"Lone Wolves" 2.0: The characteristics of the current wave of terror attacks in Israel



By Dr. Michael Milshtein​​ | April, 2022


The scene of the terrorist attack in Tel Aviv
Photo: Israel Police | CC BY-SA 3.0


The wave of terror attacks washing over Israel in recent weeks is similar in character to previous ones, yet also has some unique attributes compared to the past. Unlike former waves, this one broke out for no specific reason (explosive arenas such as the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem were relatively calm this time), and seems to have evolved against the following combined backdrop: The effect of the incitement that has been ongoing in the Palestinian arena on the younger generation (an effort advanced primarily by Hamas); the "contagiousness" effect that often follows terror attacks; and a certain measure of the general tension cast by the month of Ramadan among Palestinians in recent years, as demonstrably witnessed during Operation Guardian of the Walls in 2021.


The vast majority of terror attack perpetrators in recent weeks have followed the "Lone Wolf" model that emerged and peaked during the "knives Intifada" (which the Palestinians refer to as Haba) between October 2015 and March 2016. The terrorists these days – much like those who carried out the attacks 6-7 years ago – act independently, either on their own or in small groups, and not as part of an established organization. Decisions to carry out an attack are usually made spontaneously and are greatly influenced by social media or inspired by previous attacks ("copycatting"). Addressing such a model of terror is extremely complex, since the threat has no defined "contact information" or clear organizational framework, and often manifests itself at unforeseen times and places.


However, the terrorists who carried out the recent attacks differ from their predecessors in terms of the weapons they used, the lethality of their actions, as well as their average age. Most of the attacks in 2015 and 2016 were perpetrated by young terrorists in their 20s, most of whom were single, and used "cold" weapons (primarily knives). These last attacks were carried out by older perpetrators (in their 30s, some of whom had families) using firearms, i.e., "hot" weapons, leading to a higher number of casualties. One could say that the terrorists who carry out attacks nowadays are the same young men from 2015-2016 who are now several years older, more calculated and sophisticated, and therefore have the means to purchase "hot" firearms.


Another unique attribute of the present wave of terror is greater involvement of Arab Israeli citizens. The attacks carried out by Arab Israelis (in Be`er-Sheva and Hadera) have inspired the West Bank terrorists, who followed suit with the attacks carried out in Bnei-Brak and Tel-Aviv. To a large extent, the tables have turned: whereas, in the past, the key areas of concern were the Gaza Strip or Jerusalem, which later projected on actions taken by Israeli Arabs – whose involvement in terror, as a rule, was limited and outweighed by the perpetrators from Palestinian-controlled areas – this time the Arab Israeli citizens are at the forefront, and serving as a source of inspiration for the current wave of terror.


Much like the past, the actions of terrorists today represent some of the fundamental issues typically found among the younger Palestinian generation, namely profound detachment, dissociation from the social and political forms of authority around them, and the tremendous (and harmful) effect of social media. They themselves were obviously driven to action by acute incitement and cultivated animosity toward Israel, not complex ideologies, certainly not any that are associated with financial discrimination (this is particularly true of the terrorists who are themselves Israeli citizens); however, an analysis of their personalities also reveals certain manifestations of a range of social phenomena.


In a broader context, it is striking that the Gaza Strip is not involved in this circle of violence, for now, at least, unlike most confrontations in the past, when friction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem rapidly led to a violent response from powerful parties in the Gaza Strip, including Hamas. This year, it seems that the latter's set of considerations has become more complex. The unprecedented civilian gestures made by Israel to the Gaza Strip (led by the decision to allow 20,000 men to work in Israel) ensure that Hamas maintains calm and quiet there, although the Palestinian organization did enable the launch of a limited number of rockets, to which Israel responded by suspending Gazan workers' permits for several days, preventing them from working in Israel.


A closer look reveals that Hamas has, in fact, employed a form of "differentiation" vis-à-vis Israel this past year, demonstrated, inter alia, by the current wave of terror attacks. The Palestinian organization continues to direct terror and engage in acute incitement in the West Bank, Jerusalem, and Israeli Arab society (primarily the Bedouin population in southern Israel) – with most actions originating in the Gaza Strip – however, at the same time, Hamas also ensures that relative quiet is maintained in the region. All the while, it is not facing any indications or restrictions on Israel's part, for, to date, the latter has not conditioned ongoing civilian gestures upon the cessation of subversive Hamas activity in the West Bank.


As for the West Bank – the current wave of terror demonstrates the "glass ceiling" of the civilian effort, which the Palestinians mockingly refer to as "economic peace". Israel has relied in recent years on the underlying assumption whereby stabilizing the fabric of life – in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip – is instrumental in the restriction of violent threats in both arenas. The very same policy, it seems, has indeed effectively prevented third intifada scenarios (most of the Palestinians are focused on cultivating their lives, and refrain from joining circles of violence); however, it struggles to provide a solution for "lone wolf terror attacks" that have now become deadlier than before.


From a strategic perspective, it appears that Israel cannot ignore or avoid engaging in the Palestinian issue, that now projects more than ever on the domestic arena. The current wave of terror underscores that, while Israel's strategic status in the region is improving (as demonstrably manifest in the Negev Summit), reality in the arenas closest to it remains explosive, impacting a host of core issues, primarily the sense of public safety, and (already charged) affiliation between various populations within Israeli society.


In practice, several efforts are required in the immediate as well as longer timeframes. First, it is vital to promote extensive and determined action against the hostile parties in the area of Jenin, which has turned into the "terror capital" of the West Bank (the two Palestinian terrorists involved in the attacks in recent weeks have come from this area), and is a governmental void exploited by individuals and organizations engaged in terror, crime, and anarchy.


At the same time, the gaps in the security fence must be closed as soon as possible, with no attention given to the ideological and financial arguments that have contributed to its incompleteness over the last two decades. Furthermore, the civilian effort that aims to maintain the fabric of life in the West Bank should continue, as it contributes to the prevention of greater threats, namely a third intifada, and could help to differentiate between the intense conflict that may evolve in the Jenin area and the rest of the West Bank, preventing terror and the governmental void from crossing over to other West Bank hubs.


Israel is also required to follow a resolute policy against any expression of support for terrorists voiced by senior members of the Palestinian Authority and Fatah (such as that of Governor of Jenin, Akram Rajoub), as well as the kind of condemnation voiced by Abu Mazen (who objected to "the murder of innocent Israeli and Palestinian citizens"). If Israel is to learn from the errors of the past – particularly those made prior to the outbreak of the Second Intifada – it must realize that ignoring such "exceptions" contributes to the legitimization of violent actions in the public, and motivates members of the Fatah and PA to carry them out.


And finally, there is a need for critical and poignant Israeli thinking on the policy promoted over the past 12 months in the Gaza Strip, which may be tying Israel's hands, and allowing Hamas to dictate the arena and timing at which confrontations take place. Thus, while continued civilian gestures toward its civilian population do provide relative quiet in the Gaza Strip, they also strengthen Hamas' rule, enable it to concentrate on force buildup in preparation for the next campaign, and reduce the chances of Israel's return to the region. Moreover, they take a heavy toll on Israel as they cause severe unrest in all areas outside the Gaza Strip. Israel is therefore required to condition them, and demand that Hamas cease to direct terror and end incitement in the West Bank, even if that increases the current level of tension vis-à-vis this Palestinian organization.




Authored by Dr. Michael Milshtein, a senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.



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