Analysis

Temple Mount Crisis Reignites Lone-wolf Terror

Last week's Temple Mount attack threw Israel and the Palestinians into a tailspin, culminating in Friday night's deadly attack in the West Bank. The quiet that security forces have struggled to build this year was easily destroyed in one week when religious elements entered the picture

Israeli security forces and Palestinians clash near Jerusalem's Old City, July 21, 2017.
AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS

The July 14th shooting attack in which two Israel Police officers were killed on the Temple Mount sent the Israelis and Palestinians in a tailspin, culminating in the horrific murder of three Israelis in the West Bank settlement of Halamish by a knife-wielding Palestinian terrorist. There have been other successful infiltrations into settlements since the most recent terror wave began in October 2015. Over the past year, security forces have succeeded – with great effort – with putting the genie back in the bottle. What is built with great difficulty over one year, however, can easily be destroyed within a week – especially when religious elements enter the picture.

Nearly two years ago, Israeli military intelligence offered a strategic warning to the political echelon regarding the possibility of a severe conflagration in the territories. The warning almost came to fruition after more than 40 Israelis were killed in a wave of stabbing, car-ramming and shooting attacks. The situation in the West Bank did not completely deteriorate, mainly because Israel reacted with consideration and restraint while succeeding in harnessing the Palestinian Authority's mechanisms for jointly combatting lone-wolf terror.

The warning remained, however, with special emphasis on the Temple Mount. It was clear to Israeli intelligence that any changes to the sensitive status quo could lead to sharp reactions, in the territories but also perhaps in neighboring countries.

It is hard to believe that three terrorists from the Israeli-Arab city of Umm al-Fahm planned so far ahead, but the killing of two policemen led to Israel's decision to place metal detectors at the Temple Mount's entrance, which led to Palestinian protests. The Islamic Waqf, Hamas, the Islamic Movement in Israel and several Israeli-Arab lawmakers only added fuel to the fire. Meanwhile, tensions in the territories began to boil over.

An investigation into two attempted attacks this week, near Hebron and the West Bank settlement of Tekoa, revealed that tensions concerning the Temple Mount served as motivation for the assailants. By week's end, military intelligence and the Shin Bet security service feared "inspired attacks," initiatives by individuals or small local cells, launched against the backdrop of religiously motivated escalations.

Therefore, it was too early to predict the end of the state of emergency Friday afternoon when mass prayers concluded near checkpoints at the Temple Mount's entrance and near the walls of Jerusalem's Old City. The Jerusalem District Police conducted a well-planned and organized approach for the mass arrival of worshipers and the metal detectors worked nearly without a hitch. But the Old City is a relatively small area which can be controlled with the orderly placement of large forces. The troubles only began later, when the worshipers dispersed and returned to East Jerusalem, with hundreds of youths throwing stones and firebombs at Israeli security forces and Jews living in predominately Arab neighborhoods. Three Palestinian youths were killed by Israeli gunfire in these incidents.

Israeli forces near the scene of a terror attack in the West Bank settlement of Halamish, July 21, 2017.
IDF Spokesperson's Unit

The responses throughout the West Bank, by the way, were relatively restrained considering the intensity of emotions displayed on social media. Hundreds – not thousands – of Palestinians demonstrated throughout cities in the West Bank, and none were killed. The scale of these demonstrations may indicate that enough negative energy has yet to accumulate to sustain a new violent uprising. Meanwhile, a terrorist managed to infiltrate Halamish Friday evening. Had it not been for the nearby off-duty soldier's quick reaction or the resourcefulness of one of the women present who rushed and hid the children in a different room, the attack could have been even more deadly. The terrorist's last Facebook post, posted nearly 90 minutes before the attack, shows that the Temple Mount crisis promoted him to act.

Following the violent incidents in Jerusalem, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas announced that all channels of coordination with Israel had been frozen. The PA has taken such measures in the past, though has always maintained a low profile of security coordination – this guarantees a measure of stability while ensuring Abbas feels safe from any Hamas coup attempt. On the Israeli side, IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot will need all his powers of persuasion so the government won't respond with extensive and prolonged collective punishment, which could disrupt efforts to isolate any terrorists from the rest of the Palestinian population.

This will be a harder challenge than usual. The IDF, Shin Bet and Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories throughout the week warned against the consequences of installing metal detectors on the Temple Mount. They argued that the Palestinians would exploit the dispute to ignite the territories, while the security measures fail to serve any real benefit. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu debated his next move, while negotiations were under way with Jordan and the Palestinians in attempt to find a compromise that would end the artificial crisis. At Thursday night's cabinet meeting, it was finally decided to leave the metal detectors in place.

Cabinet ministers uttered lofty words on demonstrating sovereignty and preserving deterrence, but another element cannot be overlooked: the internal competition between the parties in the coalition, with the Likud, Habayit Hayehudi and (to a certain extent) Yisrael Beiteinu fearing they will be accused of demonstrating weakness vis-à-vis terror. Friday afternoon, after the situation on the Temple Mount seemed to be under control, the IDF and Shin Bet were criticized for being overly cautious, as if they had put too much fear into the cabinet. 

Friday evening, after the Halamish attack, coalition chairman and Likud MK David Bitan was among the first to respond. The attack, he explained in an interview, occurred because security forces were not vigilant. There's no doubt that Bitan reached this conclusion after a thorough and professional investigation, of course. It is hard to be envious of Eizenkot and Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman – they are operating under impossible circumstances.