This article was originally published in POLITICO Magazine on November 20, 2014.
Jerusalem — A small crowd stands outside a synagogue, chanting “death to terrorists” and “revenge,” hours after two Palestinian men armed with knives, axes and a gun hacked worshippers to death. Four bodies are still inside, still wrapped in their bloodied prayer shawls. “This happened because we talk with terrorists,” says an angry mourner. “We can’t have peace while we allow terrorists to live in Jerusalem.”
The next morning, an 8-year-old girl sits in the pile of concrete rubble that was once her living room. Israeli security forces blew up her family’s home because her brother rammed his car into a crowd of people, killing two. The demolition left a family of seven homeless. “How do the Israelis expect my family to live with them in peace?” asks her uncle.
After years of relative quiet, Jerusalem has been seething since July, when a Palestinian teenager was burned alive in revenge for the murder of three Jewish Israelis in the occupied West Bank. Riots erupted in his neighborhood, Shuafat, and have continued ever since. Over the last month residents of East Jerusalem have carried out a rash of shootings and hit-and-run attacks.
Media here and abroad have speculated endlessly about whether the violence represents a third intifada, or Palestinian uprising. The Israeli press briefly called it the “silent intifada,” because the unrest of the first few months was bottled up in East Jerusalem. After the hit-and-runs, Palestinian social media dubbed it the “intifada of the cars.”
The chatter feels a bit dated. Palestinians are, by their own admission, divided and exhausted, bereft of any credible leaders. Protests in East Jerusalem and the West Bank draw dozens of frustrated youth, not thousands as in years past. Israeli security officials say the recent attacks do not seem to have been directed by any formal organization.
Instead they are individuals, “lone wolves,” angry about a range of issues: religious tensions on the Temple Mount (or as the Palestinians call it, Haram al-Sharif), Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem, the war in Gaza, deadly shootings in the West Bank.
As long as the fundamental issues are unresolved, Israelis will face a drawn-out intifada mounted by angry young Palestinian men who often come out of nowhere.
After a 47-year occupation, the list of grievances is long—and growing. The peace process is dead, the two-state solution has become a quixotic idea that polls well but that few Israelis or Palestinians actually believe will happen. Israel’s new president rejects it, while its backers in the Palestinian Authority have little credibility left with their constituents. The Oslo Accords, meant to be a five-year interim measure, are now old enough to buy a beer.
A week before the synagogue attack, riots erupted in Kafr Kanna, a sleepy Palestinian village in the Galilee. For five days, local youths blocked roads with burning tires and threw stones at security forces.
The proximate cause was a police shooting: Israeli officers killed a man armed with a knife after he had retreated and turned away from them. But there as elsewhere, the roots of the unrest went back decades. The Palestinians inside of Israel have it better than their compatriots, with equal rights as citizens.
In practice, though, they are subject to widespread discrimination; the police, in particular, act far more aggressively than they do towards Jewish Israelis. A number of Israeli politicians, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have proposed measures to strip some Palestinians of their citizenship or “transfer” them to a future Palestinian state.
“We’re second-class citizens, and we have politicians like [Foreign Minister Avigdor] Lieberman who think even that is too good,” said Fares Mahrous, a Kafr Kanna resident who spent the week trying to calm the rioters. “And these boys see the crimes in Jerusalem, in the West Bank, in Gaza. What do you expect?”
Kehilat Bnei Torah synagogue sits at the bottom of a steep hill in the Har Nof neighborhood of West Jerusalem. The residents are ultra-Orthodox Jews, many of them English- or Spanish-speaking immigrants; it is miles away from the Green Line, the boundary between west and east Jerusalem where previous attacks had occurred.
Last Tuesday morning, though, two assailants opened fire outside the synagogue at 7 a.m., while worshippers were saying their morning prayers. Then they moved inside, with knives and axes. When the attack was over seven minutes later, five people were dead, including a Druze policeman who was among the first to arrive.
Workers from Zaka, a religious organization that collects the bodies of the dead, described it as one of the “most difficult” scenes they had witnessed. “We’re all shocked, all the people of Israel are shocked,” said David Laniado, who witnessed the attack. “This will force us all to wake up.”
Micky Rosenfeld, a police spokesman, suggested that the attackers were familiar with the area, and local media reported that one of them worked at a nearby supermarket. “Otherwise the attack would have taken place at the central bus station, somewhere more obvious,” Rosenfeld said.
It was the most jarring event in a deadly month of Palestinian attacks here. A pair of hit-and-run attacks killed four people, and a gunman attempted to assassinate Yehuda Glick, a well-known right-wing Jewish activist. There were also two deadly stabbings, at a train station in Tel Aviv and a bus stop in the West Bank.
The violence has become a political problem for Netanyahu, who counts security as the main achievement of an otherwise unremarkable term in office.
He is under pressure to respond with overwhelming force. Naftali Bennett, the economy minister, urged the government to “declare war” on the Palestinian Authority, even though Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the ax killings. Aryeh Deri, the head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, wants the army deployed in the streets of Jerusalem. “There are thousands of terrorists in East Jerusalem, and we need to arrest them all,” said Baruch Marzel, among the crowd of mourners outside the synagogue.
So far Netanyahu has ignored those demands, opting instead for heavier policing. Security forces have installed concrete barriers around light rail stations to protect passengers from hit-and-run attacks. Checkpoints around Palestinian neighborhoods belie the notion of a united capital. Surveillance balloons float on the winter winds above East Jerusalem.
The cabinet approved longer jail terms for throwing stones, up to 20 years, and the army authorized soldiers to use live ammunition against rioters shooting fireworks.
Dan Ronen, who was a top Israeli police official during the second intifada, admitted that none of this was guaranteed to stop future attacks.
“The police usually knew how to prevent such activities. But now honestly, all of the Arab employees, people who come from the east… you never know when and how they can do something,” he said. “Now the Israeli intelligence services must be very, very focused on East Jerusalem."
The prime minister has also taken symbolic gestures, most notably escalating the controversial practice of punitive home demolition. It was largely halted in 2005, after a military commission found it had little deterrent value. The commission, ironically, was appointed by the current defense minister, Moshe Ya’alon, who now dismisses its findings.
So before dawn on Wednesday morning, dozens of paramilitary border police officers arrived at the home of Abdel Rahman al-Shalloudi in the Silwan neighborhood. The fifty or so inhabitants of his apartment building were forced out into the streets, and a few hours later his flat was blown up, a controlled demolition that one witness said “woke all of Silwan.” Other apartments in the building suffered minor damage; falling rubble flattened a car parked below.
Shalloudi carried out the first attack in Jerusalem, a hit-and-run on October 22 that killed two people, one of them a three-month-old baby. His family said he was suffering from mental problems, paranoid after spending more than year in Israeli jails; they denied that he was a member of any political movement.
Instead, relatives said, he was angered by recent clashes at Al-Aqsa mosque and visits to the site by right-wing Israeli politicians intent on praying in the mosque, despite legal prohibitions. “He saw all of the crimes there, they were all caught on camera, and it enraged him,” said his uncle Talaat.
The mosque, Islam’s third holiest, sits on Judaism’s most sacred site, the Temple Mount, believed to be the location of the Biblical temples. Under a longstanding arrangement, Jews are allowed to visit the compound, but forbidden from praying. Netanyahu has said repeatedly that he does not plan to change the status quo, fearing religious unrest.
A growing number of politicians and activists, though, want to change the arrangement; some of them want to limit Muslim access to the site, even destroy the mosques there. President Abbas has also warned that their activism risks starting a “religious war.” In his statement condemning the mosque attack, he demanded again that Israel stop its “provocations” at the holy compound.
His comments about the mosque have led a number of Israeli politicians to accuse him of fueling the violence. “This is a direct result of Abbas’ incitement,” Netanyahu said of the attack. “This was a heinous murder in a holy place.”
The head of Israel’s Shin Bet security agency seemed to contradict Netanyahu hours later, telling a Knesset panel that Abbas “is not interested in terror and is not inciting to terror… not even behind closed doors.” (Netanyahu later tried to clarify, telling reporters that Abbas’ words could be interpreted as incitement, even if they did not directly qualify as such.)
Yet the criticism of Abbas seems oblivious to his increasingly tenuous position in Ramallah. The 79-year-old president is aging and paranoid, preoccupied with internal squabbles. His rivals in Hamas are embattled for their own reasons, strangled by its neighbors and increasingly unpopular in Gaza after a devastating summer war. The most popular Palestinian political figure, according to polls, is a man who has spent the past decade in prison, Marwan Barghouti.
With society in disarray, there is no one to lead a fresh Palestinian uprising. Instead the past month’s unrest may represent something almost more worrisome: a new status quo. There is no serious talk here of trying to resolve the conflict, only managing it; politicians on both sides have nothing to offer an angry and hopeless Palestinian population.
Perhaps it should be no surprise, then, that the violence flared this time in Jerusalem. The city is deeply unequal, with widespread poverty and shoddy infrastructure in the east; many of its inhabitants live in squalor, subject to losing their residency status at any time. They are not part of the West Bank, nor do most feel they belong in Israel—and they have little reason to believe their status will change anytime soon.
“We’re stuck. You have the Jewish state on one side, and the collaborators of the Palestinian Authority on the other,” said Shalloudi’s uncle. “What happened with my nephew… he is no different than any other young man here in Silwan.”
The lone wolves will keep coming.