A large discrepancy – which, were it not for the horrific circumstances, could be called ridiculous – exists between the bombastic declarations by Israel’s leaders about taking tough measures against terrorism and restoring security to Jerusalem, and the practical significance of the steps actually taken on the ground.
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For years, Israeli prime ministers have sworn by a commitment to Jerusalem’s eternal unification. But the erection of police roadblocks at the exits from Arab neighborhoods, and the plans for concrete barricades along the old “seam line” between the eastern and western parts of the city, along with the wave of dismissals of Arab workers in Jewish neighborhoods this week – all this serves the opposite goal. Those steps only contribute to the city’s division in practice, and underscore the mutual fears of the two populations. The barricades corroborate the Palestinian argument that the city was never unified, under Israeli rule, and never will be.
On the Israeli side, two moves have helped bring about the present situation: the insistence following the Six-Day War on extending the city’s boundaries to incorporate the West Bank villages and towns located close to the border of East Jerusalem, and the building of the separation barrier during the second intifada.
It was essential to build the barrier. It brought security in the short term, making it difficult for suicide bombers from the West Bank to enter Jerusalem at the height of the wave of terror attacks. But the wall also brought about a social and economic disconnect between the Palestinians on its two sides. The villages left outside the wall remained imprisoned, cut off from municipal services, in a no-man’s-land lacking clear-cut sovereignty. The Palestinian locales inside the barrier were disconnected from the area around Jerusalem and the West Bank, without their inhabitants ever being able to become Israeli citizens.
For a few years, it was possible to believe that a convenient interim situation had been achieved, and large numbers of tourists, from Israel and abroad, returned to the Old City. But all that fell apart last summer. Now, against a background of terrorist incidents in which 11 Israeli civilians and members of the security forces have been murdered in six attacks in less than a month (nine in Jerusalem, one in Tel Aviv, and one in the Etzion Bloc, south of Jerusalem) – a new danger is looming: that the situation in Jerusalem will gradually evolve into a Belfast-like reality, with Palestinian terrorist attacks being answered by Jewish acts of revenge. The murder this summer of the Palestinian teen Mohammed Abu Khdeir, following discovery of the bodies of the three Israeli teens murdered in the Etzion Bloc, might turn out to have been the onset of a new and growing epidemic.
The defense establishment opposes the idea – raised in the security cabinet and the Knesset – of sending the Israel Defense Forces into East Jerusalem to beef up the police. The army believes the police are capable of coping and are already in a better position to contain violent mass demonstrations. Bringing soldiers into the Palestinian neighborhoods is liable to end with the unnecessary killing of demonstrators. All the security branches – the IDF, the police, the Shin Bet security service and the office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories – are united in their opposition to imposing collective punishment on the Palestinians. They are not in favor of closure of the West Bank or of preventing the entry of Palestinian workers.
One harsh punitive measure that has been reinstated is the demolition of the homes of terrorists who commit murder. Israel stopped house demolitions (with a few exceptions in Jerusalem) nine years ago. This week, following the synagogue attack, policy makers imposed their will, under pressure from the political arena, on the security experts, some of whom are against house demolitions, and the home of one of the perpetrators of an earlier attack was destroyed.
The army and police are recommending “surgical” actions: specific arrests, summoning inciters for interrogation and stepping up intelligence-gathering in East Jerusalem. Unlike during the second intifada, Israel is not facing a relatively organized hierarchy of terror groups with physical bases (refugee camps, casbahs in West Bank cities) that can be attacked, as was the case in Operation Protective Shield in 2002. In the face of what has so far been sporadic terrorism, there is no point now to engaging in far-reaching moves such as conquering territory or making mass arrests.
“We considered that, but there is no justification at this time for stopping the training of 10 battalions, so that they can be sent into the West Bank or the Jerusalem area,” a senior IDF officer says. “There is definitely a rise in demonstrations and incidents in the West Bank, too. People are responding to the tension in Jerusalem and on the Temple Mount. But it’s still far from the scale of what we saw in the West Bank even last summer.”
The army is concerned about the total absence of a diplomatic horizon since the failure of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s initiative last spring. The terrorist attacks and clashes in Jerusalem are eroding the network of restraints that has functioned relatively successfully in the West Bank since the Palestinian Authority resumed control of certain locales around 2007.
One difficulty Israel faces in regard to the recent terrorist attacks is the absence of a guiding hand on the Palestinian side. Israel is capable of fighting organized terrorism. This time, though, Hamas is not spearheading events in Jerusalem but trying to capitalize on them. On Internet sites and placards, its leaders are calling on Palestinians in Jerusalem to emulate the terrorists who murdered a policeman and four synagogue worshipers on Tuesday. But that is incitement, not an “operational” directive.
Rumors, too, are fueling the violence. Israel has repeatedly denied the existence of a nationalist background in the death of the Palestinian bus driver, Yusuf Hassan al-Ramouni, who was found hanged in a bus in Jerusalem on Monday. The Palestinians find it difficult to believe the account of the police and the pathologists. They remember how Israeli policemen spread false allegations that Mohammed Abu Khdeir was murdered against a homosexual background. They also see how the “price tag” thugs evade punishment because of a combination of the authorities’ indifference and the difficulties of collecting evidence.
Not even a declaration by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he does not intend to change the status quo on the Temple Mount can dispel mistrust. East Jerusalem Arabs see a governmental pincer movement: excavations at religious and historical sites, settlers moving into houses in Arab neighborhoods, construction in Jewish neighborhoods across the 1967 lines, and a and a growing number of Jews visiting and praying at the Temple Mount.
After the synagogue attack, the Internet site Ynet dubbed recent events a “third intifada.” But the defense establishment doesn’t yet share that conclusion. Violence is rampant in Jerusalem, and it shows signs of spreading to the West Bank, but intelligence sources continue to insist that no long-term, mass wave has yet taken shape.
Next week, the IDF General Staff and Military Intelligence will start to discuss the intelligence assessment for 2015. This year, for the first time in a decade, the chief focus will be on the Palestinian arena.
Islamic State influence
There was an element of exaggeration about two months ago, when Netanyahu convened an emergency meeting one night to discuss the dangers posed by the Islamic State, also called ISIS, and afterward explained to the world that Hamas is the Islamic State and the Islamic State is Hamas. No bearded, robed fanatics from western Iraq and eastern Syria have yet arrived on the Israeli border in the Golan Heights – though there’s no shortage of other Islamic fanatics there, particularly from local Syrian organizations identified with Al-Qaida.
If and when Islamic State fighters do approach the border, Israel will not be their focus of interest – at least not until they have achieved their primary goal: toppling the regime of President Bashar Assad in Damascus. And, as many have noted, Netanyahu’s comparison between Hamas and the Islamic State is problematic for another reason: If Islamic terrorism is painted in a uniform shade of black, why didn’t Netanyahu order the IDF to topple the Hamas regime in Gaza in last summer’s war?
Still, Israel should be disturbed by two phenomena involving the murderous organization. One is the declaration earlier this month by Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, the leading jihadist group operating in Sinai, that its allegiance would henceforth be to the Islamic State and not to Al-Qaida. The practical significance of this announcement is not clear, but given the amounts of money the Islamic State is raking in from the oil fields under its control, it will be in a position to give substantial economic assistance to the Egyptian organization, which could be a dangerous development.
The second phenomenon was reflected in the attack on Tuesday on the Jerusalem synagogue: The choice of a religious site, the weapons used (a knife and an ax, along with pistols), the religious terminology used by the murderers’ families – like that of the relatives of the terrorists who carried out previous attacks in Jerusalem – indicate something of an Islamic State inspiration.
No Islamic State membership cards will be found in the terrorists’ homes before they are demolished, but the key here is a role-model attitude: With religion-driven massacres becoming daily occurrences in the Arab world over the past four years, and with the fanatics in Syria and Iraq posting videos of every atrocity on the Internet – there is bound to be an impact on frustrated Palestinian young people in Jerusalem.
The protracted Israeli occupation is undoubtedly influencing the perpetrators of the attacks, as do the years of neglect and a dead-end feeling in the Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. The tension around the Temple Mount supplied another cause for the escalation. But the visual images that remain from the most recent attack, at the Har Nof synagogue – the blood-stained prayer shawls and prayer books – strengthen the hypothesis that the religious element is growing stronger.
The idea of a possible religious war in Jerusalem, and of Palestinians looking to the Islamic State for inspiration, has generated unease among some foreign correspondents. The reason: This deviates from the permanent, almost sacrosanct journalist narrative of the Israeli occupation as the be-all and end-all of our local unrest. Still, conversations with experts in the West give rise to a heightened awareness of the danger latent in the Islamic State, even if the organization isn’t yet close to creating the sort of havoc fomented by its big brother, Al-Qaida, on September 11, 2001.
The Islamic State’s main advantage over Al-Qaida lies in its sophisticated use of the social networks. The videos of the beheading of captives and a coordinated use of Twitter accounts have afforded the organization an expanding base of support among young Muslims in the Middle East, but also in the West.
The hopes voiced in the United States and Europe just a few years ago – that the assassination of Osama Bin Laden and the advent of the Arab Spring spelled the defeat of fanatical Islam and a welcome turn toward democracy – were quickly dashed. The rebels in Syria, led by the Islamic State, have already recruited more Western volunteers than took part in all the years of the war in Afghanistan. Some of the volunteers are returning to Europe and perpetrating attacks like the one carried out last May at the Jewish Museum in Brussels. Others are not going to Syria, but believe that a violent jihad can be carried out close to home.
The possibility cannot be ruled out that Jerusalem, and then possibly parts of the West Bank, will, in the wake of this week’s attack, be swept up in a spiral of attacks and reprisals on both sides. People who grew up in Jerusalem in the 1980s remember the frequent warnings, particularly in the local weekly Kol Ha’ir, that the city was on the way to becoming another Belfast, where terrorism struck on both sides of a long and winding municipal boundary line. When I visited Northern Ireland in 2001, with the second intifada at its height, I was surprised to hear local security people say that, in their eyes, the situation in Jerusalem was always worse and more frightening.
“It’s true that we had some terrible years here, and this is where the booby-trapped car was invented,” I was told. “But we never had to cope with suicide bombers, like you do.” Since the Good Friday agreement of 1997, Northern Ireland has enjoyed more than a decade and a half of security calm. As for Jerusalem, with something resembling a municipal intifada raging in its streets for a few months already, it can only envy Belfast.