Politics isn't the only motive driving Palestinian knife attacks on Israeli soldiers

With a knife raised above her head, 17-year-old Jamila Jaber froze momentarily opposite two Israeli soldiers with automatic rifles at a highway bus stop near the West Bank settlement of Ariel. As the soldiers backed away with guns drawn, the Palestinian girl took a few awkward steps in their direction before one of the soldiers shot her in the stomach and shoulder, leaving her hospitalized and under arrest by Israeli authorities.

The July 6 confrontation, captured on video, marked the continuation of a 10-month wave of knifings, shootings and car rammings in the West Bank and Israel, carried out mostly by young Palestinians acting alone. The attacks have left dozens of Israelis dead — as well as hundreds of Palestinians, many of them accused by Israel of carrying out the attacks.

An Israeli army statement described Jaber as an “immediate danger” to soldiers. But weeks after the incident, Jaber’s mother insisted that her daughter’s aim was not to attack the soldiers. It was to harm herself, she said.  

“In the video, she didn’t want to stab. She wanted [the soldier] to shoot her,’’ said Rudainyeh Jaber.

Local politicians and experts have mentioned a mix of factors driving the recent attacks: the 49-year-old Israeli military occupation and the lack of progress toward Palestinian statehood; anti-Israeli incitement over social networks; frustration with political atrophy in the Palestinian Authority; constrained economic opportunity; and revenge for the killing of a friend or relative.

Alongside those motivations is, in some cases, a personal crisis.

Surrounded by her husband, Daoud, a carpenter, and children in a bare salon at the family home in the village of Zawiyeh, Rudainyeh Jaber said Jamila wasn’t interested in politics. The girl had been distraught over the collapse of a potential arranged marriage, her mother said.

“She was there because she was feeling choked, and suffering. She wanted to die,’’ Jaber said. “The girl was not interested in patriotism.’’

Suicide bombings against Israeli targets were a frequent occurrence during the Palestinian intifada of the previous decade. The attacks – planned by underground militant groups -- were referred to by Palestinians as “operations” and those who delivered the explosives were celebrated as martyrs.

During the recent 10 months of Israeli-Palestinian violence, however, a different brand of suicide attempt has been playing out around the West Bank. Like Jaber, they are being carried out by distraught Palestinian youths who approach armed Israeli soldiers with knives. In many of the confrontations, soldiers respond with deadly fire.

“They want to escape the difficult situation that they are in. Whether it’s depression, lack of success in school, or a fight between their parents. They are looking to escape their reality,’’ said Kadoura Fares, who heads the Palestinian Prisoners’ Club, a nonprofit group devoted to providing assistance to prisoners held in Israel and their families. Fares estimated that one-fifth of the knife confrontations involve distraught Palestinian youths. 

“In our culture, suicide for no reason isn’t honorable,” he said. “If they try to confront a soldier, however, it’s looked on with more respect.’’

In the United States, such confrontations are known colloquially as “suicide by cop.’’ In Israel and the West Bank, the fatality rate from attempted stabbings has spurred criticism that Israeli security forces are employing excessive force.

Avi Issacharoff, a Palestinian affairs reporter for the Israeli website Walla! News, wrote that confronting soldiers with knives represents an effort by youths to enhance their social standing.

“These are youths who aren’t especially resilient from a psychological standpoint, they don’t stand out socially, and they’ve become fed up with the state of their lives,’’ Issacharoff wrote. “These attacks are a way to rise from the bottom rung of the social strata to a status of hero.’’

Some arrive at Israeli checkpoints with suicide notes in addition to knives. “I will be a martyr with the permission of God,” began the note of 17-year-old Sami Ahmed Ismail, from the West Bank village of Mas’ha, who was shot to death at an Israeli roadblock after brandishing a knife and threatening soldiers.

Two weeks after Jamila Jaber’s confrontation with soldiers, her parents exhibited shock that she tried to take her life and elation that she didn’t succeed. (She is still recovering from her chest and shoulder wounds.) They described Jamila as an introverted child who got below average grades. When plans for an arranged marriage to a cousin in Jordan collapsed earlier this year, the family said, the girl was insulted and became depressed.

“She was feeling rejected,’’ said her mother. “She started saying, ‘Why have they refused me?’’’

The frustration continued over the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, until Jaber slipped away from the house while her family napped on the afternoon before the closing holiday of Eid el Fitr. Several hours later, Palestinian taxi drivers from the village informed the family that Jaber had been shot by Israeli soldiers.

Indeed, a high percentage of the knife confrontations involve young women and girls.

“There is more social stress on women than men,’’ said Jamila Abu Nimer, an East Jerusalem psychologist with the Palestinian Counseling Center who helps students and parents grapple with trauma during periods of Israeli-Palestinian violence. “Women don’t have control over the way they live, and what they want to do. I think there’s some control when they decide to kill themselves.”

Mustafa Azmuti, a Palestinian lawyer representing Jamila Jaber, said he knew of some two dozen similar cases. Jaber, who is now in Israel’s Sharon prison, might get released from prison if an Israeli psychologist testifies that she was suicidal, he said.

Back at the Jaber house, Jamila’s parents said that while they knew their daughter was upset, they didn’t imagine she would seek to take her own life.

“They could have killed her,’’ said Daoud Jaber. “Why did she act in such a crazy way?’’

Mitnick is a special correspondent.

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