East Jerusalem’s Leading Role in Terror Attacks Catches Israel Off Guard

The security establishment failed to foresee how the Palestinian youths, carrying Israeli ID cards and speaking proficient Hebrew, would be the ones to take the reins and attack citizens and officers, day after day.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
The daily reality in East Jerusalem: Palestinians wait to cross a roadblock in Isawiyah.Credit: Reuters
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Two weeks after the current wave of violence broke out in Israel, its nature is taking shape – and East Jerusalem is at the heart of the confrontation. The violence erupted mainly due to Palestinian fears of unilateral steps on the Temple Mount by Israel, and this has led to terror attacks with knives and vehicles.

East Jerusalem’s lead role surprised Israeli intelligence and various experts on Palestinian affairs. There were those who predicted the eruption. There were those who understood the accumulating, pent-up rage among Palestinians after five decades of Israeli occupation and in wake of the sense of a political and economic impasse.

In top security officials’ weekly meetings, they discussed the possible repercussions of the unending friction with the army and settlers in Area C (the part of the West Bank under full Israeli control and where Palestinian residents don’t enjoy the protection of the Palestinian Authority). They also debated at length the potential impact of the unrest in the Arab world and, especially, the atrocities – fueled by religious madness – committed by Islamic State.

They discussed these dangers with other security officials and also with politicians, most of whom were confident of Israel’s ability to manage the existing situation without a flare-up. When Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot became the Israel Defense Forces’ chief of staff last February, he told his officers on the front lines that their most dangerous enemy was Hezbollah, but that the first front he expected to erupt was the Palestinian one.

However, what they did not foresee or understand is that the youths of East Jerusalem, mostly 20 and younger, carrying blue Israeli identity cards and speaking proficient Hebrew, would be the ones to take the reins and attack citizens and officers, day after day. And they do this knowing there is a very good chance they will be shot to death within minutes of wielding a knife.

This generation, which shows a surprising readiness to make the complete, blind sacrifice, is also the generation that barely remembers the dread of the second intifada. Someone who was 5, 7 or 10 the last time Israeli tanks entered the streets of Ramallah and surrounded then-Palestinian President Yasser Arafat’s Muqata compound, doesn’t tend to factor in the price of another outbreak for the Palestinian side. For now, East Jerusalem’s youth are not deterred. They drag into the vortex other youths from the West Bank and Gaza, along with the PA leadership, which is being sucked along by events without demonstrating the ability to control them.

Israeli lines of defense are being erected around East Jerusalem’s neighborhoods and villages. The Border Police beefed up their forces deployed around them and set up barricades at some entrances to monitor vehicular and pedestrian traffic. The IDF delivered units and observation equipment to help the police. However, the security net will be breached given the size of the area, the sheer number of traffic arteries and the kinds of steps that can be taken in East Jerusalem as compared to the West Bank.

The introduction of the police is more about demonstrating a deterrent factor than providing a sufficient operational solution. Two terrorists perpetrated attacks in Jerusalem and along the seam dividing East and West Jerusalem this week, after the setting up of checkpoints and calling up greater forces. The use of terms like closure and siege are more appropriate for the West Bank than Jerusalem, and create the errant impression of full control over the situation. The truth is that security forces are still trying to figure out the new situation and to find the right way of handling it.

Israeli police stand guard as Palestinian Muslims pray on the streets of the Wadi al-Joz neighborhood in East Jerusalem, October 16, 2015.Credit: AFP

The East Jerusalem youths spent the past decade working and going out in West Jerusalem, sometimes in other Israeli cities. Thus, the terror map has spread to more suburban places like Ra’anana and Kiryat Gat (where a terrorist from the Hebron area had worked).

More than 70 percent of the terror acts over the past two weeks were perpetrated by East Jerusalemites. Residents of the city fulfilled a significant role regarding terror during the second intifada, but mainly by transporting suicide bombers who could exploit their freedom of movement. The Palestinian population in East Jerusalem has never been so dominant on the terror front as it has been since the beginning of October.

Beside the despair and defiance, East Jerusalem residents also share other Palestinians’ fears that there is an Israeli plot to take control of the Temple Mount (which is known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, and houses the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock). This insight belatedly dawned on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who finally banned Knesset members and ministers from visiting the compound atop the Old City. Visits by Jews continue daily, despite the confrontations. However, despite ideas to accelerate joint control of the Temple Mount by Jordan and the PA, it seems that Netanyahu’s political maneuverability on the issue is narrow as long as the violence rages. And, as usual, if quiet returns, the feeling of urgency will subside and steps to cool the situation will be neglected.

The price of losing

At the end of the second week of violence, the defense establishment is no longer daring to predict when it will all end. It is clear to senior officials that matters have fundamentally changed on the ground, and it will be very difficult to return to relative calm. There is an evil wind, not a guiding hand, behind the terror attacks. The short speech by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Wednesday sounded almost like a declaration of defeat.

The Israeli press focused on Abbas’ outright lie, in which he blamed Israel for executing a 13-year-old Palestinian boy, Ahmed Mansara, who is suspected of stabbing and critically wounding an Israeli boy his own age in Pisgat Ze’ev. But the strategic elements of Abbas’ speech came across as weak and tired, made by a leader likely nearing the end of his political road. It was a continuation of the UN General Assembly speech at the end of last month.

Abbas may not have declared his withdrawal from the obligations of the Oslo Accords, as originally forecast, but his UN speech did sound like he was giving up any hope on the diplomatic channels. From the moment this track was finally blocked, Abbas cleared the way for the youths of East Jerusalem. When they picked up the gauntlet, it turned out to contain a knife.

The PA is still relevant, mainly in Area A, which is under its full authority. Here, its security services restrain some of the marches toward IDF checkpoints and settlements, and continue to occasionally arrest Hamas members.

And for now, economic ties between the sides are operating normally. Some 120,000 West Bank Palestinians make a living working legally in Israel and the settlements, and another 40,000 apparently do so illegally. Despite the growing tension, the number of Palestinians showing up at their Israeli workplaces declined only 10 percent. Trade at the crossing points – an estimated 15 billion shekels ($3.9 billion) – also continues as usual. One could see on a tour of one of the crossing points how the well-oiled machine, full of security technology developed in the wake of the second intifada, functions as normal. But worsening violence and its continuation is liable to shut down economic activity and fatally wound the Palestinian economy – what the IDF tended to call, on the eve of the second intifada, “the price of losing.”

Despite isolated arguments over the need to close the territories, the Israeli defense establishment still talks in a fairly united voice. Its leaders, headed by Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Chief of Staff Eisenkot, support differentiating between the fight against terrorists and the daily lives of most Palestinians. Many of these heads – including Ya’alon, Eisenkot and his deputy, the Shin Bet head and his deputy, the acting police commissioner and the designated police commissioner, and the district army commanders who coordinate operations in the territories – all served key roles during the second intifada They’ve seen it all before, and got burned on more than one occasion. They drew their conclusions and gained insights into the potential advantages and limitations of wielding power.

Nearly everyone on that list was involved in a more minor way in then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Operation Defensive Shield, when Palestinian terror peaked in March 2002. This week, the army brass vehemently rejected, almost derisively, demands to control Jerusalem and the territories by launching an Operation Defensive Shield 2.

With the army having full freedom of operation in the territories against a terror that barely exists in an organized fashion, and terrorists who prefer, at this stage, to use knives rather than explosives or guns, the IDF does not see the need. An army battalion commander in the West Bank noted this week that in the area under his control, there is exactly one wanted Palestinian, who managed to escape after an attack, “and the moment the Shin Bet gives us his name, we’ll apprehend him.”

The course of events and statements exemplifies the gap of experience and seriousness between the military and government in Israel. It isn’t just the East Palestinian youths who are new to the story, but also many ministers and MKs. Some of them understand the lessons, but refuse to adopt them. Some politicians have lost all sense of proportion, as if the wave of knife attacks is comparable to the suicide bombings of the second intifada.

Army officials were surprised this week, for example, that Israel is once more trading in terrorist bodies, although doing so has never yielded positive results. No officers will make fiery statements. Managing the situation in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip border, and helping the police – who are facing a much more difficult challenge in Jerusalem – is done with coolheadedness. Commanders on the ground also repeat the importance of preserving the quality of life and reasonable functioning of the Palestinian economy and society away from the frontlines.

The military is currently withstanding political pressures, but we’ll see if it can maintain that approach should the terror attacks continue. One of the six goals Eisenkot set for the army when he became chief of staff was “to prevent widespread escalation that will involve Israel, while understanding the regional strategic reality of a Syrian civil war, Hezbollah and the Sunni-Shia conflict.” In retrospect, it’s a shame he forgot to tell Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel that before he visited the Temple Mount.



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