The two cousins from East Jerusalem who murdered four worshippers in a synagogue in Jerusalem’s Har Nof neighborhood on Tuesday were not known to be members of a Palestinian terror organization. Reports that the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine had taken responsibility for the massacre don’t seem credible at this stage (even though the two were relatives of a PFLP operative).
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If there’s any group to which we can indirectly link the attacks, it would actually be the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, which is operating now in Syria and Iraq. Tuesday's attackers weren’t members of ISIS, but the rampage in the synagogue seemed to be inspired by the organization; it was a religious and ideological act, stemming from a deep hatred of Jews. It was an attack on a clearly religious target, carefully chosen for maximum shock value.
Even if the terrorists acted on their own on Tuesday, like most of their predecessors in the wave of terror that has killed 10 Israelis in less than a month, the massacre in the synagogue was carefully planned, and it can be assumed that the target had been “cased” in advance. It did not look like a random act committed in anger, like the recent vehicular and stabbing attacks. It bears more of a resemblance to the attack on Temple Mount activist Yehuda Glick late last month, which was also planned. Enter the influence of ISIS, which has a pattern of effective and terrifying acts, like the near-decapitating of a British soldier on the streets of London in May 2013, or (in particular) the attack on the Jewish museum in Brussels this past May, which was committed by a French Muslim who had returned from Syria after fighting with ISIS there.
The Israeli government, for its part, has contributed to the emphasis on the religious component of the conflict by demonstrating helplessness in the face of recent efforts by right-wing activists to change the status quo regarding Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount. Defending Al-Aqsa Mosque provides an appropriate excuse for the recent terror perpetrators. Tuesday's attack reinforces the concern that the terror is taking on the trappings of a religious war (not that these trappings were totally absent from the conflict before). We hardly need to elaborate how dangerous this motif is.
When Jewish right-wing fanatics set fire to mosques in the West Bank, the Israeli political system, and many rabbis too, condemn the act almost unanimously. The Palestinian “price tag” is infinitely more murderous, yet we’re highly unlikely to hear explicit condemnation in the territories of Tuesday's murders.
This wave of terrorism has not expanded into mass rioting in the West Bank, at least not yet. But the pace of events, with a deadly attack or two every week, is keeping the conflict at center stage and has completely undermined people’s sense of personal safety in Jerusalem.
It would be no surprise if it turns out that the two terrorists, or whoever sent them, were previously acquainted with Har Nof, a religious neighborhood in western Jerusalem. Inevitably, Palestinian workers in Jewish neighborhoods will be viewed with suspicion, and the police will tighten their supervision. After a month of attacks, Jerusalem seems to be reverting to the bad old days, the bloody days, of the second intifada.
What stands out here is Israel’s difficulty in coping with the security situation in Jerusalem. Not only do Palestinians cross into the western part of the city unimpeded, but Israeli control on the outlying Arab neighborhoods, certainly those situated outside the separation barrier, is rather limited. There is also an intelligence gap regarding “freelance” terrorists who are not affiliated with any organization. This is not a new problem, of course; it was highlighted during the 2008 tractor attacks and massacre at the Mercaz Harav yeshiva.
Tuesday's murderous attack was fueled by rumors surrounding the death of an Arab bus driver from East Jerusalem on Sunday night. Even though the police and pathologists determined that he’d committed suicide, the Palestinians were convinced from the get-go that he’d been murdered by Jews for nationalist reasons. The media in the territories, with its reports about the supposed murder, fanned the flames in East Jerusalem and the West Bank even more.
Predictably, the Israeli leadership reacted to the slaughter in the synagogue with two moves: convening the security cabinet, and placing direct responsibility for the murders on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). Intelligence Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz even said, “The terrorists’ hands held the axes, but the voice was the voice of Abu Mazen.”
Israel has already more or less used up its arsenal of immediate reactions. Along with expedited demolitions of the Jerusalem homes of the terrorists, the enhanced police presence in the city will be maintained. Given the continuing terror, it will be difficult for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to keep the promise he made to King Abdullah of Jordan last week to ease the conditions imposed on Palestinians of East Jerusalem. But talk is cheap and with elections looming, the ministers will be competing to shoot Zionist arrows at that most terrible of enemies, Abu Mazen.
Abbas, as I have written before, erred badly when be published a letter of condolence to the family of the man who shot Yehuda Glick after he was killed by Israeli police. The PA has also been playing with fire with its statements regarding the dispute over the Temple Mount.
But Israeli security officials concur that the Palestinian leadership is not encouraging terrorism, certainly not in the West Bank. Shin Bet security service chief Yoram Cohen set the record straight on Tuesday during his appearance before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee after the attack, telling the MKs that Abbas is not encouraging terror, overtly or covertly.
Inflammatory declarations by Israeli ministers do not improve the situation. Although Israeli forces are trying to act cautiously, the terror attacks, together with the diplomatic brawling (the PA is still preparing to ask the UN Security Council for statehood recognition next month) are liable to plunge the territories into a full-blown intifada that will go beyond the wave of murderous terrorism that has hit Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Gush Etzion this month, with the more organized terror networks joining the lone-wolf attackers. More Israeli civilians have died in the past month – nine, along with a border policeman – than were killed during the entire duration of Operation Protective Edge.
Both Cohen and senior army officials – last week’s public spats notwithstanding – agree that we may be facing a general escalation. The security people are more pessimistic than the politicians on this. Netanyahu and senior right-wing figures have spent a long time selling the notion that Israel must “manage” the conflict with the Palestinians, because it will not be resolved in the near term. Even if they are right in their assessment that the current PA leadership isn’t capable of reaching a permanent settlement, the wave of attacks proves there is a price to maintaining the existing situation.
In the eyes of the Palestinians, there is no acceptable status quo here – not with regard to the occupation or settlement construction, and certainly not with regard to the intensive right-wing activities relating to the Temple Mount. Under these circumstances, the attacks will continue and may become even more deadly.