Friday morning’s attack on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem is a nightmare come true for the police and the Shin Bet security service. Three young Arab Israelis broke into the well-secured compound, shooting two policemen to death before being shot themselves. This happened at Israel’s most sensitive location, a place sacred to Jews and Muslims, with some of the incident captured on cell phone cameras and almost instantly disseminated on social media.
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The unfolding of events from here on, particularly after Friday prayers in mosques, depends largely on the restraint and wisdom shown by police forces. This may be the toughest test yet to confront Police Commissioner Maj. Gen. Roni Alsheich.
In a highly unusual move, the Temple Mount compound was shut to Muslim worshippers. The police appear to understand the potential ramifications of a conflagration in Jerusalem, particularly in this area. Tension around the Mount have previously played a part in igniting hostilities in Israel and the territories in 1990 and at the outset of the Second Intifada in September 2000, while partly contributing to the escalation of stabbing and shooting attacks in October 2015.
Some have rushed to throw more oil on Friday morning’s flames. Hamas congratulated the perpetrators in its media, while imams called on worshippers to break into the compound in their sermons. Meanwhile, right-wing Knesset and coalition members have said the incident should be seen as an opportunity to change the status quo and establish markers of Israeli sovereignty on the Mount, as if this is what Jerusalem needs now, or as if this was the last wish of the two dead policemen.
It was only natural for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to ignore those calls and adopt the recommendations of the security chiefs. In a phone conversation with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Netanyahu said that he would maintain the current arrangements on Temple Mount. The prime minister understands how dangerous it is to stoke these flames, which could again spread to the West Bank and Arab communities in Israel. It appears that similar messages will be conveyed to Jordan as well.
Jordan, half of whose population consists of older Palestinian refugees and newer ones from Iraq and Syria, is particularly sensitive to developments in Jerusalem and takes care to convey its concerns to Israel at every opportunity. One must hope that like Abbas, other leaders in the region understand the destructive potential of attacks in such a sensitive location. The fact that the victims were Druze and the assailants Muslim Israeli Arabs will require the heads of local councils and Knesset members from both communities to act in order to prevent unnecessary clashes within the Green Line.
The last year saw a drop in the intensity of Palestinian terror. In comparison to 2016, violent incidents in the West Bank substantially declined. This happened mainly due to improvements in the operations of Israel’s security forces, including reinforced defensive measures and enhanced intelligence coverage of young Palestinians. This decline was also due the Palestinian Authority's more effective use of its security forces in an attempt to thwart lone wolf attackers.
In contrast, the Old City in Jerusalem continues to be a magnet for terrorists. There are similarities between the gun and knife attack that killed Border Policewoman Hadar Malka a month ago and Friday’s attack, despite the fact that the assailants in the latest incident were Arab Israelis. In such attacks, the terrorists don't belong to any known group, acting together using guns, including improvised weapons like the Carlo submachine gun. The simultaneous action of several assailants increases the amount of damage they cause and the response they elicit. When this occurs around the Temple Mount, reactions are much more extensive.
According to a preliminary Shin Bet report, the three assailants were unknown and had no records. Now, a thorough examination must be conducted to establish whether they showed any early signs of their plot, other than general hints on Facebook. Nevertheless, the establishment of such a terrorist cell, its arming and possibly an early casing of the area before the attack should have sounded the alarm somewhere in the defense establishment.