The dangerous new status quo in Jerusalem

In recent weeks, it has sometimes seemed as though Muslim and Jewish extremists have joined forces to provoke a drastic escalation

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.

ILLUSTRATIVE: Palestinian youths clash with Israeli Border Police at the entrance to the Shuafat refugee camp on November 5, following a terrorist attack that day in Jerusalem by a resident of the camp. (Hadas Parush/FLASH90)
ILLUSTRATIVE: Palestinian youths clash with Israeli Border Police at the entrance to the Shuafat refugee camp on November 5, following a terrorist attack that day in Jerusalem by a resident of the camp. (Hadas Parush/FLASH90)

The ongoing wave of attacks in Jerusalem, and the clashes between Palestinian youths and Israeli security forces, indicate strongly that the favorite approach of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his ministers — “managing the conflict,” rather than solving it — is creating a difficult reality for the capital of the state of Israel.

The status quo is holding in the West Bank, with the possible exception of the car-ramming attack/accident near the al-Aroub refugee camp north of Hebron on Wednesday night. Palestinian Authority security forces have managed — during and since the summer’s Israel-Hamas conflict — to maintain the relative quiet. There are almost no attacks coming out of the West Bank; and the PA security apparatus, despite the unity agreement between the PA and Hamas, has not stopped arresting Islamic Jihad and Hamas members. In the two months since the end of Operation Protective Edge, the PA has detained more than 250 activists from the two organizations.

Even in Gaza, relative calm prevails. True, occasionally a rocket fired by a terrorist slips through, but on the whole it seems that Israel and Hamas are interested in maintaining the calm.

But in the capital the status quo is quickly collapsing, or rather a new, violent status quo has taken shape: Attacks are followed by more attacks; the Temple Mount continues to be the focus of escalating tension; and in neighborhoods such as Shuafat, and villages like Silwan and Issawiya, youths are throwing stones at security forces almost every day.

Why is this happening in Jerusalem, of all places?

A major cause is the lack of a clear “address” on the Palestinian side. Whereas, in the West Bank, PA President Mahmoud Abbas continues to demonstrate governance, and in the Gaza Strip Hamas imposes quiet, in Jerusalem, the self-declared eternal, united capital, it is the Israeli government and security forces alone that seek to grapple with the violence, and they are not having great success.

Years of neglecting East Jerusalem on the part of the municipality, the Jerusalem District Police, and the Israeli government, have contributed to the intensification of the friction; outright hatred has built up. The Shuafat refugee camp — the home of Ibrahim al-Akary, the terrorist who carried out Wednesday’s murderous attack on pedestrians along the light rail route — is a classic example. Located between the Jewish neighborhoods of French Hill and Pisgat Ze’ev, it is a no-go area for Israeli security forces. It is not part of the city’s municipal area, but is certainly not under PA control. What it has become is an incubator for criminals, drug dealers, and of course Palestinian organizations like Hamas and Fatah.

As for the Temple Mount, plenty has been said and written for years about the potential for escalation there. But it sometimes seems as if, in recent weeks, Muslim and Jewish extremists have joined together in an attempt to provoke a drastic escalation: right-wing Israeli groups, championed by several MKs, loudly demanding changed arrangements to enable Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount; radical Palestinian groups misrepresenting and exaggerating the “threat” to Al-Aqsa. Inflammatory rhetoric stirring passion at this most contested and sensitive of sites.

On Tuesday afternoon, a message to Muslims was published, calling on them to show up the next day at the al-Aqsa Mosque in order to protect it from extremist Jews. This came in the wake of calls for groups of Jews to go pray on the Temple Mount.

Almost inevitably, on Wednesday morning, clashes began between dozens of Palestinians in the compound and police forces. Al-Jazeera and other outlets repeatedly broadcast footage of security forces bursting into the Temple Mount compound and firing tear gas. A few hours later, Akary carried out his terror attack.

The terrorist’s brother, Musa, was a member of the squad that abducted and murdered IDF soldier Nissim Toledano in December 1992. Musa was arrested and jailed along with three other members of the cell, released in 2011’s Gilat Shalit deal, and exiled to Turkey. A few days after Toledano’s murder, the Yitzhak Rabin government decided to expel 415 Hamas and Islamic Jihad members to Marj al-Zuhur in Lebanon. The location became a training camp for the activists, and an incubator of radicalism. A year and a half later, under heavy American pressure, Israel finally recognized the danger, and many of the deportees returned home.

It’s more than likely that Musa influenced his brother’s activities, though specifics are hard to establish. The family ties are reminiscent of those of the terrorist who planned the West Bank kidnapping and murder of the three Israeli teens in June, Hussam Kawasme. He, too, had a brother in Hamas who was released in the Shalit deal and deported to Gaza.

It seems that, as with the Marj al-Zuhur deportees, the terrorists released in October 2011 and deported to Turkey and Gaza became increasingly dangerous with time, perhaps even more than the terrorists who were released to their homes in the West Bank. The deportees enjoyed relative immunity in Istanbul and Ankara, as they did in Gaza and Khan Younis.

The gradual escalation of violence in Jerusalem seems likely to continue, in part because the political process with the Palestinians has never seemed so stuck. Netanyahu and his advisers plainly believe that the current situation, with all its problematics, is nonetheless infinitely preferable to a withdrawal from the West Bank and the establishment of a Palestinian state, especially given the severe instability across the Middle East, and the march of Islamic extremism.

It’s hard to say if they’re right or not. But in the absence of a “political horizon,” and with extremists from both sides trying to inflame the situation by focusing on the incendiary issue of the Temple Mount, the consequences are clear.

The recent elections in the US offer little room for optimism as regards a renewed negotiating process. It is hard to imagine the bruised and weakened President Barack Obama embarking on a new diplomatic adventure that will yield any substantive progress, much less a peace deal. The unilateral moves planned by the Palestinians at the UN and other international bodies also won’t bring renewed calm, of course.

This week, a senior PA and Fatah official told The Times of Israel that the recent clashes in Jerusalem are, in many ways, just a warm-up to something much bigger if there is no political breakthrough. Asked why the Abbas leadership was not doing more to calm the situation, he said that the PA and Fatah do not want to lose more support in the Palestinian street to Hamas.

The same explanation was given by senior Palestinian officials at the beginning of the Second Intifada. Almost word for word.

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