Is the “knife intifada” beginning to run out of steam? Some observers say so. Yet this Friday, April 1, marks an impressive half-year since the launch of the current wave of Palestinian violence. Characterized largely by stabbings carried out by youngsters, generally acting alone or in pairs, this round of attacks has already claimed the lives of 29 Israelis, two Americans, an Eritrean asylum seeker, and a Palestinian bystander, and caused more than 400 injuries.
During this time, according to official Israeli sources, there have been over 200 stabbings or attempted stabbings at an average pace greater than one per day, as well as 40 car-ramming assaults and 80 shootings. Though perpetrated almost exclusively by Palestinians living in Jerusalem and the West Bank, and focused largely on these areas, the attacks have also reached Israel’s coastal cities, most notably Tel Aviv. And though not yet nearly so long-running as the first (1987-1991) or second (2000-2004) intifadas, the current wave, given that it appears to be driven by individual initiative rather than by organized militant groups like Hamas or Fatah, has shown remarkable staying power.
What explains its endurance? One reason may be that the perpetrators both reflect and are largely motivated by Palestinian public opinion—a subject to which I devoted a comprehensive essay in Mosaic last November. Here I want to explore what has changed over the last six months in how Palestinians see their conflict with Israel, and especially the desirability and efficacy of resorting to violence. In doing so, I’ll rely principally on polls conducted during this period by three of the leading Palestinian polling institutes whose published results reliably indicate what Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza think.
To begin with, most Palestinians, despite the fact that their countrymen are the ones initiating attacks on Israelis, see themselves as being under attack by Israel—on both the national and the individual level. In a December 2015 poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR), 51 percent of respondents were convinced that Israel’s long-term goal with respect to the al-Haram al Sharif area in the Old City of Jerusalem (known to Jews and many Christians as the Temple Mount) is to “destroy [the] al-Aqsa and Dome of the Rock mosques and build a synagogue in their place.” Among Palestinians in the West Bank and Jerusalem, that figure rose to 66 percent—a significant datum given that residents of these two areas are almost exclusively responsible for the current uprising and that their views exert a corresponding influence on its course. Far from being a one-time fluke, this finding extended a pattern observed in surveys during the previous year, and was replicated in PSR’s most recent poll in March 2016.
What makes this Palestinian fear particularly remarkable is that the Israeli government has repeatedly gone on record opposing any change in the core element of the status quo put in place on the Mount in 1967, which is that Muslims worship there en masse in a number of structures dedicated to that purpose, but no place exists for Jewish communal prayer and Jewish visitors are forbidden from praying there even as individuals. Not a single party or leading figure in Israel’s current government or any of its predecessors has proposed the building of a synagogue on the Mount, or suggested harming the Muslim holy sites that have stood on it for the past thirteen centuries. Similarly, no Israeli government has taken any steps that could plausibly be interpreted as indicating an interest in such actions.
Yet none of this seems to have the slightest effect on the sense among most Palestinians not only that Israel aims to destroy the Muslim holy sites in the future but that an attack against them is already under way. In a November 2015 survey conducted by the Center for Opinion Polls and Survey Studies at An-Najah National University, respondents were asked several questions that assumed as much—and their answers made it clear that they accepted the premise. To one such question—“Do you think that the continuous assaults on al-Aqsa Mosque by settler groups are encouraged by the Israeli government?”—92 percent answered affirmatively. Among residents of the West Bank and Jerusalem—who, being much more frequent visitors to the Mount, presumably should have more accurate information than their counterparts in Gaza—the figure was an astonishing 94 percent.
Here again one would search in vain for a factual basis to this claim. There have been no reliably reported instances of Israeli settlers attempting to enter the al-Aqsa mosque in the last several months, let alone any attacks on the structure or its worshipers. True, there has been a modest increase in the number of religious Jews visiting the Mount, where the First and Second Temples stood for around a millennium, and a small number of these visitors might well have prayed there surreptitiously; but if so, such acts did not take place in or near the al-Aqsa mosque, and could hardly be considered an assault in any reasonable sense of the term.
Perhaps most noteworthy of all was the response to the following question in the December 2015 PSR poll:
Two months ago, large-scale confrontations broke out in the Palestinian territories against the occupation forces and the settlers in which many Palestinians fell after being shot by the Israeli army or settlers claiming that they stabbed or tried to stab Israelis. Do you think that most of those Palestinians have indeed stabbed or tried to stab Israelis or that most of them did not stab or try to stab Israelis?
Among residents of the West Bank and Jerusalem, 57 percent averred that “most of them did not stab or try to stab Israelis,” despite the widely available videos of the stabbings, despite the fact that family members of many of the perpetrators publicly took pride in what they had done, and despite the fact that leading Palestinian figures and media often celebrated these attacks.
Most Palestinians, then, especially in the West Bank, see themselves as on the defensive and thus justified in supporting and encouraging attacks on Israelis. At the same time, most have also shown record levels of pessimism regarding the prospect of establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel in the next five years.
Just before the outbreak of the current uprising last fall, PSR, which has consistently asked about this subject over the last nine years, registered a record 78 percent viewing the chances of a two-state solution in the next five years as low or non-existent. Three months later, with the knife intifada in full swing, the figure fell only slightly to 75 percent.
One factor here is that Palestinians have become less flexible regarding a possible deal with Israel. To take but a few examples: 76 percent of those surveyed by PSR in December declined to accept Israeli sovereignty over western Jerusalem in exchange for Palestinian sovereignty in the eastern parts of the city, the highest percentage of nay-sayers in a decade; 62 percent, the highest ever, rejected a deal for a two-state solution modeled on the Clinton parameters (widely perceived to be at least as generous as any Israeli government is likely to be in the foreseeable future); and another record-breaking 61 percent rejected the idea of mutual recognition between “Israel as the state of the Jewish people and Palestine as the state of the Palestinian people.”
In all of these cases, the figures are even higher among Arab respondents from the West Bank and Jerusalem. Though reflective of a rejectionist attitude that has been developing over the course of a decade and a half, through periods of greater and lesser conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, these latest polls have indicated an even stronger unwillingness to compromise on core issues.
Given this congeries of views, it is no surprise that most Palestinians were supportive of the current uprising when it first broke out. In the December 2015 PSR poll, for example, support for the use of knives to attack Israelis was at 67 percent overall and commanded a majority among virtually all sectors of the population, including residents of the West Bank and of Gaza, adherents of Hamas, Fatah, and other parties, and all age groups.
And yet—here’s where things get complicated—by the middle of March, two weeks ago, a PSR poll was showing that overall support for knifing attacks was down to 58 percent, while in the West Bank, whose residents were bearing the brunt of the negative consequences from these attacks, it had dropped to 44 percent. These findings corroborate a JMCC poll in early March showing a similar decline in support for knife attacks and for continuing the current uprising more generally.
Of course, the current level of support is still quite significant, which might account for the fact that so far in March, there have been a dozen knifing attacks, four shootings, and three attempts to run Israelis over. But the drop and the reasons behind it are worth noting for what they may signal about the future.
What has changed, it seems, is the belief that the attacks are an effective means of securing gains. In PSR’s December poll, 51 percent of respondents thought that continuing the uprising would advance Palestinian rights in ways negotiations could not. By March, only 43 percent were telling PSR field workers that continuing the current confrontations would serve Palestinian national interests more effectively than negotiations. Meanwhile, the corresponding figure in the West Bank decreased to 36 percent.
It’s not hard to make sense of these figures, which seem rationally grounded in experience. Generally speaking, the attackers, and especially the knife-bearers, who have become the symbol of the uprising, have been thwarted. All told, more than 200 stabbing attacks have led to a relatively modest total of fifteen deaths, most of them during the first three months of the uprising, with a comparable number of Israelis killed in the 120 car-rammings and shootings. The perpetrators have fared far worse, as virtually all have been killed, seriously injured, or arrested.
Thus, if the goal has been to bring about substantial Israeli casualties at a tolerable price, one cannot view the uprising as a success in its own terms. Nor has it succeeded in instilling fear in Israelis, compelling them to alter their way of life or leading them to pressure their government to change its policies or to try and topple it through elections. After a few weeks of modifying their habits to lessen the chances of being attacked, the vast majority of Israelis have largely resumed normal life, albeit with greater vigilance and, for those licensed to carry guns, with personal weapons frequently at the ready. The government, for all its internal difficulties, appears to be suffering little from adverse public reaction to the violence or to its handling of it.
The uprising has also failed to elicit substantial sympathy for the Palestinians or to blacken Israel’s reputation in significant circles in the West—despite the potential “David versus Goliath” appeal of teenage boys and girls wielding knives and scissors and dying or being disarmed and arrested at the hands of Israeli policemen and soldiers. To be sure, there have been the occasional egregious pieces of reporting, most notably by the BBC when it headlined a story about the stabbing deaths of two Israeli civilians by diverting attention to police actions aimed at stopping the perpetrator from continuing his killing spree: “Palestinian Shot Dead after Jerusalem Attack Kills Two.”
There have also been occasional statements by diplomats blaming Israel as the cause of the attacks, most prominently Secretary of State John Kerry’s October assertion (subsequently walked back) that “there’s been a massive increase in settlements over the course of the last years, and now you have this violence because there’s a frustration that is growing.” In December, similarly, UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon declared that “The anger we are witnessing is bred from nearly five decades of Israeli occupation. It is the result of fear, humiliation, frustration, and mistrust.” But such statements, giving a public-relations victory to the perpetrators of violence, have been relatively rare and have gained little traction.
A host of factors help to explain this phenomenon. They range from the restraint employed by Israeli police and soldiers in neutralizing the attackers without killing those already disarmed (with the apparent exception, in circumstances not yet clarified, of a recent case in Hebron), to the sound decision by most Western leaders not to reward violence by condemning Israel or pressuring it for concessions, to the worldwide preoccupation with the incomparably worse carnage in Syria and with the refugee crisis it has helped to precipitate. Whatever the reasons, nothing in the international reaction has compared with the savaging Israel faced in many quarters after the Gaza wars of January 2009 and summer 2014.
Were this the full story, observers concerned with putting a halt to the current campaign and actually restoring calm might take heart from the Palestinian polls indicating that denying gains to those who use violence curtails public support for such violence, which in turn may translate into a reduction in its use.
Unfortunately, however, this is not the case. To the contrary, recent surveys show that a majority of Palestinians have reached quite a different conclusion: namely, that stabbings and car-rammings are too low-octane to achieve their ambitious national goals, and that doubling down by resorting to more deadly violence would be more effective.
In PSR’s December 2015 poll, for example, 46 percent considered an armed intifada the most effective means of securing a Palestinian state, nearly twice as many as chose the second-place answer of negotiations. Moreover, two-thirds believed that the current uprising’s developing into such an armed intifada would be more effective than negotiations in advancing Palestinian interests—a figure 15 points higher than for the options of continuing the current uprising as is or shifting to large-scale non-violent protests. That same month, the percentage of Palestinians saying they would support a return to an “armed intifada and to confrontations” if the path of negotiations were to fail reached 60 percent, the highest recorded level in the two dozen times this question has been asked in the last six years; likewise at an all-time high was the 20 percent saying they would “certainly” support that course of action.
Even more tellingly, 64 percent in the same poll indicated support for “attacks on Israeli civilians within Israel,” a figure higher than at any point during the second intifada, when such attacks, especially suicide bombings, were common and enjoyed substantial legitimacy throughout Palestinian society.
And the latest PSR poll continues the trend, showing that 65 percent of the public (including 59 percent in the West Bank) sees an armed intifada as more effective than negotiations in securing Palestinian gains. In the press release announcing its March results, PSR cited both the “notable drop in the West Bank in the support for knifing attacks, due, it seems, to a rising perception of its inefficacy” and the fact that “a large majority continues to view an armed intifada as more effective than these attacks.
Public opinion among Palestinians is certainly not the sole determinant of what will happen next. Yet, as a powerful force driving the current uprising, it should be taken very seriously in thinking about the likely course of events and how to prepare for them. With Palestinians increasingly convinced of their victimhood, unwilling to compromise on key substantive issues, and beginning to believe that an armed intifada is the better way to go, policy makers and others interested in curbing the escalation of violence would do well to consider what steps can be implemented to prevent an explosion.