Nearly every aspect of Friday’s terror attack in Jerusalem, in which two police officers were gunned down, stands out as irregular, even after two years of almost weekly attacks in the Old City.
According to police, shortly after 7:00 a.m., three Arab Israeli men (all named Muhammad Jabarin) walked out of the Temple Mount complex and opened fire at a group of police officers standing guard nearby, at the Lions Gate entrance to the Old City, critically injuring two of them.
The terrorists then fled back into the Temple Mount, with police in pursuit. Two of the gunmen were shot dead, while the third was arrested, forced to the ground and surrounded by officers. He suddenly jumped up, brandishing a knife, and lunged at an officer before he too was shot and killed.
As details came out about the attack, it was immediately clear that this was not a normal shooting. Everything from its location to the identities of those involved and the responses to the attack were sui generis.
The attack occurred just outside the Temple Mount complex, an area that has seen significant unrest but few if any attacks of this sort.
The three shooters were not Palestinians, but Arab Israelis, apparently cousins from the city of Umm al-Fahm in northern Israel. The victims were not Jewish, but Druze Israeli police officers, master sergeants Haiel Sitawe, 30, and Kamil Shnaan, 22.
Finally, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas quickly condemned the shooting, while Arab Israeli leaders went completely dark and didn’t issue statements of any kind until almost 10 hours later.
Perhaps the only two aspects of this terror attack that seemed familiar were the weapons used — the ubiquitous Carlo-style submachine gun, a pistol and a knife — and the time at which it happened: Friday morning, shortly after Muslim prayers.
Israel’s reaction to the attack was similarly out of the ordinary.
For the first time in decades, Israel closed the Temple Mount to visitors on a Friday, which is ordinarily one of the most popular times for Muslims to visit the holy site.
In a statement, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said the site would remain closed until at least Sunday, at which point defense officials would assess if and when to reopen the site and to whom.
In response to the decision to close the site, Muslim worshippers gathered outside the Old City and prayed on a nearby street in protest.
After attacks in the Old City in the past, the government has at most restricted entrance to the Temple Mount — typically only allowing in elderly men and women — not shut it down entirely.
It was not entirely clear when was the last time Israel shut down the Temple Mount for Friday prayers. According to the Muslim Waqf, the religious authority on the Temple Mount, this was the first time Israel has taken this measure in the 50 years that it has controlled the holy site. Others, however, said Israel shut down the Temple Mount in August 1969, after an Australian Christian man tried to burn down the Dome of the Rock.
Maj. Gen. (res.) Eitan Dangot, who previously served as Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, warned that the dramatic measure could be exploited by terrorist groups to incite further violence.
“Maybe a few days later, we’ll see a tense [situation], from Hamas for sure and maybe in the West Bank,” he warned, speaking in a briefing to the Israel Project organization.
“They’ll try to use pictures or something to incite and push more and more people to terrorism,” Dangot said. “But we have to bring back security to Jerusalem.”
According to Barak Ben-Zur, a former colonel in IDF intelligence and officer in the Shin Bet security service, the most significant aspect of Friday’s attack was that the shooters were Arab Israelis.
“These were people who grew up in a city with Israeli police stations, with Israeli schools,” Ben-Zur said.
Arab citizens of Israel have carried out terror attacks before. For instance, during the second intifada, a 2001 suicide bombing in the Nahariya train station in northern Israel was carried out by an Arab Israeli.
More recently, Nashat Milhem, a 29-year-old resident of the Arab town of Arara, opened fire on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv on January 1, 2016, killing two people and wounding seven others, in an attack that he said was inspired by the Islamic State terrorist organization. Milhem later killed an Arab Israeli taxi driver as he made his escape.
However, Ben-Zur noted that the 2016 New Year’s Day shooting was carried out by a lone attacker — someone with a history of mental illness and drug use — whereas Friday’s attack was conducted by a cell of three Israeli citizens who had invested both time and money in preparing for the shooting.
The three terrorists would have had to purchase the two submachine guns and pistol they used in the attack, train with the weapons, and transport them to Jerusalem, noted Ben-Zur, who since getting out of public service has worked as an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.
The three attackers — Muhammad Ahmed Muhammad Jabarin, 29, Muhammad Hamad Abdel Latif Jabarin, 19, and Muhammad Ahmed Mafdal Jabarin, 19 — were all reportedly members of the now-illegal Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement, which is led by the firebrand Arab Israeli figure Raed Salah, who has served as mayor of Umm al-Fahm.
The Islamic Movement’s Northern Branch was deemed illegal by Israel in November 2015. The group has been tied to Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Following the attack, President Reuven Rivlin along with a number of Israeli politicians called for Arab Israeli Knesset members to condemn the attack. However, as of Friday afternoon, only one member of the Arab Joint List, its chairman Ayman Odeh, made a statement criticizing the attack to reporters or on social media.
Speaking in Arabic to an Arab Israeli radio station nearly 10 hours after the attack, Odeh said that he and the other Arab MKs “are against the use of weapons” but also accused Netanyahu of trying to make the conflict a religious one.
Ben-Zur said he believed the reason for the minimal response by Arab Israeli politicians was that they simply did not know what to say.
“I think they’re in shock,” he said.
Abbas, however, did issue a condemnation during a conversation with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Abbas also called for Israel to reopen the Temple Mount for prayers, a request the Israeli premier denied.
None of the Muhammad Jabarins had a history of terrorist activity, according to the Shin Bet.
In addition to addressing the critical question of how and why three Israeli citizens decided to commit a terror attack, security forces on Friday were also working to figure out some of the more practical aspects of the shooting, including how the men managed to sneak two submachine guns and a pistol into the Old City.
A police spokesperson said the attackers came from the Temple Mount to the Lions Gate with the weapons, leading police to believe they either brought them in on Friday or picked up guns that had previously been stashed at the holy site.
“These are all things that we are currently investigating,” spokesperson Micky Rosenfeld said.
While the Waqf is largely responsible for the management of the Temple Mount, Israel provides security for the holy site.
In recent years, there have been multiple cases of weapons being smuggled into the compound, everything from metal rods to Molotov cocktails and pipe bombs.
According to Ben-Zur, while there is not necessarily an easy way to sneak a gun into the Temple Mount, it is possible if the person is “determined.”
In addition to smuggling in a weapon past the security check at the entrance, there are also more imaginative ways to bring in the guns, he indicated. “You can lower a rope down the wall and then lift them up. There are a lot of ways to smuggle a gun,” Ben-Zur said. “The [Temple Mount] isn’t guarded from 360 degrees.”
While Friday’s shooting was an outlier for many reasons, it was also representative of a trend, not only in Israel but around the world, of individuals carrying out terrorist attacks without specific direction from established groups.
“This is a terrorism that is organized locally, by individuals or relatives,” Dangot said.
Fighting this type of terror has proven to be exceedingly difficult, as the independent nature of the assailants makes tracking and catching them before an attack a significant challenge for law enforcement.
Moreover, the crackdowns that are required in the aftermath have also been found to have the effect of inspiring more people to commit attacks. One of the characteristics of the ongoing terror wave has been that the assailants were sometimes related or connected to one another.
“We have to continue, on the one hand, to bring strong security and a strong way of fighting against this kind of terrorism, while on the other hand we have to continue the daily life of the majority,” Dangot said.