The prevailing wisdom, both in Israel and abroad, has long deemed the current wave of lone-wolf Palestinian attacks unstoppable. But in every previous intifada, the turning point has come when a critical mass of Palestinians concluded that the costs of terror outweighed the benefits. And recently, there have been several signs that this point may be approaching, of which the most notable is a new poll showing that a majority of West Bank Palestinians now oppose the stabbings.
It’s extremely rare for Palestinians to oppose any form of anti-Israel terror, and as a rule, they do so only when the costs have become unacceptably high. At the height of the second intifada, for instance, polls consistently showed large majorities favoring suicide bombings. But as the intifada’s costs to Palestinian society mounted, support for suicide bombings declined.
Similarly, in a poll taken just three months ago, fully 67 percent of Palestinians supported the stabbing attacks, including 57 percent of West Bank residents. Yet in the latest poll, not only did overall support fall to 56 percent but, in the West Bank, 54 percent of respondents opposed the stabbings.
The stark contrast between the West Bank and Gaza is instructive. In Gaza, which has produced no lone-wolf attackers and, therefore, suffered no repercussions, a whopping 79 percent of respondents favored continuing the attacks. But in the West Bank, which is the source of most of the attacks, the repercussions have been extremely painful – enough to shift public opinion from 57 percent in favor to 54 opposed in just three months.
Not coincidentally, West Bank Palestinians have also begun trying to prevent such attacks. The village of Sa’ir, for instance, held the record for the highest per capita number of terrorists during the intifada’s first three and a half months. But since mid-January, it hasn’t produced a single terrorist. Why the sudden decline? Because the municipality started a concerted campaign to discourage terror. As Mayor Ka’id Jaradat told the Times of Israel:
“The (PA’s) governor of Hebron came to the village, and we arranged a large meeting with all the dignitaries, clerics, teachers, school principals, representatives of the security agencies … Our message to all of them was: ‘We want our children alive.’ My message as a leader and representative was, ‘I don’t want the young people to commit attacks. I want them to live. Let’s keep our blood. We don’t need or want there to be shahids every day…
“The teachers and the principals did not speak out against the shahids [martyrs]. We never intended anything like that. But they did convey the message that a pupil who does well in his studies, who gets a full education, is the one who shows true sumud (steadfastness). He is actually the one who is protecting the Palestinians’ right to this land. In other words, those who remain are the successful ones. Not those who die. Those who die are gone, finished.
“The same was done in the mosques. We stated clearly that we wanted our sons alive and the village to go back to being ‘under control.’ We conveyed messages using the local media outlets. We even told the families of the shahids that we wanted no incitement.”
Even the Palestinian Authority, despite continuing its rampant anti-Israel incitement, has started trying to keep this incitement from leading to actual attacks. As Haaretz reported last week:
Palestinian security forces have set up a barrier south of the Jalama crossing at the Green Line, to prevent young people from Qabatiyah from perpetrating hopeless knifing attacks on armed Israelis at the adjacent crossing. The town’s schools are obliged to report the absence of any student to the PA’s security forces. The latter ascertain whether the absent students are indeed sick at home and haven’t set out to launch an attack.
This change in Palestinian attitudes and behavior has three main reasons. First, as I noted back in November, the stabbings have been devastating the Palestinian economy. The PA hasn’t yet published fourth-quarter growth figures, but the scope of the damage likely resembles the situation in East Jerusalem, which has also produced many assailants: Arab merchants say that since the stabbings began in October, a whopping 35 percent of Arab businesses in East Jerusalem have closed.
Second, the stabbings’ impact on Israel has been low. In five months of attacks, Palestinians have killed 34 Israelis and tourists – roughly the equivalent of two suicide bombings during the second intifada. As for economic impact, Israel’s economy surged by 3.9 percent during the fourth quarter, which coincided with the first three months of the stabbing intifada. That’s a significant improvement over the previous three quarters.
Third, without exception, every perpetrator has been either captured or killed. In fact, the number of Palestinians killed while attempting to murder Israelis is roughly five times the number of Israeli fatalities. That’s precisely why, in contrast to the first and second intifadas, this one has attracted little involvement by the broader Palestinian public: There’s a limit to the number of people willing to face certain death or capture in exchange for a relatively small chance of killing the enemy. Indeed, this was the key insight behind Israel’s successful strategy in the second intifada: Even though there are millions of potential terrorist recruits, the supply of actual recruits will dry up if the likelihood of death or imprisonment becomes great enough to make terror an unattractive proposition.
Thus, the bottom line is that Palestinians are paying a very high price — both economic and human — to inflict minimal harm on Israelis. And that, as I’ve explained before, is precisely the situation that led to the waning of the second intifada: As the cost to Palestinian society rose while the cost the terrorists were inflicting on Israeli society fell, the terrorists, once lionized, turned into pariahs. Taxi drivers wouldn’t pick them up, customers fled when they entered a coffeehouse, and fathers wouldn’t let them marry their daughters. At that point, many terrorists decided it was time to abandon terror.
Perhaps this latest intifada is something totally new, and won’t follow the same pattern as earlier ones. But since human nature is fairly constant, I doubt it. This time, too, the terror will likely end when enough Palestinians decide the costs outweigh the benefits. And recent developments are a hopeful sign that we may be approaching that point.
Originally published in Commentary on March 16, 2016