Jerusalem Intifada Could Spark West Bank Fire

After Wednesday's terrorist attack that killed a 3-month old baby, the public may finally pay attention to the violence bubbling in Jerusalem for months.

Amos Harel
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Israeli police officers inspect a car at the scene of an attack in Jerusalem, Wednesday, Oct. 22, 2014. Credit: AP
Amos Harel

The violence in Jerusalem has been bubbling just under the surface for several months now. But only after Wednesday's terrorist attack, which resulted in the death of a 3-month-old baby, will the public focus its full attention on what has been happening in the city.

What there seems no choice but to call a municipal intifada has effectively been raging in Jerusalem since this summer. While the fighting in the south has ceased completely since the late-August cease-fire with Hamas and calm has also been restored to other areas, like the West Bank and Israeli Arab communities, the violence in Jerusalem never stopped for a moment.

It goes far beyond the murder of 16-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir by Jewish terrorists in July. During the summer’s war in Gaza, a Palestinian terrorist ran over an Israeli with a construction excavator in downtown Jerusalem. More recently, the security situation in Jewish neighborhoods in the city’s east and north has deteriorated sharply. In addition, tensions are gradually rising over Jewish visits to the Temple Mount and efforts to settle Jews in Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem.

Over the past several years, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat has made an impressive effort to restore a sense of personal security to Jerusalem residents and bring domestic and foreign tourists back to the city after the dark days of the second intifada, from 2000 to 2005. But one of the most ambitious moves of his term as mayor — the light rail project — has now become the focus of a violent Palestinian popular struggle.

Immediately after Abu Khdeir’s murder, masked men were filmed wrecking light rail stations in Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. Since then, Palestinians have stoned the trains passing through these neighborhoods on an almost daily basis, while Wednesday’s terror attack occurred at a light rail station on Ammunition Hill. The rail lines that run through Arab neighborhoods of the city are seen by Palestinians as a symbol of Israeli rule that must be challenged — and also as an easy and convenient target for attacks.

Palestinians hurl stones during clashes with Israeli police in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Wadi Joz, September 7, 2014. (Reuters)

Though the police have cracked down hard on Palestinian rioters in the city, they do not have the same freedom of action the army has in dealing with violent demonstrations in the West Bank. Their use of both live weaponry and crowd-control equipment is much more strictly controlled. Israeli law also restricts the legal tools at their disposal, especially with regard to arrests of minors. Moreover, police rarely operate in outlying Palestinian neighborhoods far from the city center.

Police activity has so far prevented the violence from growing to the dimensions Jerusalem experienced during the first and second intifadas. But so far, they have not succeeded in putting the genie back in the bottle.

Efforts by nongovernmental organizations and right-wing Knesset members to change the status quo on the Temple Mount have only strengthened Palestinian frustration and hostility, whose roots lie in the long years of Israeli neglect of the city’s eastern half. Aggressive statements by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who has warned of what he describes as Jewish plots to take control of the Mount, have helped make matters worse.

Now the government must make a major effort to calm the situation with the help of a beefed-up police presence, and above all, to prevent further escalation in Jerusalem. Continued violence in the capital could also cause the situation in the West Bank to deteriorate.

Before the Jerusalem attack, there was another security incident Wednesday, on a front far removed from Jerusalem: the Egyptian border. An Israel Defense Forces probe has concluded that the gunfire at members of the Caracal infantry battalion, which wounded the company commander and another soldier, was not a terrorist attack.

Rather, drug smugglers who feared they had been discovered by a military patrol, which was apparently on the spot purely by chance, opened fire at three different points along the border fence. According to the army, the soldiers responded well, returning fire and summoning reinforcements, who killed some of the smugglers.

This isn’t the first time smugglers have turned violent. Bedouin smugglers of both arms and drugs have opened fire near the border in the past to keep IDF forces away. This time, however, the incident was more serious, and only the soldiers’ rapid response, together with the close security coordination between the IDF and the Egyptian army, brought it to a close with no loss of life on Israel’s side.

Exchanges of fire with smugglers, as well as with the various terrorist groups active in the Sinai Peninsula, are likely to keep happening from time to time despite completion of the security fence along the Egyptian border. But an effective defensive deployment by the IDF, backed by intelligence exchanges and operational cooperation with the Egyptians, can minimize future damage.

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