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Palestinians grapple with knife attacks as violence enters fifth month

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The killing of Israeli civilians and the young age of the Palestinian attackers, along with their almost inevitable deaths at the hands of police, are raising tough questions for Palestinians.

Speaking at an event in Ramallah last month on the current confrontations with Israel, activist Mariam Barghouti said of the attacks, “we may not agree with the tactics, but that doesn’t mean we should bring anyone down.” Barghouti shared the stage with former PLO official turned analyst Diana Buttu and the Palestinian Ambassador at large Husam Zomlot. The roundtable was billed to discuss whether an “Intifada”—or uprising—has began (they all agreed that yes it has), but the conversation careened to their personal feelings about knife attacks on Israelis.

It was an impassioned talk. The subject is touchy, which explains why this panel has been the only public event so far to showcase leading Palestinian thinkers sharing a frank discussion on the matter in front of members of the press.

What became clear from the discussion that is Palestinians are keenly aware that they are collectively demonized anytime a member of their national group assaults an Israeli and they have no interest in contributing to that discourse. At the same time they are seriously concerned about what is happening to children in their community where an undeniable trend has sprung. And it can’t be ignored that there are voices in the West Bank who do celebrate the deaths of Israelis, or justify the killing of American Taylor Force last week.

Fifty-four per cent of Palestinians in the West Bank said they are opposed to “the continuation of knife attacks against Israelis,” according to a poll published Sunday from the Jerusalem Media and Communication Centre.

The reasons for this are varied. Some Palestinians note international law allows in certain cases for the killing of soldiers in uniform in the context of a military occupation. Others look inward at their own society and ponder what leads minors, including children as young as 12, to stow a kitchen knife in their backpacks and head to an Israeli military post instead of going to school. In any case, what polls can’t show is that Palestinians are grappling with what it says about their society that some children have tried to kill.

Each of the speakers at the roundtable hosted by the Rosa Luxemberg Foundation —Buttu, Barghouti and Zomlot—said, and repeated, they do not advocate violence. But they understand why it is happening. In broad strokes the answer is: the occupation. Their view is while violence is not their answer they want employed, the context of what brought a person to carry out an attack should be highlighted.

Zomlot surmised, “There has never been a country that will give up their privileges willingly just because we the Palestinians have been nice.”

All of the speakers found the phenomena of young attackers especially troubling.

“It highlights the shortcomings of our society,” Barghouti said of children attackers.

“I would feel like a failure as a father,” Zomlot said, if one of his children were to think of taking on a violent action. “Of course there is a Palestinian failure, indeed there is a Palestinian failure, but the provocation came from Israel.”

“I think they reason why so many people are really, really young is that they don’t see any prospect that there lives will change,” Buttu added in a follow-up conversation with Mondoweiss.

“My generation didn’t grow up under checkpoints. You didn’t see the army in your space. This generation they only see army and they know it isn’t normal. Their eyes are open to the world and they know this is not the way a human being should be living,” said Buttu who paused for a moment before adding, “and that–this crushes me, it crushes me.”

The word “desperation” was debated by panelist as a possible motivating factor. Are Palestinians grabbing knives because they have lost all hope for a better life though any other means?

“I reject the idea of desperation. Most of them if you look at the information are from middle income families and highly educated,” Zomlot said of the attackers, adding he believed they–at least the adults–saw themselves operating in “self-defense not desperation” against “unprecedented violence and brutality.”

Buttu agreed the general mood in Jerusalem in particular has toughened recently. She recounted three incidents over the past few months when Israelis on the street circled around her while she was speaking Arabic. Once she was told “to stop speaking the language of the terrorist.”

At least 10 per cent of the attacks on Israelis during the past five months were done by minors age 16 or less, according to Israel’s security agency Shin Bet. The youngest attacker, a 12-year-old girl from the West Bank whose name is being withheld, became the youngest Palestinian prisoner in history to be sentenced in an Israeli prison. During her hearing in Israel’s military court in February the judge noted she had only reached the age of criminal liability by a few months. In the trial the lawyers and the judge all debated jailing the 12-year-old in an abandoned hotel, rather than placing her in the adult women’s prison.

Overall, more than 70 per cent of attacks took place in the West Bank. The geography is important, because it means that there is an effort on the part of the attackers to confront who they perceive as settlers, and Israeli soldiers. Indeed while the attacks may feel random to the victims, most have occurred near the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem and in Hebron, two areas with long histories of conflict between Israeli settlers, military, and Palestinians.

Speaking of an incident last month where a Palestinian police officer attacked an Israeli soldier at the Beit El checkpoint outside of Ramallah, Buttu put it bluntly, “He’s a legitimate target, you might not like it, move on”—again, Buttu was not advocating for such actions against soldiers, but stating an argument about how there could be a legal difference articulated by the Palestinian leadership when making statements about these encounters. Yet they have not done so.

“They [Palestinian leadership] don’t say this is a man that had reached his endpoint, that he had lived his entire life under military occupation and he hit his endpoint, and he was done. And then he targeted a military instillation,” said Buttu.

“A lot of these people targeted in Israel have been uniformed, not to condone it, just to say that’s what’s going on,” noted Buttu, adding at the same time, “the [militant] factions don’t have a problem claiming this is someone who is under their command.”

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