Over the past month, eight Israelis have been killed and many more wounded in attacks carried out by Palestinians who are either Israeli citizens or were carrying Israeli identification cards. During the same period, more than 40 Palestinians have been killed, about half while carrying out attacks on Israelis, most of them using knives.
Over the past few decades, Israelis and Palestinians have seen their share of violence, with suicide bombings becoming common within Israel in the mid- 1990s and again in the early 2000s. Just last year, Israel engaged in a 50-day war with Hamas in Gaza that resulted in more than 2,000 Palestinian and 70 Israelis deaths. Even more recently, lone Palestinians used their cars to run over Israelis in Jerusalem.
And yet, this latest wave of violence feels different. It’s personal.
Knife attacks are fundamentally different from the strategic use of suicide bombers, or even ramming someone with a car. While a suicide bomber can cause more carnage, the use of the knife allows the assailant to look his or her victim in the eye. It requires physical contact between victim and attacker.
A video showing a Palestinian teen attacking Israeli special patrol officers demonstrates the intimacy of the engagement. After being asked for his identification card, the assailant lunges for one patrol officer, grabbing him by the neck and fiercely stabbing before he is shot dead by the other officers.
In another recent attack, a video shows the alleged assailant, Ala Abu Jamal, ramming his Israeli company car into people at a Jerusalem bus station, then exiting the car brandishing what appears to be a butcher knife and striking his victims with tremendous force.
There is something deeply personal about using a knife to penetrate the flesh of another human being. Unlike many suicide bombers, there is no formal Palestinian organization behind the acts.
The intimacy and randomness of these attacks have the entire country on edge. Because anyone with a knife can be a potential attacker, and you cannot confiscate all knives in the country, Jews and Arabs are deeply fearful of each other.
Last Tuesday, an Arab-Israeli posted a picture on his Facebook wall of a flyer distributed in his Tel Aviv building by a neighbor that stated, “I think we cannot be indifferent and do nothing regarding the issue that we have an Arab living in the building. I invite you all to come for a meeting to discuss this issue and see what can be done. I’m not rejecting him personally, but I think it’s very important that we know him and check him out.”
Arabs comprise 20 percent of the Israeli population. It is impossible, and morally repugnant, to “check them all out.”
Israelis claim that the rise in violence is the result of incitement directed by the Palestinian Authority. Incitement is certainly a cause for concern, but the political vacuum of recent years creates conditions that allow for antagonism on both sides, Israeli and Palestinian, to take root. By all accounts, President Mahmoud Abbas has been attempting to cool down the West Bank to avoid the eruption of a third intifada. For the most part, the West Bank has remained quiet.
Though Israel reportedly has more than 2,000 security troops in the city, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu approved an additional 13 border police units to be deployed in Jerusalem last week, the Israeli government has yet to find an answer to the violence.
Complete lockdowns of Jerusalem’s Arab neighborhoods, as called for by some members of Netanyahu’s cabinet, are difficult to enforce and may result in galvanizing more to attack. The demolition of attackers’ homes has proven to be ineffective as means of deterrence. How, then, does the Israeli government respond to this latest wave of violence?
While Israelis demand an immediate solution, Israel cannot bomb Palestinian residents of Jerusalem into submission. There is the suggestion that Israel move to end its occupation of traditionally Palestinian East Jerusalem neighborhoods.
But Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 demonstrates the futility of unilateral actions. This deeply personal chapter in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict necessitates a vision for the future rather than an immediate response to the crisis.
The Netanyahu government must recognize that the status quo is no longer sustainable. No amount of violence, enhanced security or house demolitions will resolve the underlying issue. Unless this occupation is ended through a negotiated settlement that makes both parties accountable to each other, Israelis and Palestinians will continue to share one space but not equal rights, and the slaughter at close range will only intensify.
Ronnie Oleskar is a Reuters columnist.