A spate of stabbings on Israeli citizens has led to increased tension between Israel and Palestine, with a number of deaths reported throughout December. Though these attacks have prompted comparison with previous Palestinian uprisings – even if the levels of violence are not yet equivalent – the current wave of violence is distinguished by the prominence of Palestinian youth, both male and female.
Teenagers without political ties or a history of activism are acting, in the words of Benjamin Netanyahu, as ‘lone wolves’ without apparent direction or coordination from above. This movement is inspired (if that is the right term) to attack unarmed citizens by what they see and share though social media.
Some are already coining it the ‘smartphone infitada’ and the fear for Israel is that traditional intelligence methods are useless against a generation of Palestinian youths who have found their own cause to fight for, rather than the historic problems of occupation and marginalisation that they were born in to. They are a generation that has grown up on failed efforts towards Middle East peace, is angry with its own leadership and is losing faith in the prospect of a Palestinian state.
A Reuters blog recently reminded its readers of the case of Mohammed Halabi, a 19-year-old law student from Ramallah, who wrote on his Facebook page hours before stabbing dead two Israelis in the Old City: “Defending Al-Aqsa … is our honour and defending it by all means and forms is legal.”
Some of the assailants are so young they were not even born when the last intifada broke out in September 2000. In the absence of any negotiations towards a two-state solution to the conflict – the last talks with Israel collapsed in April 2014 – a new generation of angry youths has focused on Al-Aqsa which has taken on a national symbolism beyond its religious significance for all Muslims. Anger over Al-Aqsa is fuelled by the perception among many Palestinians that Jewish groups are being given freer rein to visit the site and frequently try to pray there, despite non-Muslim prayer being banned since the 12th century.
Netanyahu has repeatedly said he has no intention of changing the status quo, but his reassurances have done little to calm Palestinian anger. Every perceived violation is quickly shared on social media and seemingly acted upon, with stone throwing and mass protests now escalating into murder by lone activists.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, now 80, appears to have been caught off-guard by the Internet-generation nature of the violence. While he has used traditional language to praise ‘martyrs’ killed by Israeli forces, he has also urged Palestinian media to stop glorifying attacks and replaying video of violent incidents.
What Abbas has to learn quickly however is that this generation is far more educated and has a more expansive view on the world that forms their outlook than their forefathers. He needs to understand how to deliver on their expectation or become irrelevant to the processes of change. Because change in Israel, Jerusalem and the West Bank surely is coming from the unlikely source of young men and women tired of their history and believing that their actions will shape their destiny and that of their nation.