In recent weeks, government officials have called for intensifying the collective punishment of Jerusalem’s Palestinian residents to deter potential attackers. But these official, public threats did nothing to deter Uday and Ghassan Abu Jamal. They planned their murderous operation despite knowing their families would suffer one way or another: violent raids on their houses, arrests, humiliation, having their houses sealed or destroyed. They surely knew that if they weren’t killed, they’d be arrested, perhaps tortured during interrogation and sentenced to life. But none of this deterred them.
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It’s too easy and early to label Tuesday's murder in a synagogue as another incident in an emerging religious war. Hamas and other organizations that exploit religion would surely prefer to portray it that way; it strengthens their position as against the PLO’s narrative, which still sees the roots of the conflict as colonial-national and requiring a political solution. But this dichotomy isn’t complete: Even Hamas officials and other pious Muslims frequently say the problem isn’t with Jews as a religious community, but against the occupation.
Nevertheless, there’s no doubt that the skullcap, the hat and the prayer shawl are symbols, both for cartoonists and for those who physically want to harm representatives of the occupation. Like the keffiyeh and the hijab, they are visible signs that make it easier for someone who wants to take revenge on “the enemy.” Similarly, a synagogue during morning prayers is a convenient target – not because it’s a house of prayer, but because it’s full of people who are undoubtedly members of the occupying nation.
One also shouldn’t make light of the feelings roused in Jerusalem’s Palestinians, and Palestinians in general, by the discovery of the body of bus driver Yusuf al-Ramouni. Police hastened to declare him a suicide, but Palestinians don’t see the police as an agency whose goal is to protect them. On the contrary: This is the police force that escorts the bulldozers that destroy their homes, that protects the settlers, that kills Palestinian demonstrators and petty criminals for no reason. Thus Palestinians fundamentally distrust the police’s motives.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the synagogue attack. His condemnation was honest and genuine, for both moral and pragmatic reasons. In besieged, destroyed Gaza, spokesmen for several Palestinian organizations congratulated the martyrs and voiced support and understanding for their deed. But among the broader public, the main reaction was silence.
When PLO and Fatah representatives are making the rounds of European capitals to encourage votes in favor of recognizing a Palestinian state, most people understand that such an attack could undermine the Palestinian cause, if only for a few weeks. Killing Jewish worshippers in a synagogue looks bad when Palestinian human rights groups are pushing Abbas to join the International Criminal Court so Israeli officials can be indicted for war crimes and violating international law.
Palestinians believe that all means, including armed struggle, are legitimate to fight the occupation. But in private conversations, even those who support killing Israelis seem embarrassed by an attack on civilians at prayer.
So why are those who oppose murdering civilians at prayer keeping silent now? Because they share the despair and anger that pushed the Abu Jamals to attack Jews in a synagogue. Like the Abu Jamals, they feel themselves under assault: The Israeli nation is constantly attacking them with all the tools at its disposal.
The Har Nof neighborhood, where the attack took place, is built on the lands of the former Palestinian village of Deir Yassin. Those who are keeping silent now see the murder as a response to an Israeli policy toward the Palestinians that has been one long chain of attacks, dispossessions and expulsions since 1948.