As details of the gruesome terror attack in Jerusalem’s Har Nof neighborhood began to emerge on Tuesday morning, its tragic familiarity became apparent: The perpetrators were two Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem; the victims, Jewish residents of the West beginning their day in prayer. This was the fifth nationalistic assault by Jerusalemites against “fellow” city residents since October 22.
The leadership role of Jerusalem’s Palestinians in the latest round of violence sets it apart from previous uprisings, and particularly from the Second Intifada, which began in September 2000 and tapered down over 2005.
As Palestinian political expert Hillel Cohen notes in his 2007 book The Rise and Fall of Arab Jerusalem, while Palestinian Jerusalemites were involved in some 20% of the fatal attacks during the 2000-2005 period, they usually played second fiddle to perpetrators based in the West Bank. In many cases they either drove or harbored suicide bombers, sometimes providing intelligence, but rarely carried out the attacks themselves.
The fatality rate of Palestinians living in the Jerusalem District was also significantly lower than that of their landsmen in the West Bank during the same period: 64 dead out of a total of 3,798 between September 2000 and February 2005, just 2% of the fatalities. That, in a population that comprises one-tenth of Palestinian society.
But all that seems like ancient history now. Since July — when Jewish extremists kidnapped and murdered Palestinian teenager Muhammad Abu Khdeir of Shuafat, in an alleged revenge attack for the killing of three Jewish teens by Hamas terrorists in the West Bank — it is Jerusalem’s Palestinians, not their West Bank brethren, who are spearheading Palestinian terrorism.
On Tuesday, Shin Bet chief Yoram Cohen told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that Abu Khdeir’s murder, as well as Palestinian angst over perceived Jewish encroachment on the Temple Mount, are fueling the violence, rather than incitement by PA President Mahmoud Abbas, as claimed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and key members of his cabinet. Cohen did acknowledge, however, that Abbas’s recent anti-Israel rhetoric could be interpreted by some Palestinians as a call to arms.
Presumably, if the fire in Jerusalem was turned up by a number of well-defined incidents, it could equally be turned down. Easier said than done.
The Palestinian movements that have guided Palestinian violence in the West Bank are all but absent in Jerusalem, weakened by two decades of Israeli anti-terror crackdowns and Palestinian neglect. In 2014, Jerusalem’s roughly 300,000 Palestinian residents live in a leadership void, where attacks are not guided by armed factions but merely receive their post-factum blessing.
The political status of Jerusalem’s Palestinians also makes counterterrorism more challenging. Carrying Israeli ID cards and able to travel freely throughout the city, Jerusalem’s Palestinians are often indiscernible from the city’s Jews. Detecting and stopping a lone-wolf terrorist would prove — indeed, is proving — virtually impossible for Israeli law enforcement. Sure, municipal checkpoints and increased police raids in East Jerusalem could conceivably help apprehend weapons like the cleavers and pistol used in Tuesday’s attack, but what about the attacks of October 22 and November 5, where vehicles were used as the murder weapon?
One former Israeli security chief said that only a tougher hand against Jerusalem’s Palestinians can stop the wave of violence.
“We’re perceived as suckers,” Aryeh Bibi, who served as Jerusalem’s chief of police between 1989-1991 and later as a Kadima MK, told The Times of Israel. “We must change our entire perception. Rather than us fortifying ourselves through guards in synagogues and schools, we should send the forces to the seam zone (between East and West Jerusalem) and have them bunker up. We should set up roadblocks and send tax officials to Jabel Mukaber. Demolishing the homes [of terrorists] and deporting [their families] from the village after revoking their Jerusalem residency will have a great impact.
“It makes no sense that Jews are scared to walk around and they can travel freely,” Bibi said, proposing to increase the pressure on would-be terrorists through a mix of bureaucratic and security measures, such as closures and increased Social Security oversight.
“Social pressure on them within their villages is significant, and we must make sure that they’re under pressure. There’s no other way.”
Frustration with the new state of affairs has led some politicians to revise the idea of political separation in Jerusalem. In a rare political utterance, former Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich called on Tuesday for disengagement from Jabel Mukaber, a southern Arab village annexed to Jerusalem following the war of 1967 and home to the Abu Jamal cousins who perpetrated Tuesday’s Har Nof synagogue terror attack.
“Jabel Mukaber is not the state of Israel and shouldn’t be in the state of Israel,” she wrote on her Facebook wall. “It’s an Arab village whose residents we insisted on giving blue (Israeli) IDs and which we turned into a Jerusalem neighborhood. The murderers left from Jabel Mukaber today. That’s where the murderers of the (2008) Merkaz Harav massacre, the tractor attack, the terrible bus bombing at the Patt Intersection came from. After each one of these terror acts, festivities took place in the village. I’d like to hear a reasonable explanation from the right-wing fanatics for how making them Israeli residents living in a Jerusalem neighborhood contributes to Israel’s safety and to the status of our capital Jerusalem.”
Even Jerusalem’s hawkish Mayor Nir Barkat has previously called on Israel to forgo control over three north Jerusalem neighborhoods lying beyond the security barrier.
“I recommend deploying along the barrier as it is,” Barkat was quoted by Israeli newspaper Maariv as telling cabinet ministers in 2011. “We should give up municipal areas beyond it and annex areas trapped in the Israeli side that are currently not under the jurisdiction of the Jerusalem municipality.” Still, on Tuesday, after the Har Nof attack, Barkat stressed he opposed ceding control of Jerusalem’s eastern neighborhoods. “We must not divide the city, it will only be worse,” he said.
The Israeli government’s Pavlovian accusation of Abbas for inciting violence after every attack in Jerusalem can also be viewed as an expression of despair regarding Israel’s lack of influence over Palestinians living within the confines of the capital and exposed to Israel’s education system and municipal services, but sharing none of the values of Israeli society.
The war of narratives
One aspect of the total disconnect between the two national communities living in Jerusalem can be viewed through their divergent interpretations of current events.
For many Israelis, visits by politicians to the Temple Mount are either welcome assertions of Israeli-Jewish sovereignty at the holiest site in Judaism, or unwarranted provocations of Palestinian sensibilities. For Palestinians, they amount to the desecration of one of Islam’s holiest sites and a declaration of religious war.
While Israelis accepted the pathological report defining the death of Palestinian Egged bus driver Yusuf Hassan al-Ramouni Sunday as suicide, conventional wisdom on the Palestinian street unquestionably viewed it as premeditated murder by “Jewish settlers,” a narrative perpetuated by the official Palestinian leadership.
On Tuesday, Major General Yoav Mordechai, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, sent (and then published) an unusual letter to the Palestinian minister of civil affairs Hussein al-Sheikh, criticizing the Palestinian leadership for portraying al-Ramouni’s death as foul play and asking him to publicly set the record straight.
“It is clear that such publications have the capacity to incite and lead to violence and terror against Israel and its citizens,” Mordechai wrote. “In light of the above, we urge you to take all appropriate measures to stop such incitement and bring the genuine facts regarding the circumstances of the death of the deceased to the attention of the Palestinian public.”
Even in the unlikely event that al-Sheikh were to comply with Mordechai’s request, the facts have likely ceased to matter at this point.