The steps Israel and the Palestinian Authority took immediately after Friday morning’s deadly attack on the Temple Mount show that both sides intend to douse the fire before it spreads.
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas are well aware of the potential damage from the attack – part of which was recorded and later broadcast – in the most sensitive spot in the region. But the danger of escalation has not yet passed. There are enough elements, first and foremost Hamas, seeking to fan the flames.
Israel’s decision to close the Mount to worshipers, which was seemingly necessary in the first hours after the attack, could charge the atmosphere in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Netanyahu and Abbas spoke by phone on Friday afternoon – a rare occurrence in recent times. According to a report from the Israeli side, Abbas condemned the attack and Netanyahu informed him there was no intention of changing the status quo with regard to worship on the Temple Mount (which Muslims call Haram al-Sharif). Abbas’ condemnation, extraordinary in itself, came because the PA found itself in a difficult position. The three assailants, as was obvious from the video footage released by the police, opened fire from within the Al-Aqsa mosque complex outward, on the Border Police stationed at the entrance. Not only was the taboo broken of gunfire at a site sacred to both religions, but someone on the Palestinian side may have aided the assailants – three Israeli Arabs from Umm al-Fahm – to smuggle the weapons in.
The attack occurred during another visit to Israel by Jason Greenblatt, U.S. President Donald Trump’s envoy to the peace process. The PA was in an embarrassing position regarding the Americans; what’s more, the current administration is more attentive than the previous one to Israeli claims of Palestinian incitement.
But only Netanyahu heard Abbas’ condemnation. Palestinian ministers who spoke to the media on Saturday focused on complaints against the Israeli decision to close the Al-Aqsa mosque compound to worshipers. This is a step Israel has not taken in decades, although the Temple Mount itself has been a focus of violence in the past. For example, riots began there following the shooting of Muslim worshipers by police in 1990; the visit by Ariel Sharon (then the opposition leader) to the compound triggered the outbreak of the second intifada in September 2000; and tension over visits there by right-wing politicians in October 2015 was an impetus for the lone-wolf intifada.
The police decision to close the Temple Mount, which was backed by Netanyahu and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, stemmed initially from the need to find out whether the assailants had received help from within the Al-Aqsa compound and to search for additional weapons near the mosques.
But the longer the Temple Mount remains closed, the greater the tensions on the Palestinian side. Over the weekend, Hamas was already calling for a new intifada against Israel, claiming that preventing Muslims from entering the Al-Aqsa complex was tantamount to a religious war. [Israel announced Saturday evening it will gradually reopen the Temple Mount to worshipers on Sunday.]
Israel was also roundly condemned by Jordan. That can probably be considered lip service; there is diplomatic and security cooperation between Amman and Jerusalem. But King Abdullah has to appear sensitive to what is happening in the sacred places to Muslims in Jerusalem. Unrest among the Palestinians in Jordan is a constant threat to the stability of the monarchy; already Saturday, hundreds were protesting in Amman against Israel’s action.
Netanyahu appears to be walking a tightrope here. He took the responsible and necessary step when announcing that the status quo would be preserved, despite calls by right-wing ministers and lawmakers to take advantage of the attack to declare Israeli sovereignty on the Mount (as if that were the last wish of the two policemen who were killed, who were both Druze). On the other hand, closing the Temple Mount and ordering the police to dismantle the mourning tents of the assailants’ families in Umm al-Fahm conveyed a harsh response to the attack.
Likely also at the forefront of Netanyahu’s mind were tensions between Israel’s Muslim and Druze communities, given the background of the attackers and the policemen they killed. On Saturday, a stun grenade was thrown near a mosque in Maghar, the hometown of one of the policemen, a Galilee village where Muslims and Druze live together. The police are prepared for the possibility of revenge acts.
Magnet for attacks
Over the past year, the magnitude of Palestinian terror has declined somewhat compared to earlier incidents in 2016. Violence has declined greatly in the West Bank. That happened mainly due to improvements in the activities of the Israeli security forces in increasing both defense and intelligence work among young Palestinians – but also because the PA has deployed its security forces to try to rein in lone-wolf attackers.
In contrast, the Old City in Jerusalem continues to be a magnet for attackers. There are similarities between the shooting and knife attacks that killed Border Police officer Hadas Malka a month ago and Friday’s attack.
The assailants, who for the most part are not members of a known terror group, are working together and using firearms. When they don’t have a standard firearm, they buy improvised ones, like the homemade Carl Gustav submachine gun (known colloquially as the Carlo) that was used in most of the recent attacks.
Of course, simultaneous assaults with guns increase the damage and the ramifications of the attack. And when it happens around the Temple Mount, the reactions are far more widespread.
According to the Shin Bet security service, the three assailants in Friday’s attack had no record of security offenses. Now, thorough action will be needed to find out whether the three left any notice of their intentions beyond general hints on their Facebook pages in the days preceding the incident. The founding of a local terror cell of this kind, the purchase of weapons, perhaps reconnaissance in Jerusalem before the attack – it seems that all of these should have lit a warning light somewhere in the security establishment.