JERUSALEM — Israelis and Palestinians are struggling to understand the minds and motivations of the attackers who awake one morning to wield a kitchen knife against Jews.
After three weeks and dozens of assaults with screwdrivers, guns, meat cleavers and cars, it is becoming clear there is no single, neat profile. Nor is there any single reason for the growing number of Palestinian attacks.
Instead, there is a list of possible motivations — political, religious, personal — by assailants who range from Hamas militants to a Palestinian telephone technician who used his car as a battering ram against an elderly Jew to a 13-year-old Palestinian who attacked an Israeli kid with a knife at a candy store.
One relative of a slain attacker believed the root of his anger was simply the “humiliation of occupation.”
The father of an attacker who stabbed to death an ultra-
Orthodox Jew wheeling his two children in a stroller in Jerusalem’s Old City said his son was upset by a viral video showing a Palestinian girl shot dead by Israeli troops at a Hebron checkpoint and left to die on the street. The attacker was a law school student.
A relative of another Palestinian assailant said his cousin attacked Israelis because of threats against the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Asked whether the Palestinian youth who slashed at an Israeli soldier was a devout Muslim, the relative said, “Not really.”
Instead, he explained, the mosque is a symbol of Palestinian pride, and Palestinians are outraged by provocative visits by Israeli ministers and right-wing members of parliament, who arrive surrounded by armed Israeli police and say the site should be shared with Jews who want to pray.
“Al-Aqsa is all we have left,” said Assad Ali, an uncle of a dead Palestinian assailant.
Some Palestinian parents denied that their sons had done anything wrong at all. They charge that their children were hounded by Jewish lynch mobs shouting “Die!” or gunned down by trigger-happy police or armed Jewish settlers.
The Palestinian leadership has accused Israeli forces of planting knives at the scenes of shootings and demanded investigations and protection from the United Nations. But it is undeniable that most of the attacks are real: The wounded and dead Israelis are proof.
Interviews with relatives of Palestinian attackers, with Israeli police and military intelligence officers, with Palestinian and Israeli politicians, and with analysts reveal competing theories, often self-serving and oblivious to the fears of the other.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu alternately blames the wave of violence on incitement by Hamas militants or Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas or the sheiks at the Islamic Movement in northern Israel.
One thing Netanyahu never mentions is the 48-year military occupation of the West Bank and the growth of Jewish settlements — the realities most often cited as a root cause of despair by Palestinians. In surveys, a dwindling minority of Palestinians believe they will ever get a state.
The Israeli leadership accuses Abbas of incitement for speaking of “filthy Jewish feet” and “herds of settlers” defiling the al-Aqsa Mosque. But young Palestinian men who attend violent clashes with Israeli soldiers never mention Abbas and, when asked, call him irrelevant.
Palestinian officials in Ramallah brush off charges of incitement and instead blame an “Israeli killing machine” for the escalation, as a leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization delegation in New York did last week.
Yet in interviews, many Palestinians refer to their own deadly knife attacks blandly as “operations,” and in mass funerals they celebrate the dead as martyrs. The Islamist militant movement Hamas calls them “heroes.”
Some see the wave of knife assaults as an uprising of disillusioned youths from the Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, communities living under complete Israeli control that in the past have taken a back seat in rebellion.
These are Palestinian teens who speak some Hebrew alongside their native Arabic and take Israeli matriculation exams, whose parents often work for or beside Israelis, and who are too young to remember the trauma of the second intifada in the early 2000s.
Yet just as analysts were focusing on East Jerusalem youths, the attacks pivoted to Hebron in the West Bank last weekend.
The latest assailant was a Bedouin Arab Israeli from southern Israel who went into the Beersheba bus station and was competent enough to wrestle a military rifle from an Israeli soldier and use it to wound a dozen people.
Israeli police, struggling to establish a profile so they can counter the attacks, report that most of the Palestinian assailants have no history of previous arrests. They were unknown to Israel’s sprawling domestic intelligence agencies as militants or even members of Palestinian political factions.
Among the attackers are:
●A 33-year-old father of three who had worked for an Israeli phone carrier for a decade. Last week he drove his company car into a group of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem and emerged swinging a meat cleaver.
●A 13-year-old Palestinian boy who, with his cousin, stabbed a Jewish 13-year-old at a candy store. His father said he had no idea his son was carrying a knife — and said he had gone out to buy video games. The boy told Israeli investigators, essentially, “My cousin made me do it.”
●A 30-year-old mother, Asaraa Abed of Nazareth in northern Israel, who was shot in the legs after brandishing a knife in Afula’s central bus station, in what police initially described as a stabbing attempt. Now Israeli officials suspect she may have suffered from mental issues.
Unlike past popular uprisings, this spasm of Palestinian violence and popular resistance — both the knife attacks and violent demonstrations that end with Israeli troops firing live rounds at alleged rock throwers — appears to be waged with little direction from above.
“He was part of a new generation who sees there is no political solution with the Jews and all the negotiations have been in vain,” said Shafeek Halabi, the father of Muhannad Halabi, a 19-year-old Palestinian law student who stabbed a well-known rabbi and an off-duty Israeli soldier to death in the Old City of Jerusalem before being shot to death himself.
“What these kids are doing is a reaction. It is in their hearts,” Halabi, who works as a plumber, said of his son.
On his Facebook page, Muhannad Halabi wrote that Palestine was like an orphan girl adopted by an evil man, Israel, and that Palestinians, especially women, were subjected to humiliation and abuse.
“Rage, rage, rage,” Halabi wrote. “Wake up from your long sleep. Let the revolution burn.”
Israeli military officials blame a Hamas-affiliated cell for an ambush attack three weeks ago in the West Bank that was a harbinger of the violence to come. A mother and father were shot and killed in a drive-by shooting in front of their four children who were sitting in the back of the car and were physically unharmed.
But the families of the dead Palestinian attackers are struggling to explain the precise motivations.
The uncles of Mohammad Said Ali gathered last week in a small alley in the Shufat refugee camp outside Jerusalem. A widely circulated video shows their 18-year-old nephew pulling a knife from the back of his waistband, stabbing at an Israeli Border Police officer’s head and then being shot dead.
“He was a popular boy, no problems, a good social life, a good family life, we have no money problems, his life was good,” said one of the uncles, Assad Ali.
“He always had the best clothes, the newest sneakers,” said another uncle, Mahmoud Ali. He was handsome, sweet-
natured, helped his mother with housework, left his home to go to the barber — and stabbed an Israeli.
What set him off? The uncles and cousins debated.
“The first and second intifadas were political, with leaders, with direction,” Assad Ali said. “This is a pure personal intifada fueled by the continuous incitement of a crazed hostile government of Netanyahu. The spark is al-Aqsa Mosque, but the wood that burns is the occupation.”
“This new generation, they cannot stand the humiliations,” Mahmoud Ali said. “They say the Jews are going to kill us all anyway, no matter what we do, so why not strike out at them first?”
Ala Abu Jamal, 33, was a model employee for Israel’s national phone company, Bezeq. His family said he spoiled his children and liked to take them to the swimming pool. Last week he was seen on a gruesome viral video smashing the head of an elderly ultra-Orthodox Jew with a meat cleaver.
“Of course I saw the video,” said his cousin, Moaweyah Abu Jamal. “What set him off? What happened prior to the incident?” He swore his cousin wasn’t a Jew hater.
His nephews, however, include two men who last year laid siege to a synagogue in Jerusalem, where they killed four worshipers and a police officer. The cousins also used meat cleavers. Israel’s intelligence agency said Abu Jamal had posted online support for the Islamic State. Hours before Abu Jamal went on his rampage last week, Israeli authorities had demolished the homes of his cousins in a move to punish and perhaps discourage more attacks.
Sufian Taha contributed to this report.