Analysis |

The Dangerous, Unpredictable Anomaly of East Jerusalem

Why has East Jerusalem become a source of 'lone terrorists' while the West Bank remains relatively calm? Experts point to a peculiar paradox and a lack of local leadership among Arab Jerusalemites.

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
A Palestinian youth holds a slingshot during clashes with Israeli police in a suburb of East Jerusalem, Oct.23, 2014.
A Palestinian youth holds a slingshot during clashes with Israeli police in a suburb of East Jerusalem, Oct.23, 2014. Credit: AFP
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

The streets of Jerusalem were filled on Thursday night with regular police officers, Border Police and combat troops from the force’s elite units. Anyone looking up, meanwhile, could see observation balloons floating over the seam line, the Old City and Palestinian neighborhoods. A helicopter also hovered above East Jerusalem most of the day.

Police troops out in large numbers at Temple Mount, Jerusalem, October 25, 2014.Credit: Amos Ben Gershom / GPO

That is how things looked on the seventh day of the large police operation that received the title Guardian of the Walls. The operation’s purpose is to instill calm in Jerusalem, which has suffered an ongoing wave of violence for the past four months.

In recent days, the police and municipality officials expressed cautious optimism once more, in light of a decrease in the number of stone-throwing incidents and riots. It seemed that pressure from the police, together with economic pressure – applied with comprehensive enforcement by the municipality and the Tax Authority – was accomplishing its goal. But like the drive-by attack at the Ammunition Hill light-rail station that left two dead, what appears to have been an attack by a lone terrorist has put a spoke in the wheels once again.

At the time of writing, it is not yet clear whether the attempted assassination of right-wing activist Yehuda Glick by the terrorist Muataz Hijazi was another independent act by a young lone Palestinian, or an organized act by a terrorist cell (the Shin Bet security service is investigating the possibility that Hijazi had an accomplice).

For now, Hijazi joins three other terrorists who operated in Jerusalem over the past four months. The others answering to the dubious description “lone terrorist” are Mohammed Ja’abis, who perpetrated the August 4 construction excavator attack that killed Avraham Walles; Abdel Rahman al-Shaludi, who perpetrated the October 22 attack at the light-rail station that left 3-month-old Chaya Zissel Braun and Karen Mosquera dead; and the terrorist who shot a soldier, seriously wounding him, on Mount Scopus, also on August 4. (The perpetrator of that shooting attack is still at large, and the suspicion was raised Thursday that it may have been Hijazi himself.)

When Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch was subsequently asked to comment about his optimism on the morning when he spoke of calm having returned to Jerusalem, he reminded his interlocutors that he had given a warning about a lone terrorist in the same breath. The warfare doctrine that the police has developed for dealing with stone throwers – sending in large numbers of police officers and using massive numbers of demonstration-dispersal methods – is not relevant when it comes to lone terrorists.

The questions on everybody’s mind now are how many more young men are sitting in their homes in East Jerusalem plotting terror attacks, and whether the talk about a popular intifada in East Jerusalem is hiding an even-worse scenario – a wave of terror attacks that will emerge from there.

A Shin Bet report from late 2008 warned of an increase in the number of Jerusalemites involved in terror attacks and of lone terrorists – “who organize themselves locally, and/or organize and commit acts of terrorism without outside direction.”

The report also noted that these terrorists were driven by personal motivations along with nationalistic ones. At least Shaludi fits this pattern. Since his release from prison, he had difficulty finding a job and suffered from health and emotional problems.

Inverse relationship

The terror attacks in Jerusalem sharpen the anomaly of East Jerusalem in relation to cities in the West Bank. Eran Tzidkiyahu, a researcher into East Jerusalem and a fellow of Molad – the Center for the Renewal of Israeli Democracy, has analyzed Jerusalemites’ involvement in terror attacks over the past 15 years. His analysis found an inverse relationship between terror activity in Jerusalem and that in the West Bank. For example, from 2000 to 2005 – the peak years of the second intifada – relatively few terrorists came from Jerusalem, which still suffered a cruel wave of terror attacks that killed more than 200 people. But during that dark period, only three of the 30 suicide attacks in Jerusalem were committed by people who lived there. The inhabitants of Jerusalem chose not to join the wave of violence at that time.

According to Shin Bet statistics, the number of Jerusalemites dealing in terrorism began to rise in 2008, as the West Bank became relatively calm. That wave of violence, which lasted for about two years, faded gradually in 2011 and resumed last year, with even greater force in the summer.

The Palestinians explain this phenomenon by citing three factors that affect Jerusalem, distancing it from the relative calm in the West Bank: the construction of the separation barrier, which severely affected social and economic life in Jerusalem; the increase in visits by Jews to the Temple Mount; and increasing Jewish settlement in the midst of Palestinian neighborhoods in the city’s eastern section. To this, Tzidkiyahu and others add the collapse of the Palestinian leadership in East Jerusalem.

“The Palestinian Authority is a moderating element in the West Bank. But in Jerusalem, the PA is not only forbidden to act, but the local leadership has also been crushed,” says Tzidkiyahu, referring to Israel’s deliberate acts of closing institutions and dispersing events in Jerusalem that are linked with the Palestinian Authority.

Whatever the explanation, the phenomenon that began in 2008 has returned this year. This time, too, the West Bank cities are relatively quiet, while Jerusalem is demonstrating independence regarding a popular uprising and terrorism.

Two simultaneous seemingly contradicting processes

But the anomaly of Jerusalem also takes the form of additional and interesting tensions within Palestinian society there. Anyone studying Palestinian society in East Jerusalem in recent years has noticed two seemingly contradictory processes happening: integration into Israeli society on the one hand; and a distancing from Israeli society and rising Palestinian nationalism on the other. Hijazi – who shot Glick and belonged (at least in the past) to Islamic Jihad – was a released security prisoner but worked at a restaurant in the Menachem Begin Heritage Center; he seems the perfect embodiment of this contradiction.

Several indices show integration into Jewish society in recent years. More Palestinians are choosing to take the Israeli high-school matriculation (bagrut) examinations over their Palestinian counterparts, applying for citizenship, studying Hebrew and cooperating with the municipality and Israeli authorities.

The light rail has also contributed to the mixing of the population, and many young Palestinians work and spend their free time in downtown Jerusalem and the malls of its western section. Not even events of recent months, alongside violent attacks on Arabs in the downtown area, have slowed this process. But alongside these processes, violence in the eastern part has increased and there is absolutely no doubt that religious and nationalist fanaticism have intensified among inhabitants there.

This contradiction is hard to resolve. “As long as it is a matter of survival and day-to-day life, it passes,” says Tzidkiyahu. “But that says nothing about how successful the integration or ‘Israelization’ is. It only shows that life is stronger than everything.”

In an effort to lower the flames Thursday, police chief Yohanan Danino said, “We are very far from an intifada, and we will not reach one.” But the anomaly of Jerusalem and the contradictory processes going on there make it hard to predict where things are headed.



Automatic approval of subscriber comments.

Subscribe today and save 40%

Already signed up? LOG IN


Trump and Netanyahu at the White House in Washington, in 2020.

Three Years Later, Israelis Find Out What Trump Really Thought of Netanyahu

German soldier.

The Rival Jewish Spies Who Almost Changed the Course of WWII

Rio. Not all Jewish men wear black hats.

What Does a Jew Look Like? The Brits Don't Seem to Know

Galon. “I’m coming to accomplish a specific mission: to increase Meretz’s strength and ensure that the party will not tread water around the electoral threshold. If Meretz will be large enough, it will be the basis for a Jewish-Arab partnership.” Daniel Tchetchik

'I Have No Illusions About Ending the Occupation, but the Government Needs the Left'

Soldiers using warfare devices made by the Israeli defense electronics company Elbit Systems.

Russia-Ukraine War Catapults Israeli Arms Industry to Global Stage

Flame and smoke rise during an Israeli air strike, amid Israel-Gaza fighting, in Gaza City August 6, 2022.

Israel Should End Gaza Operation Now, if It Can