Terror Wave Q&A: Haaretz Military Analyst Answers Readers’ Questions

What is really going on at Al-Aqsa? Where do the attackers come from? Who is behind the escalation on the Palestinian side? What can the government do to quell the violence? And where is Mahmoud Abbas in all this?

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Scene of the terror attack on Jerusalem's Malkhei Yisrael Street, October 13, 2015.
Scene of the terror attack on Jerusalem's Malkhei Yisrael Street, October 13, 2015.Credit: Lior Mizrahi
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

What sparked the current wave of terror?

It’s apparently been brewing for the past year or two. It is the result of several things, among them the realization that the peace process is totally frozen; the frustration of young Palestinians with Israel, the Palestinian Authority leadership and the lack of economic hope; the concern about unilateral Israeli moves on the Temple Mount (which were deliberately blown out of proportion by various elements, primarily Islamic ones) and the anger over the killing of the Dawabsheh family in Duma by Jewish terrorists, an attack that the Shin Bet security service and the police have yet to solve.

Are most of the terrorists Arab citizens of Israel?

Of the perpetrators to date, the overwhelming majority (around 80%) are East Jerusalemites with Israeli identity cards, who can move freely within the Green Line but are not full citizens. Two were Israeli citizens — the woman who was shot while holding a knife at the Afula central bus station, about whom there’s uncertainty over whether she tried to stab a soldier, and the man who rammed his car into a group of people and then got out and stabbed four people, on Route 65 near Kibbutz Gan Shmuel. So one can’t really say there’s massive involvement in terror by Israeli Arabs.

The story in East Jerusalem is different. There it’s a broader and worrisome phenomenon. Of course East Jerusalemites were involved in terror during the second intifada and even before, but this time the numbers are higher within a relatively short time.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has blamed the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel for the current situation. On the other hand, I’ve read that the leaders of most Israeli Arab demonstrations are, in fact, secular leaders. What is the profile of the demonstrator, and of the stabber?

It’s clear that the Islamic Movement has been involved in extremist activities relating to the Temple Mount for a long time. But as I understand it, those instigating the incidents and the demonstrations, including among Israeli Arabs, are relatively young people who aren’t necessarily religious.

As for the stabber’s profile, that’s pretty clear; young — in more than half the incidents, under 20 — with no clear organizational affiliation and no security record. Only a minority were obviously religious and four of them have been women. Most of the stabbers were East Jerusalem residents. I assume that this is happening also because Jerusalem and the Temple Mount are the focus of the tension, and also because East Jerusalemites, who have blue identity cards, have more freedom of movement.

What can we do about the lies about Al-Aqsa Mosque? How do we convince an entire public that no one plans to destroy the mosques on the Temple Mount?

It’s hard to dispel the notions being bandied about regarding Al-Aqsa. Along with Palestinian deaths, this is the main oil greasing the wheels of the confrontation. I believe the prime minister when he says he has no intention of changing the prayer arrangements on the Temple Mount.

But let’s take a look at what has happened at the compound in recent years: The rabbinic taboo against Jews visited the Temple Mount has been broken, and some 10,000 Jews visit there annually; the activities of various groups seeking to change the status quo on the site are increasingly persistent; and cabinet ministers, Knesset members and other public figures support this. Many of them visit the site frequently, until each time the government comes to its senses under the pressure of events and forbids their entry (as it did last November and this month).

There has been no change in the status quo in terms of restricting the rights of Muslim worshippers for the benefit of Jewish worshippers. The Palestinian concerns stem from — in addition to their fondness for conspiracy theories — the precedent of the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, where over several years the Jews have received additional rights and Muslims are still conducting a containment battle over prayer at the site. Of course there is also the reality the Palestinians see around them, from the expansion of settlements through building Jewish enclaves (essentially Jewish settlements) in the heart of Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.

Amos Harel answers readers' questions.Credit: David Bachar

To sum up, the status quo regarding prayer rights has not changed, but the circumstances on the ground and certainly the atmosphere have changed completely. Israel is not blameless in this regard. A tougher government stance earlier on could probably have helped curb the current escalation. With regard to the Temple Mount, the behavior of ministers Uri Ariel, Miri Regev (in the previous government) and others in the extreme right wing of the government and the coalition was irresponsible and dangerous.

Does the security establishment have the tools to counter the lone terrorist?

It is extremely difficult to head off a lone terrorist. If someone has no organizational affiliation, no record of security offenses and generally no connection with other terrorists (the two attacks in Jerusalem on Tuesday were an exception in this regard), the security establishment has almost no window of opportunity to apprehend someone with a knife before he reaches his target.

That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be done. I think some of the measures that have been decided upon, especially boosting the police presence in Jerusalem and bringing in soldiers as well, are likely to improve the response somewhat and at least go some way to allaying the public’s fears. I’m not sure about the results of the offensive measures being discussed, but it’s clear that Israel will be more aggressive about not letting people leave those Jerusalem neighborhoods that were home to most of the terrorists of the past two weeks.

We must remember that even if there is no complete security solution to the violence — and I fear that in any case, the fundamental disputes between the two sides will prolong the conflict for a long time to come — Israel has coped, fairly successfully, with much more serious waves of terror in the past. In the years since the second intifada the operational response has improved.

My assumption is that this is not a spontaneous wave of terror, but rather a choice by Palestinian elements to escalate the situation now and this particular fashion. Who are the leaders/organizations behind this current wave of terror? How significant is the timing? Who wins and who loses from this escalation?

I don’t agree with you. As I understand it, there isn’t any process here that was planned and dictated from above, but a response from the street. The Palestinian leadership is still seeking a way to cope with this new phenomenon, which is the work of fairly young people. The relatively young demonstrators are not particularly devout, and there are quite a few women among them. The terrorists have been even younger. If anything, there are similarities to the first intifada, which broke out in late 1987.

Hamas certainly benefits as long as the violence is confined to East Jerusalem and the West Bank. One can see it somewhat hesitating about what policy in the Gaza Strip is best from its perspective. Hamas has allowed Islamic Jihad to hold violent demonstrations near the border fence, but it has not launched retaliatory rocket attacks, even though 11 Palestinians were killed in various incidents within three days.

The Palestinian Authority is in an awkward position. After a few days of violence it seemed to sink in to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that the developments threatened the stability of his regime. Since then we have seen attempts at restraint, but only in the West Bank, not in East Jerusalem, where Israel is in control. Even in the West Bank, senior Palestinian security officials are telling Israeli army officers that they are afraid to directly involve their men in stopping large demonstrations in certain places. The northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel also got mixed up in the tumult surrounding East Jerusalem, certainly in the early days, and tried to fan the flames even further.

As an Arab citizen I think the messianic, evangelical movement is to blame for the Temple Mount issue. They seek total redemption and a [new] Temple, and we’ve seen how much money they invest in the settlements and how they work against the Palestinians by supporting the army in the West Bank. To what extent is that correct?

I have no doubt that the change in attitude toward the Temple Mount by a significant portion of the religious Zionist community has contributed to the current escalation, even if that wasn’t necessarily the intention of everyone who visited the Temple Mount in recent years. But I wouldn’t ignore the contribution of the Islamic Movement in Israel, Hamas and until recently senior PA and Fatah officials, to the overheated atmosphere with regard to the Temple Mount. There are quite a few errors and lies in both the official and unofficial Palestinian versions of Israel’s intentions on the site.

[National Infrastructure, Energy and Water] Minister Yuval Steinitz says most residents of East Jerusalem would prefer to live under Israeli rule. If that’s so, why do most of the attacks originate there?

So Steinitz says. Has he spoken to them recently? I assume that the level of services in Israel, in many areas, is considerably better than under the Palestinian Authority. East Jerusalem is also their home; why should they want to leave?

On the other hand, as my colleague Nir Hasson has explained, in recent years East Jerusalem has undergone two parallel processes: “Israelization,” the development of employment and economic ties with the Jews in the western part of the city, on one hand, and on the other hand political radicalization, which is erupting with full force right now.

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