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Synagogue Attacks Mark New Level of Escalation as Jerusalem Inches Closer to Breaking Point

Clashes break out in West Bank city of Ramallah and two Palestinians are severely injured in retaliatory attacks following the slaughter of four rabbis during morning prayers on Tuesday.

by Alice Speri
Nov 19 2014, 7:30pm

Image via Getty

The attack at a west Jerusalem synagogue that killed four rabbis and injured several others on Tuesday marked a new level of escalation to the growing tensions that have gripped the city over the last several months.

Within hours of the bloody assault, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had ordered the demolition of the homes of the attackers — two Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem — and arrested a dozen of their relatives. The Abu Ali Mustafa Brigades — the military wing of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine — claims to have been behind the attack on the synagogue.

On Tuesday night, Israeli forces fired tear gas in the West Bank city of Ramallah, where the Palestinian Authority is headquartered, and two Palestinians were severely injured — one shot and another stabbed — in separate retaliatory attacks near that city and in Jerusalem. At least 23 people were arrested as unrest spread across the city, police said.

At the heart of the latest wave of violence is what Palestinians have denounced as an attempt to displace them from the city — physically, through discriminatory housing policies and settlement expansion, and symbolically, through restrictions imposed on Muslims praying at the al-Aqsa Mosque, which sits on one of the world's most contested pieces of real estate, the Temple Mount or al-Haram al-Sharif.

Netanyahu Calls for Homes of Synagogue Attackers to be Bulldozed. Read more here.

Israeli security officers standing guard in a Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem. (Photo by Alice Speri)

The synagogue killings — the deadliest in Jerusalem since 2008, when a Palestinian gunman killed eight religious students — come amid an upsurge in violence which had already killed five Israelis and one foreigner in knife and car attacks, and twice as many Palestinians in retaliatory assaults and security operations. Israeli security forces also demolished the home of the Palestinian man responsible for one of the vehicle attacks on Tuesday night.

A few days of relative calm  — following a partial easing of access restrictions to the mosque, brokered in Jordan — came to an end after the death of a Palestinian bus driver who was found hanged in his vehicle in Jerusalem on Sunday. The official autopsy conducted by Israeli officials ruled the death a suicide. However in East Jerusalem, residents widely believed it was a "lynching."

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the synagogue attack — which Hamas and Islamic Jihad praised. But PLO spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi said in a meeting in Ramallah on Tuesday that the occupation was the cause of the unraveling situation in East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed after the 1967 war, and that she worried the tensions could "spin out of control."

"We've been warning, what's happening on the ground is going to blow up in our faces," Ashrawi said, referring specifically to the expansion of settlements into Palestinian east Jerusalem. "There is a sense of things brewing, simmering; people are angry."

"I don't believe that violence will get anyone anywhere, the problem is people define violence only if it's carried out by Palestinians," she added, pointing to the ongoing impunity for Israel's actions in Gaza over the summer, which rights groups and the United Nations have said could constitute war crimes. "But even if the occupation resorts to violence it doesn't mean we should."

Her sentiment was echoed by Palestinians in East Jerusalem, many of whom feared an escalation in already frequent violent attacks against them, and worried the synagogue killings would lead to more unrest and further crackdown on their communities.

In Photos: The Aftermath of the Bloody Jerusalem Synagogue Attack. Read more.

The spot where Mohammed Abu Khdeir was kidnapped in July and a monument in his memory, in Shuafat neighborhood. (Photo by Alice Speri)

More than 1,300 residents of east Jerusalem have been arrested since the summer — the largest detention campaign since the second intifada. At least 40 percent were children, according to the Palestinian Prisoners Club, an advocacy group.

A law passed earlier this month stiffened the sentence for rock throwing — the typical means of protest for Palestinian youth — to up to 20 years in prison, and last month, Netanyahu deployed more than 1,000 additional police officers to patrol the streets of the city.

Clashes in Palestinian neighborhoods like Abu Tor, Shaufat and Silwan have been regular over the last several months, set off by the abduction and burning to death of 16-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir by Jewish extremists in July, and further fueled by the Gaza war and the al-Aqsa restrictions.

Almost nightly, groups of Palestinian youth have been throwing firecrackers and rocks along some of those neighborhoods' main roads, as scores of Israeli soldiers and police officers stand watch at every few blocks. Police and armed private security officers also guard stops of the Jerusalem light railway, which links West Jerusalem to the settlements in the East through Palestinian areas, and along which of some of the car attacks of the last few weeks were carried out.

While the Abu Khdeir killing in July and the hanging death of a bus driver this weekend have been catalysts to renewed clashes, residents of East Jerusalem told VICE News that resentment had been growing deeper also because of frequent provocation by settlers moving into their neighborhoods, the difficulty in securing building permits in the densely populated area, and the uninterrupted construction of Jewish homes that many Palestinians see as systematic attempts to push them out of the city.

'The issue here is not just the spark that sets it off but that so much kindling has been built prior to that that leads the spark to turn into a massive fire.'

While Jerusalem has always been one of the most intractable issues at the heart of the conflict — with Israel claiming it as its undivided capital and the Palestinians and the international community considering it under occupation — all recent wars have taken place in the West Bank or Gaza, where the Palestinian Authority and Hamas respectively remain in control.

The second intifada of the early 2000s rocked west Jerusalem with frequent suicide bombings — but those attacks were normally carried out by Palestinians from the West Bank. Palestinian residents of Jerusalem — most of whom have municipal IDs and are subject to Jerusalem's Israeli authorities, but no Israeli citizenship — remained largely quiet at the time. That's no longer the case.

"The situation in Jerusalem is moving to a very dangerous place," Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the Palestine Center and The Jerusalem Fund, told VICE News earlier this month, joining the chorus of ominous security predictions. "The issue here is not just the spark that sets it off but that so much kindling has been built prior to that that leads the spark to turn into a massive fire, and that's what we are seeing today… This is potentially very, very destabilizing and it can go in that direction very quickly."

Jewish settlers in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheik Jarrah. (Photo by Alice Speri)

East Jerusalem residents interviewed by VICE News shared a mix of frustration with their worsening conditions and fears that they would be made to pay the consequences of the attacks.

"During the second intifada, Jerusalem was isolated from the West Bank and even in the first two wars in Gaza, Jerusalem was not mobilized," Bashar, a 24 year-old resident of Beit Hanina, told VICE News while driving through the sites of recent clashes. "But since July you can see that the people are really cautious, and they feel that we are threatened in East Jerusalem."

"A lot of collective punishment was established," he added, citing everything from the al-Aqsa restrictions to growing home demolitions — not only of the families of attackers but of anyone found to lack the required building permits, which Palestinians say are nearly impossible for them to get.

Neighborhoods like Beit Hanina are constellated by the ruins of homes some Palestinian residents were forced to demolish themselves — in order to avoid paying fees for the bulldozers sent by the authorities who ordered their homes destroyed. That's in addition to the punitive demolitions against the family of attackers — a practice which Netanyahu ordered the resumption of this summer after it was found counterproductive and halted in 2005. On Tuesday night the IDF Engineering Corps demolished a home in Silwan — that of Abdel Rahman al-Shalodi, the man responsible for the October attack that killed a three-month-old baby and an Ecuadorian woman.

Palestinians complain they are subject to collective punishment from the Israeli authorities in a way that Jewish citizens are not. In July, following the abduction and murder of three Israeli settler teens by two Palestinians — the incident which sparked the Gaza bombardment — the family homes of the suspects were demolished and some 800 Palestinians arrested and nine civilians killed in raids. But following the Khdeir killing — which took place two days later in an apparent act of retaliation — Israel was accused by the United States of targeting members of the victim's family itself for arrest, and the Israeli Supreme Court rejected arguments that the two cases should incur equal responses form the authorities.

Mohammed Abu al Hummus is a lifelong resident of Isewiya, a Palestinian neighborhood surrounded by settlers, which has been blocked off by police following clashes. Palestinians are now forced to park their cars outside and walk down to the densely populated neighborhood, where police continue to enter.

"The people that killed Mohammed Abu Khdeir are not from Isewiya so why (have) they blocked our neighborhood? " he asked. "They don't punish their communities, they don't demolish their houses." 

While home prices in the city skyrocket, many Palestinians have moved on the other side of the separation wall — built by Israel across entire Jerusalem neighborhoods — into shantytown-like areas that get no services because they are under Israeli jurisdiction but physically cut off from the city.

A security guard at a railway station in East Jerusalem that has been a site of attacks. (Photo by Alice Speri)

Those factors — as well as the chain of back-and-forth violence each side claims began with an attack to its own — have fueled a resentment that has burst into largely uncoordinated violence, carried out by lone individuals in an apparent "copy cat" fashion.

"There's a certain amount of modeling and imitation behind this," Clark McCauley, a psychologist and co-director of the Solomon Asch Center for the Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict told VICE News after the second car attack in as many weeks, earlier this month. "You make a certain kind of idea salient across a large audience and there are going to be some people who just can't resist trying to follow."

"These are mostly people acting as individuals and not part of an organization or plan," he added. "It may be not so planful as to be aiming at creating fear but rather it's a matter of justice as they see it, revenge at the group level."

Cars — and knives — are the ultimate weapon of desperation, some suggested.

"It is a way in which almost anybody can act, no skills required, no special preparation," McCauley said. "It's a weapon available to everybody."

'It's a question of individual acts and sometimes it unleashes something that cannot be controlled by anybody.'

Imitation has also spread to both sides of the conflict — with some Palestinians claiming the "run over" attacks were in response for settlers in the West Bank doing the same to Palestinians civilians, and Israelis responding to recent stabbings with more stabbings.

"You can see that the number of attacks by both sides is just rising," Bashar said, adding that many families have become wary to leave their children out alone. "This is weird because previously it was the other way, it was clashes from the West Bank against the Israelis but right now it's the opposite: you can see that there are campaigns on both sides to take revenge and attack the other side."

But while it is significantly more marginal than a coordinated military offensive, and nowhere close in scale to the suicide bombings of the second intifada, the random and spontaneous nature of the attacks — which has boosted the fear factor and put all residents of Jerusalem on edge — is also an indication of a phenomenon harder to control.

"This does not seem to be a widely organized sort of effort, but rather a lot of lone-wolf types, if you will, that are finding whatever means possible to lash out, including some of the simplest tools, from cars to knives, to what have you," Munayyer said. "This is not a movement that seems to have a leadership right now but it's a population that is frustrated and has reached boiling point."

That's scaring Israelis and Palestinians alike.

"When individuals take matters into their own hands it means that they have been provoked beyond endurance," Ashrawi said. "It's a question of individual acts and sometimes it unleashes something that cannot be controlled by anybody."

"These are individual acts and they will continue, because if you keep pushing people, you keep pushing buttons, you keep provoking, this is what will happen, people will react," she added. "This is a powder keg."

Observers have rushed to call the Jerusalem violence the beginning of a "third intifada" — a call sometimes echoed by Palestinians on social media, while a Jewish campaign calling for "death to Arabs" has also grown traction.

But Palestinian and Israelis alike have warned against fueling that rhetoric, and noted the attacks remain relatively contained.

Graffiti on the separation wall cutting across parts of East Jerusalem. (Photo by Alice Speri)

 "I think that we are not yet down the slippery slope," Dani Dayan, one of the leaders of Israel's settlers movement, said during a meeting with journalists in Jerusalem on Tuesday night. "The fact that it's almost exclusively in Jerusalem is good."

But if the Palestinians chose violence, he warned, Israel would respond with "all out war."

While Jerusalem has been the epicenter of the recent violence, developments there have already reverberated in West Bank towns and settlements. On Tuesday, as the country responded with horror to the synagogue slaughters, Palestinians braced for a new scale of retaliation.

But even if the confrontations don't spread further, many see Jerusalem's predicament as an indicator of a collapsed peace process.

"This conflict may never end," Daniel Sneidemann, founder of Terrestrial Jerusalem, an Israeli NGO that tracks the city's development and its impact on the political process, told VICE News while standing one of the roads that mark an invisible but very tangible line between Jerusalem's Israeli and Palestinian residents.

"But if it does end, it ends in Jerusalem," he added.  

Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi