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Israel's day of terror: what we know

The aftermath of the attack in Jaffa.
The aftermath of the attack in Jaffa.
(Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images)
  1. A wave of shootings and stabbings hit Israel in a two-hour stretch midday Tuesday. A stabbing in Jaffa, a section of Tel Aviv, killed at least one and wounded nine. A shooting in Jerusalem wounded two. And a stabbing in the city of Petah Tikva wounded one. (That assailant was subsequently killed, by the victim himself.)
  2. The identity of the attackers has not yet been revealed. However, since October there has been a wave of stabbings, shootings, and car attacks launched by individual Palestinians and Arab Israelis. Tuesday's attacks are consistent with this pattern.
  3. As all this is happening, Vice President Joe Biden is currently visiting Israel, and the Wall Street Journal reports that the White House is preparing for a final push for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Israel's bloody six months

Without knowing the identity of the attackers, it's impossible to say exactly why these are happening. But the broad contours of the attacks — seemingly random assaults on civilians in Israeli cities — is consistent with a wave of violence that's beset the country for the past six months.

That began shortly after mid-September, when clashes broke out over Jerusalem's most controversial religious site: what Jews call the Temple Mount and Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary.

Hard-line Israeli activists were attempting to ascend the hill and pray, in violation of a current agreement that grants Muslims exclusive prayer rights there. Arab Jerusalemites retaliated by throwing stones and firecrackers at Jews, provoking clashes with Israeli police.

Because the status of the Temple Mount is one of the country's most hot-button issues, these clashes became something larger. In particular, they galvanized anger among young Palestinians and Arab Israelis, many of whom believe that peace is impossible and that Israel is fundamentally engineered to discriminate against them. The wave of stabbings, shootings, and car attacks, in which the assailants run over pedestrians, began in early October. They created a feeling of terror among many Jewish Israelis who worried they or their family members could be targeted next.

"A lot of these attacks have been perpetrated by teenagers," Jeremy Pressman, a professor at the University of Connecticut who studies the Israel-Palestine conflict, told me last year. "There's clearly a sense of despair: I'm not sure this is always conscious, but part of that despair is driven by the inability of Palestinians to achieve their national goal of self-determination."

There has been low-level violence since January. It's a cycle in which Palestinians attack Israelis civilians, Israeli police kill would-be attackers, and Israeli security forces clash with Palestinian demonstrators and rioters. Between October 1 and January 19, about 20 Israelis and 150 Palestinians were killed.

The violence doesn't appear to be a centrally organized uprising against Israel by any Palestinian group.

"It's social media, at the grassroots level," Pressman says. "The fact that everyone has a camera in their pocket now — you can't get away from the role that social media is [playing in] helping feed the appetite for this on both sides, and certainly among Palestinian youth."

Initially, attacks on Israelis were quite popular with the Palestinian public. But as the violence has gone on, and the conflict has taken a toll on Palestinians, enthusiasm for attacks on Israeli civilians has waned — but only somewhat.

In "October an absolute majority of 63 percent supported an immediate uprising" against Israel, Israeli pollster Dahlia Scheindlin reports in the online magazine +972. But as of late February, "54 percent of Palestinians now oppose a third intifada [uprising]."

According to Scheindlin, this fits a broader pattern of Palestinian violence: Initial waves of attacks are greeted with enthusiasm, as they tend to follow diplomatic failures. But as the attacks fail to accomplish anything, and end up hurting Palestinians more than anyone, this enthusiasm wanes.

"Two-thirds of West Bank respondents in the January AWRAD poll say security has gotten worse over the last year," Scheindlin writes. "The vast majority of Palestinians are not personally involved in the attacks, which have been carried out by several hundred individuals since October. Yet apparently most of society feels the consequences."

We still don't know what happened with Tuesday's attacks, but they suggest, as at least a possibility, that the rage fueling the current uprising could remain a deadly force for at least a subset of Palestinians — which makes peace prospects less likely and is thus terrible news for Israelis and Palestinians alike.