What’s behind the sharp decline in lone-wolf stabbing attacks in the West Bank
Not long ago, 20-year-old Akram Wuswus and his friends routinely posted online praise for Palestinians who stabbed Israelis and subsequently were killed by authorities.
The friends were among many young people who gravitated to an imposing checkpoint that separates Palestinian and Israeli sections of the West Bank city of Hebron.
The spot, marking the entrance to Shuhada Street from the Bab al Zawiyeh neighborhood, was among several that attracted people who had resolved to carry out stabbing attacks on Israeli soldiers or were at least curious to see what might happen on any given day.
For several months, stabbings at Hebron checkpoints and elsewhere in the West Bank and Jerusalem flummoxed security experts because they were being carried out by individuals without ties to militant groups, yet who sometimes left behind a trail of social media posts.
About 200 Palestinians and 30 Israelis were killed in the violence since September and some rioting spurred concern that the so-called lone wolf stabbings, shootings and car rammings would escalate into a popular intifada, or uprising.
But in recent weeks, amid a campaign in Palestinian schools and streets to discourage such attacks, a social media crackdown and increased confiscation of knives by the Israeli army and Palestinian security services and other measures, the number of knife attacks has declined, officials said.
Wuswus said he stopped praising the attacks after Israeli soldiers arrested him at home in November and he spent two weeks at the Etzion prison. He said he was fined $1,000, which his parents paid on his behalf.
“I don’t want trouble from it,” Wuswus, a student at the Open University in Hebron, said recently while standing about a block from the checkpoint.
He said his experience also changed his friends’ behavior. They too stopped sharing social media tributes to those killed in attacks.
“No more. They all learned from my case,” he said. “No one posts about martyrs.”
Israeli security officials have quietly praised the efforts of Palestinian security forces and those speaking against violence, while also crediting their own measures, such as a controversial policy of demolishing the homes of attackers.
“The Palestinian atmosphere in the streets has changed,” said one Israeli military officer who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Orit Perlov, an Israeli expert on Arab social media at the Institute for National Security Studies, a Tel Aviv University think tank, was among observers who said the spate of attacks did not seem to have a unifying goal.
The wave of stabbings was bound to lose steam because it had no political leadership behind it, said Kadoura Fares, a prominent member of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party.
“The Palestinian national movement didn’t lead this wave,” said Fares, head of the Palestinian Prisoners’ Club, a nongovernmental organization. “The Palestinian Authority is trying to calm things down. The group that controls the authority isn’t interested in an escalation.”
Abbas spoke against the stabbings in an interview with Israeli television about a month ago.
No one can know how long the decrease in attacks will last: Fares warned that the absence of negotiations to create an independent Palestinian state contributes to the hopelessness and a political vacuum that could help spur a new outbreak of violence.
The West Bank has been under Israeli control since the 1967 Middle East War. Palestinians want to form an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as their capital.
Hebron is a divided and religiously conservative city with an elaborate Israeli army presence to provide security for a few hundred Jewish settlers who live in the middle of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.
At the edge of the city, Israel erected barriers blocking roads linking outlying villages to the city. Shuhada Street, leading to the contested holy site known as the Tomb of the Patriarchs and where Palestinian shops have been shuttered for years, was declared a closed military zone by the Israeli army, limiting access to the area by outsiders.
A small detachment of plainclothes Palestinian security officers recently stood outside the Bab al Zawiyeh neighborhood barrier.
A Palestinian commander, who was not authorized to speak to the press and did not want to be identified, said the security force’s primary job is to stop and search suspicious-looking youths headed toward the barrier. The commander said his unit has confiscated dozens of knives near the checkpoint and in public schools.
“We’ve had cases where girls and boys stand here and just stare” at the border checkpoint, he said. “You notice the hesitancy.”
Many of the attacks seem to be carried out by youths who suffer from depression or economic hardship, or want revenge for relatives or friends injured in the violence, he said.
“We watched Facebook accounts, and mobile phones. We collected information on each and every one,” he said. “We tried as much as possible to limit the problems coming from the youth.”
Danger is never far off, however. Israeli security guards in East Jerusalem in late April shot and killed a 23-year-old mother of two and her teenage brother, saying they posed an imminent threat after the woman threw a butcher knife at an officer. Palestinians disputed the police version, saying the incident served as an example of excessive force.
Palestinian educators in Hebron say they’ve been instructed by the Education Ministry to discourage confrontations with soldiers and focus students’ attention on studies rather than stabbings.
“The message was that we are here to study and concentrate on our future,” said Ashraf Frouh, a math teacher at an elementary school in Hebron from the nearby village of Beit Einun. “We are trying in our curriculum not to talk about politics.”
Mitnick is a special correspondent.
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