Suicide terrorism returns to Jerusalem, with a difference

Hamas’s ideological encouragement is proving murderously efficient in sparking a new wave of attacks in the capital

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Israeli security personnel at the site of a terrorist attack on Jerusalem's Route One, November 5, 2014. (Photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)
Israeli security personnel at the site of a terrorist attack on Jerusalem's Route One, November 5, 2014. (Photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

Jerusalemites who lived through the Second Intifada remember those years, from 2000 to 2003, all too well. Simply being out on the streets was a gamble.

Almost every month, sometimes every week, suicide bombings hit the city, and destroyed any sense of security here. Jerusalem was worst hit, but it was not unique: The suicide bombers targeted almost every Israeli city.

The attacks of recent weeks have marked the return of the suicide terrorists. There are differences this time. These are not attackers wearing belts laden with explosives or driving cars carrying bombs. They are “merely” using their cars and tractors as weapons. And they are overwhelmingly concentrated in Jerusalem.

Another difference is that the suicide bombings of the Second Intifada were orchestrated in large part by a Hamas terror infrastructure. This time, it appears that general instructions from the Hamas leadership, without an organized military infrastructure, are sufficient to prompt a wave of attacks, and again to destroy Jerusalemites’ sense of security.

Israel’s security forces tried often during the Second Intifada to put together a profile of the “typical” suicide bomber, the better to thwart the attacks. And they couldn’t. Sometimes the bombers were young males. Sometimes they were youths. Sometimes they were married women, sometimes divorcees, sometimes widows. In short, there was no typical bomber. The notion that suicide bombings were overwhelmingly the work of young, single, impoverished men was disproved time and again.

The same is true now, as well. It is hard to point to common denominators among the perpetrators of the recent attacks, including the attempted assassination last Wednesday night of Yehudah Glick, except, that is, that they identify with Islamist organizations, especially Hamas.

Wednesday’s terrorist on Route One in Jerusalem, Ibrahim al-Akary, was a 48-year-old father of five, from a family closely identified with Hamas. Not your “typical” terrorist. Last Wednesday’s would-be assassin Mu’taz Hijazi was much younger, as were the perpetrators of the two previous attacks in which Jerusalem pedestrians were targeted by suicide drivers, in August and October.

What is common to the 2014 terrorists and those from the Second Intifada is that they set out expecting that they will not return; their motivation to kill Israelis prevails over their desire to live.

Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch may well be right to say that this is not a new intifada. Indeed, it does not resemble the widespread uprising of the First Intifada (from 1987-1993), and nor does it mirror the Second Intifada. But it cannot be denied that a new phenomenon is bloodying Jerusalem, which may require a new name. Perhaps not an Intifada. Perhaps not an “uprising,” or an “explosion of violence.” But, rather, a name that reflects the combination of suicide attackers driving cars and tractors, and relatively low-level street riots. At present, the riots in Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem are drawing dozens, sometimes hundreds, but not the masses that confronted Israeli security forces in Gaza and the West Bank in the early days of the two intifadas.

This new mix refuses to disappear. Weeks pass, and the violence in Jerusalem continues. Sometimes it ebbs for a few days, but then it returns.

Israel’s decision-makers tend, almost instinctively, to point the finger of blame at Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and to assert that he is responsible for this violence. It is evidently more convenient for them to play down both the significant support among East Jerusalemites for the violence and Hamas’s central responsibility for it — ideologically if not always practically.

It is Hamas that is encouraging the terrorist attacks and the riots. And that means the Israeli government needs to deal with those who are responsible — that is, the Hamas leadership in Gaza. But nobody in Israel — or in Hamas’s Gaza leadership for that matter — wants another escalation of violence there.

Another factor that is more convenient to ignore is Israel’s role in the current deterioration. The government has not done enough to reign in far-right organizations that, it sometimes seems, are working just like Hamas to detonate the ticking bomb that is the Temple Mount and al-Aqsa Mosque.

In the absence of any substantive diplomatic process with Abbas, it is hard to imagine that the new form of Jerusalem violence is going to end anytime soon. Whether or not it is a third intifada, it shows every sign of continuing to batter Jerusalem.

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