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Palestine’s ‘Lone Wolf’ Intifada Is Here

By Craig Charney | Insights | March 2015

What’s behind the surge in violence in Jerusalem and the West Bank — and where will it lead?

If you follow the news, you’ve probably heard about the young Palestinian man who rammed his car into four Israeli policewomen at a Jerusalem tram stop on March 6, then hacked a passerby with a cleaver.

But here are some other stories you probably haven’t heard.

In the first week of March alone, two young Palestinian men were shot as they fought against a raid by Israeli soldiers in Dheisheh refugee camp near Bethlehem. Shots were fired into an Israeli home in the West Bank settlement of Shomron, and at an army jeep near Nablus. A West Bank teenager armed with a knife was caught by police at a border crossing, and told them he planned a stabbing attack in Israel. Jewish gravestones were found desecrated on the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem. Rocks hurled by young Palestinians smashed windows of Jewish-owned cars in Abu Tor, a Jerusalem neighborhood nestled between the Jewish west and Arab east, and damaged a tram.

These are just some of the Palestinian-Israeli clashes reported by local media — and largely ignored by the international press. They form part of the greatest upsurge of Palestinian protest in over a decade.

While Israel’s upcoming election (and Benjamin Netanyahu’s bluster) has dominated overseas headlines, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has heated up again. Like the prior intifada, or uprising, that began in 2000, this one is driven by the radicalization of Palestinian public opinion following a breakdown in the peace process and deepening conflict, making resistance appear the only remaining option to improve Palestine’s grim conditions.

Yet the conflict this time is different, too. It is mostly a media-driven intifada of “lone wolf” attacks, spontaneous protests, and angry demonstrations. It lacks a structured organization: While established resistance groups have stirred the pot, their weakness has left the onus for action largely on self-starting individuals and small groups. Aggressive behavior by each side is also spurring further violence from the other, making the conflict self-sustaining.

The resulting situation is combustible — but it is still possible to turn down the temperature of this conflict. If the Israeli election on March 17 produces a government that makes real progress toward creating a Palestinian state, the tensions might be lowered. If the current stalemate continues, however, the current instability is likely to as well, which could threaten the Palestinian Authority (PA) — and Israel, too.

This surge in violence began last year, in the aftermath of Secretary of State John Kerry’s failure to jumpstart Palestinian-Israeli peace talks in April. During the second half of 2014, there were scores of spontaneous, violent clashes between groups of young Palestinians and Israeli security forces and settlers. Most disturbing was a series of deadly “lone wolf” attacks on Israelis by individual Palestinians unaffiliated with any resistance group. Besides crashes of vehicles into pedestrians, as in last week’s incident, they have included stabbings (a Jan. 21 attack on a Tel Aviv bus wounded 12 Israelis) and shootings (a Nov. 18 assault on a synagogue with guns and axes killed four worshipers, along with a police officer). In fact, this ongoing spate of violence has killed more Israeli civilians than died in last year’s war in Gaza.

The violence continued in January and February, with press reports listing at least 72 separate incidents of protest, unrest, or violence involving Palestinians — 20 in Jerusalem and 52 in the West Bank. In the first week of March, 13 more were recorded, almost evenly split between the two areas.

The clearest parallel to the eruption 15 years ago has been the rapid radicalization of Palestinian opinion over the past year. Since Kerry’s effort collapsed and the Gaza war broke out, Palestinian views on violence have hardened dramatically: From June to December, Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki found that support for attacks against Israeli civilians nearly doubled to 80 percent. The proportion supporting an armed intifada jumped 15 points to 56 percent. Three in five Palestinians favored large public demonstrations as well, he reported in September.

The militant Islamist movement Hamas has gotten a second wind from these trends. Backing for its call for violent mass resistance to Israel’s occupation of Palestine soared from 42 percent in June to 79 percent in December, according to Shikaki’s polls. Support for moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s negotiations-based approach, discredited by Kerry’s failure, plunged to under 20 percent. Not surprisingly, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh trounced Abbas in Shikaki’s election polls, too, despite Abbas’s well-received appeals to the U.N. Security Council and International Criminal Court for Palestinian rights.

These shifts reflect Palestinians’ growing focus on the conflict with Israel. As late as June, polls showed that the economy and availability of jobs remained their major preoccupations. But now the Israeli occupation is seen as Palestine’s main problem, Shikaki reports. This is not because the economy magically improved: Discontent over living conditions remains massive. But after the peace talks broke down, the Gaza war erupted, despair replaced hope, and public attention understandably shifted to more fundamental issues.

More disturbing still, Palestinian support has drained away from the peace process. By December, a slight majority (51 percent) opposed the two-state solution, Shikaki reported, with opposition having risen 14 points after the peace talks ground to a halt. Backing for the Arab Peace Initiative, offering Israel recognition by all Arab League members in return for Israeli acceptance of a two-state solution, slid to 43 percent. And support for a two-state package deal laid out by former President Bill Clinton more than a decade ago slipped to 38 percent, the lowest figure ever recorded.

With the peaceful path to a Palestinian state apparently closed, it’s hardly surprising that there has been a surge of unrest. Shikaki and Israeli scholar Jacob Shamir have shown how Palestinians’ support for violence peaked prior to the last intifada, closely linked to the diplomatic impasse at the 2000 Camp David peace summit between Palestinians and Israelis. The dynamic is no different this time around.

Nor is it surprising that this is a leaderless intifada of lone-wolf attacks and spontaneous protests. The organizational resources now available for militant Palestinian groups are far fewer than in the last round of the conflict. The length and intensity of the Second Intifada, which endured for five years and claimed about 3,000 Palestinian and 1,000 Israeli lives, reflected all-out backing from Hamas, other resistance groups, and the nationalist Fatah movement, which runs the PA.

Under Abbas, Fatah is officially nonviolent, and the PA has suppressed attempts at Hamas organization in the West Bank, in coordination with Israel. Just in the last few days, more than 50 Hamas supporters were arrested in the West Bank by Palestinian security forces. In November, the PA detained more than 200 Hamas members. There have been some recent incidents linked to other resistance groups, including Fatah’s semi-autonomous military wing, but these have been few and relatively minor.

Consequently, Palestinian resistance groups have sought to mobilize largely via social media. Calls for action have gone out via Twitter, YouTube, and more than 90 Facebook pages, as well as in songs and posters. A cartoon video on one pro-Hamas Facebook page, threatening “Zionists” with death and showing cars ramming people wearing skullcaps, had 13,000 likes before it was removed. In January, a Hamas student group posted another video on Facebook showing an enactment of the murder of two Jews wearing prayer shawls, set to a song calling on Palestinians to “have no mercy,” and “shoot the Zionists.” In January, an image was posted on an official Fatah website showing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu next to a hangman’s noose, saying he would be brought before the International Criminal Court and hanged “soon.”

Another factor in the clashes has been reciprocal actions taken by both sides that perpetuate conflict. The March 1 Dheisheh shooting incident, for instance, followed another shooting there a week earlier, which had killed a young Palestinian throwing stones at Israeli soldiers on another arrest raid. The community was outraged, thousands flocked to his funeral, and the stage was set for the next clash.

While Palestinian actions have long brought a rapid and forceful Israeli response, now Israeli actions bring tit-for-tat Palestinian reactions, denying Israel’s settlers and security forces the freedom of movement and action they previously enjoyed.

The result has been attacks and protests that appear largely driven by individuals and their personal networks — brought together not by any single Palestinian faction, but by their shared anger and hopelessness. For example, Israeli investigations into the November synagogue attack suggested that the perpetrators may have been helped by a few other East Jerusalem residents, but were not directed by any political organization. They concluded, however, that the attackers may have been responding to the public calls for attacks by Hamas and other groups.

Israel is having trouble developing a strategy to fight a leaderless opponent. “In cases like these, there is no enemy player for Israel to target,” wrote Ben Caspit, a well-known Israeli journalist, in November. “[T]here is no leadership, no planning, no institutionalized and organized intifada, in short, no ‘terror infrastructure.’”

The situation might be defused by the upcoming Israeli election, if it produces a government that moves decisively toward peace. Recent polling suggests the intransigent Netanyahu may lose, and the opposition has emphasized the urgency of the two-state solution. Shikaki and Shamir have pointed out that when diplomacy appeared successful in the past, support for violence sank among Palestinians. If the remaining — and substantial — gaps are addressed, the clashes may wind down.

But if the stalemate continues under the next Israeli government, the situation could remain a grave danger for both Israelis and Palestinians. A late January/early February poll by Palestinian pollster Nabil Kukali found that three-fifths of Palestinians want to halt security cooperation with Israel. In a situation where Palestinian opinion is increasingly militant and daily clashes continue, how long can the PA withstand pressure to halt this security cooperation? How long can it prevent individual members of its security forces from turning their guns on Israelis? Needless to say, either of these eventualities would bring open conflict and far greater casualties on both sides.

These dangerous developments have called into question the fundamental working assumptions of both Benjamin Netanyahu (that the conflict can be managed indefinitely) and John Kerry (that Israel, not Palestine, is the key actor that must be accommodated). The lone-wolf intifada poses a challenge that even Israel’s powerful security forces are ill-equipped to face. And it is precisely its lack of conventional organization that has rendered it thus far unstoppable.

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