The Palestinian wave of lone-wolf terrorism that began a year ago has continued intermittently into the current Jewish holiday season. When a terrorist can get his hands on a gun, as happened Sunday near Jerusalem’s Ammunition Hill, that will always be the preferred option, not a stabbing or a car-ramming that usually cause fewer casualties. And because the gunman who killed a woman and policeman Sunday was from East Jerusalem, he had no problem reaching the site by car.
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Hamas and Islamic Jihad quickly praised the attack, but neither organization has had much to shout about in recent months. A year ago Hamas tried to ride the terror wave and encouraged residents of the West Bank and East Jerusalem to take up arms. The group hoped this gun violence would exacerbate the situation and stir internal strife that would threaten the Palestinian Authority’s rule.
But only the lone-wolf attacks continued, and Hamas had trouble activating cells of its own, apart from one suicide bombing on a Jerusalem bus in April in which the terrorist, who was from Bethlehem, was the only one killed. In the vast majority of cases, the Shin Bet security service and the PA security forces stopped Hamas cells in the West Bank before they could launch attacks.
On Sunday, the gunman who was killed by the police in a shootout was a known local activist with ties to Hamas and the force founded by the Islamic Movement for clashing with the police and Jewish worshippers on the Temple Mount (and which Israel outlawed a year ago.)
He was also a resident of Silwan, an East Jerusalem neighborhood where friction between Arabs, Jews the police and the city has been at its highest. The Shin Bet and the police will have to see why there was no specific warning about the gunman’s plan (and about his acquiring a gun), despite his many extremist posts on Facebook and the fact that he was due to begin a four-month sentence in an Israeli prison for assaulting a police officer.
The attack’s religious motive is clear. It’s tied to the constant fear in East Jerusalem that Israel will try to keep Muslims off the Temple Mount, especially during the Jewish holiday season. Since the attack took place in a central location and caused a loss of life, was filmed by Palestinians and the perpetrator was known among East Jerusalem activists, there are many reasons to expect copycat attempts, especially in Jerusalem and Hebron.
With the sense of personal safety in Jerusalem shaken, the police will consider boosting their forces in the city even more, in addition to the heightened army presence in the West Bank during the High Holy Days. Last October began similarly in Jerusalem, with the terror wave petering out only in the spring, followed by sporadic occurrences thereafter.
The Israeli side has learned lessons from the last round and sealed off vulnerable spots, which should help reduce the chances of a major outbreak. A Palestinian opinion poll published Sunday by the Jerusalem Media and Communication Center – conducted among a thousand or so young people from the West Bank and Gaza – found somewhat surprisingly that more than half named unemployment as their number-one concern.
But the main difference from a year ago is the weakening of the PA’s standing. Last week, a few days after he was harshly criticized for attending Shimon Peres’ funeral, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was hospitalized for a heart catheterization.
In addition to Abbas’ health problems, the PA continues to have trouble exerting control. The previous terror round was halted largely thanks to security cooperation between Israel and the PA, though it took a few months for the latter to take part in efforts to halt the wave.
The open criticism of the PA, combined with the anticipation of the end of Abbas’ tenure and the succession battle, could accelerate a new round of terror attacks. Once again, Jerusalem – the Temple Mount in particular – will be a place for gauging whether a longer and more severe escalation will take place in the territories, or whether we’ll have random incidents that don’t reflect a turning point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.