: “The stabbings are unorganized. They come from frustration.”
Some Palestinian activists have labeled the violence the beginning of a third “intifada,” a mass uprising. The first intifada, in the 1980s, was characterized by youths throwing stones; the second by suicide bombers in the 2000s. Eventually both were directed by militant factions and adopted by the leadership.
Many dismiss the word “intifada” to describe the current violence, calling it overblown and saying there is little evidence of mass rebellion. They point to the relatively low numbers of demonstrators on the streets.
At al-Quds University, Abdullah Khatib, 20, a law student, said: “Before, our rebellions were led by famous men. Now it’s individuals from nowhere, ordinary people who become icons.”
“We can’t call this an intifada,” said Abdel Khader, 19, who studies material engineering.
“The cause is this tremendous pressure on young people, and the pressure will result in explosions,” Khader said. “It starts with the person who wants to do an operation. He wants to empty his rage. He wants to get even.”
But what is the point? “The point is, we are showing the Israelis, ‘You’re hurting us, so we can hurt you, too,’ ” he said.
He denied that the young assailants are targeting Israeli women and children.
But they attack them, too?
“They don’t start with that idea,” he said. “But that is who is killed. Because that is who they found.”
Searching for a word to label the wave of stabbings, he chose “upheaval.”
In a January speech in Ramallah, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called the violence “a popular awakening.”
He said the attacks were carried out “in response to the continued occupation, the settlements, the affront to the honor of the holy places, and the lack of a just solution to the Palestinian problem, a diplomatic horizon, and hope for the future.”
Speaking to Israeli journalists this month, Abbas said the Israeli government must ask itself, “Why would a 13-year-old child throw rocks or try to attack others?” It’s because, he said, “they can’t take it anymore.”
Where this is going, nobody knows. But the signs are troubling. The most recent public opinion poll by the respected Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, conducted in December, found that two-thirds of the public are demanding that Abbas resign, two-thirds support the current wave of stabbings, and half believe the current confrontations will escalate into an armed intifada.
The survey found that members of the “Oslo generation,” people between the ages of 18 and 22 who were born at the dawn of the now-failed “peace process” and who do not recall the past intifadas, are the most supportive of the ongoing violence — and are no longer believers in a two-state solution.
Sufian Taha contributed to this report.