Wednesday night’s shooting attack in Tel Aviv, in which Palestinian terrorists killed four Israelis and wounded several more, has been widely covered in the Middle East and across the globe.
In seeking to explain what led two young Arabs from a small city in the West Bank to open fire on civilians enjoying an evening out in a trendy dining and market area, journalists and public figures have highlighted the continued campaign of incitement by Palestinian officials and clerics — as exemplified by the full-throated praise for the perpetrators by the Islamist Hamas movement, which runs the Gaza Strip, and the justifying of the attack by leading spokesmen for the Fatah movement, which dominates the Palestinian Authority (PA) government in the West Bank. Others, eager to deflect blame from the wielders of violence, sought, predictably, to pin responsibility on Israeli policies. Remarkably, however, no attention has yet been paid to publication of a public opinion survey Thursday that casts a clear and disturbing light on what stood behind the previous day’s shooting spree.
The highly-regarded Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR) asked a series of questions to a representative sample of 1,270 Arab residents of the West Bank, Jerusalem, and Gaza earlier this month, including whether they supported or opposed the April suicide bombing on a Jerusalem bus in which a young Palestinian from the Bethlehem area injured more than 20 Israelis. According to a press release summarizing the results, Palestinians expressed their support by a margin of more than two to one (65% to 31%). Though Westerners might be surprised that such a large majority would stand behind an attack aimed at civilians, this finding was unremarkable to anyone following PSR’s surveys over the past two years. Since August 2014, PSR field workers have on eight occasions asked Palestinians about their attitudes regarding “attacks against Israeli civilians within Israel,” and each time the majority expressed support. In the March 2016 poll, the last time this question was asked, 60% of Palestinians backed such attacks.
Yet there were good reasons to expect, or at least to hope, that support for a concrete case of violence would be lower than for attacks against civilians in general. After all, it is one thing to favor in principle the use of bombs or guns against Israeli civilians and something else, after seeing coverage of the grisly results of a particular suicide-bombing, to declare one’s support. But in practice, the opposite effect can be observed, as there was a slight increase, five percent, between the portion of Palestinians who in March 2016 favored attacks on civilians and the number who in June 2016 applauded a bus-bombing that injured nearly two dozen flesh-and-blood Israelis.
Disturbingly, this pattern has been consistent during the past decade and a half, with only a brief exception, as high percentages of Palestinians have supported terror attacks on Israeli civilians in general, while even higher percentages have backed specific bombings and shootings that killed and wounded Israelis.
When PSR conducted an October 2003 poll, the Second Intifada was raging, Yasser Arafat was PA president, and suicide bombings in Israel’s cities were the weapon of choice of Hamas, Fatah, and other Palestinian militants. A clear majority of Palestinians, 54%, backed attacks on Israeli civilians in general, but when asked about “the bombing operation in the Maxim restaurant in Haifa, which led to the death of 20 Israelis,” the ranks of supporters swelled to 74%. In PSR’s September 2004 survey, 54% again expressed in-principle support for armed attacks against Israeli civilians, but regarding “the latest bombing attack in Beer Shiva in Israel early in this month which led to the death of 16 Israelis,” that figure rose to 77%.
In PSR’s March 2005 poll, this pattern was broken, though only temporarily. The percentage of Palestinians backing violence against Israeli civilians slipped to 38 percent — a figure that is alarmingly high, but that marks the lowest level of Palestinian support for such attacks in the last decade and a half. This drop was driven, in all probability, by the replacement of Arafat with Mahmoud Abbas earlier that year, fostering the hope Israel would make significant concessions if Palestinians refrained from violence; coupled with the decision of Israel’s cabinet in February to accept Ariel Sharon’s plan to pull out of Gaza. In those circumstances, suicide bombings were seen as likely to lead to a reversal of that decision and when respondents were asked about “a bombing…in Tel Aviv that led to the death of four Israelis and the injury of 50 others in front of a night club,” the ranks of supporters dropped to 30%. (According to the PSR summary of poll results from September 2005, support for attacks in general was 38% and for a bombing attack in Beersheba the previous month 37%, but the full results presented in that document do not include a question about that bombing, making it difficult to reach conclusions.)
Yet the earlier pattern, in which after-the-fact backing for “successful” attacks exceeds in-principle support for armed violence aimed at Israeli civilians, resumed again the next year — after Israel completed its August 2005 pull-out from the Gaza Strip and removed every Jewish resident from the nearly two dozen settlements there. In the June 2006 poll, support for attacks on civilians was 56%, but when queried regarding “A bombing attack [that] took place in Tel Aviv last April leading to the death of 11 Israelis,” the percentage of backers reached 69%. In the March 2008 survey, the portion of Palestinians in favor of attacks targeting civilians reached an all-time high of 67%, but an even higher figure of support was reached, 78%, when pollsters inquired about “the bombing attack in Dimona in Israel in early February… in which one Israeli woman was killed in addition to the two bombers.” In that same poll, respondents were asked about “the bombing attack in the religious school in Jerusalem inside Israel in the first week of the current month… in which eight Israeli students were killed in addition to the Palestinian attacker.” Knowing the victims were school children, in this case teenage boys, apparently did not dampen support for the attack, which reached the unprecedented figure of 84%.
In the intervening eight years, PSR did not ask about specific bombings or shootings of Israeli civilians inside Israel — until earlier this month. Now that the results have been published, it seems, depressingly enough, that the old pattern of bloody attacks generating sympathy and even adulation has continued.
How does this help explain this week’s shootings in Tel Aviv? Simply put, would-be terrorists contemplating an attack can be reasonably confident that if they succeed in killing or injuring Israeli civilians, their actions will earn support and praise in their society — for themselves, their families, and the militant group to which they belong, whether or not they live to enjoy it personally. Indeed, they will be seen as heroes, not only in the communiques of Hamas, but in the minds of rank-and-file Palestinians. As I wrote in a comprehensive November 2015 essay in Mosaic Magazine on Palestinian attitudes towards Jews, Israelis, and violence, this may result from the society-wide veneration of shahids during the weeks after they attain martyrdom (especially those who die while taking the battle to the Zionist enemy), or from the enthusiasm for striking Israelis in places of special significance — like Tel Aviv, the symbol of Jewish economic and military power, or Jerusalem, the epicenter of political rule and religious contention.
Regardless of the reason, the impact is the same — heightened motivation for would-be terrorists and, as we saw all too tragically this week, the continuation of a pattern of grisly attacks that has become all too familiar. Only if there is a sharp and durable decline in this deep-rooted support for such wanton violence and for those who perpetrate it can there be real hope that this kind of terrorism will become, as it ought to be, a relic of the past.