Fueled by rage, Palestinian lone wolf attacks in 3rd month
RAMALLAH: On a recent morning, Palestinian taxi driver Shadi Kaseeb dropped off his two oldest children at school before picking up his first passenger — a seemingly routine start to his day. Before noon, the 31-year-old driver was dead, shot by two Israeli civilians after police said he ran toward them with a kitchen knife.
Five days later, in the same West Bank spot, Shadi's younger brother Fadi rammed his car into two Israelis at a bus stop near a Jewish settlement before being shot dead.
The brothers were among dozens of Palestinians gunned down by Israeli troops or civilians since September in what Israel says were attempted or actual Palestinian attacks. The attacks, mainly involving cars or knives, have killed 19 Israelis.
Now in its third month, this round of Israeli-Palestinian violence has defied definitions and easy explanations. Almost daily, ordinary Palestinians — many in their teens and without political affiliations — carry out what are essentially suicide missions. Yet most attacks appear to be spontaneous, lacking a guiding hand or clear tactical goal. Political and personal motives appear to overlap.
The violence is playing out in one of the darkest periods of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with Israeli rule over Palestinians well-entrenched. Hopes for a peace deal establishing a Palestinian state are at a low after Israelis this year re-elected their hard-line government, which continues to build Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
The killing of dozens of Palestinians by Israeli fire in recent months, including in stone-throwing clashes, has further stoked popular anger. Some rights activists blame what they say is a "shoot-to-kill" atmosphere in Israel, fueled by incendiary comments by leading Israeli politicians and security officials.
Militant groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad are further stirring anti-Israeli sentiment among Palestinians, particularly on their widely watched TV stations. Amateur video of perceived incidents of excessive use of force by Israel is shared on social media, ubiquitous among young Palestinians.
Revenge is also a factor -- some assailants seek retribution for family members killed by Israeli fire.
This mix has helped perpetuate what initially appeared to be just another flare-up, one of many in the century-old conflict. "This popular uprising has continued longer than observers expected," said political scientist Ahmed Azim at the West Bank's Bir Zeit University.
The level of violence remains below that seen in two Palestinian uprisings against Israeli occupation since the late 1980s, but has also shown no sign of slowing down.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said the attacks are spontaneous outbursts of Palestinian anger. "No one called for it, but it came from the hearts of these young people who saw everything with their own eyes, the injustice and the attacks by (Israeli) settlers," he said last month.
At the same time, the internationally backed idea of setting up a Palestinian state next to Israel — roughly in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, lands Israel captured in 1967 — is off the table for now.
Leading figures in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government openly oppose a two-state solution, Abbas has given up hope of independence through negotiations after two decades of failed attempts and US mediators say they see no point in pursuing a deal during the remainder of President Barack Obama's term.
Netanyahu's government says the attacks are the result of incitement by Abbas, as well as the Palestinian leader's main political rival, Hamas, and a recently outlawed branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, which has ties to Hamas.
Those inciting to violence are driven by hatred of Israelis and opposition to the existence of the state of Israel, and spread their message over social media networks to Palestinian youth, argue Israeli government officials, who rarely mention that Palestinians have been living under Israeli rule for a half-century.
At a recent Cabinet meeting, Netanyahu portrayed the current Palestinian attacks as a continuation of "terrorism that has been with us for almost 100 years," adding that "we have defeated it time and again (and) will defeat it this time as well."
Abbas publicly opposes violence as detrimental to Palestinian interests, but hasn't denounced the recent attacks, even on Israeli civilians, for fear of losing Palestinian public opinion.
Behind the scenes, his security services have been trying to lower the flames. Plainclothes agents make sure Palestinian stone-throwers don't open fire on Israeli troops. His forces also arrested some alleged would-be attackers.
Israel's Shin Bet security service appears to agree with Abbas to some extent, portraying the attacks as largely spontaneous and carried out by individuals. In comments on its website, the agency also said anti-Israel incitement on social media plays a role.
"The young live on the Internet," the agency said of the new generation of Palestinians.
Facebook and Twitter are more effective organizers of stone-throwing protests than Hamas and Abbas' Fatah. Those groups played a key role in previous uprisings but now struggle to mobilize large crowds.
However, Hamas and the smaller militant group Islamic Jihad exert influence through their media outlets, including TV stations that play songs in praise of attackers. One of the songs is accompanied by images of a young Palestinian watching Israeli soldiers pushing or beating Palestinian women in Jerusalem. He takes a knife and attacks soldiers, to lyrics exhorting him to "defend your honor, your sisters."
Palestinians also post videos of attacks and their aftermath, including the shootings of Palestinians by Israelis.
The Israeli human rights group B'Tselem said that in at least five cases, documented by amateur video or witness testimony, Palestinians were shot after they no longer posed a threat. Four of them, including two teenage girls, were killed, and one was seriously wounded.
The group blamed what it called a "shoot to kill'" approach promoted by senior members of the Netanyahu government.
Israeli security officials deny such a policy is in place, saying forces are instructed to open fire only in life-threatening situations. Yossi Sedbon, a former police commander in the West Bank, defended the use of force, saying even assailants who appear to have been "neutralized" could still pose a threat.
Sedbon said the wave of attacks is unprecedented and poses a challenge to security forces because "we don't have any clue where and when it will happen."
Shadi Kaseeb's actions certainly came out of the blue, his family said, insisting the chain of events leading to his death began with a traffic accident.
On November 22, Shadi drove his two oldest children, 7-year-old Samira and 6-year-old Mohammed, to school in the West Bank town of Ramallah, before taking a passenger to Jericho, about an hour's drive away.
On the way back, near the settlement industrial park of Mishor Adumim, his taxi swerved into an Israeli vehicle in the next lane, according to Israeli police. Shadi got out of his car, wielding a 20-centimeter-long (8-inch) kitchen knife and ran toward a group of Israelis before being shot by two civilians, police said.
"I can't believe my husband wanted to stab anyone because he knows we need him," said his wife Athab, 29, speaking in the family's small basement apartment. "We are a very poor family...and have three kids to raise."
Brother-in-law Mohammed Samara, 27, said Kaseeb was deeply affected by what he felt was unrestrained Israeli violence against Palestinians. "Shadi was a very sensitive guy," said Samara. "He used to watch the news on TV and feel sad."
Five days after Shadi's death, 30-year-old Fadi followed in his older brother's footsteps.
The supermarket clerk, a father of two with a baby on the way, drove to the Mishor Adumim intersection and rammed his car into two Israelis waiting at a bus stop — the force of impact flinging one of the men over a security barrier. Fadi got out of the car and ran toward the Israelis, but was shot and killed by a civilian at the scene, police said.
There was no doubt about his motive.
"He was furious when his brother was killed," said Fadi's wife, Sawsan, 24. "He said, 'I cannot live without my brother. I'll kill them all, I'll kill all the settlers.'"