On the volcano’s edge

Israeli and Palestinian leaders have to show self-restraint and political courage to stop the wave of violence in Jerusalem from escalating.

Scene of Jerusalem terror attack, November 5 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Scene of Jerusalem terror attack, November 5
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
THE WAVE of violence in Jerusalem has left Israeli and Palestinian officials, as well as independent experts, deliberating whether it heralds a new, third, intifada and whether it is spreading even to the heart of Israel, as evidenced by a stabbing attack in Tel Aviv on November 10 that left a soldier critically wounded. The truth, however, is that no one knows.
The first week of November saw events hit a new peak after more than four months of violence when a Border Police officer and a 17-year-old yeshiva student were killed, and 15 IDF troops and civilians were injured in two separate incidents.
In the first attack, a Palestinian driver-terrorist was killed on the spot by police officers and in the other incident two Palestinians were arrested. In both cases, it appeared that the Palestinians had used their cars as weapons, deliberately ramming into security personnel and civilians in Jerusalem and on the road to Hebron.
Later, doubts were raised whether the second Hebron-area incident was indeed a terror attack or an unfortunate hit-and- run road accident, though very few Israelis believed the latter version of events. What matters here is the perception that every Is - raeli Jew killed by a Palestinian must be a victim of a terror attack.
The Palestinian media has already begun calling the chain of events the “car intifada,” noting that the November incidents were preceded by an October 22 car attack that killed two bystanders at a light rail station – a three-month-old Israeli baby girl and a young Ecuadorian woman – while the Palestinian driver was shot dead by police.
According to the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet), many of the violent incidents in Jerusalem in recent months were initiated by Palestinian children aged 12 or young - er. Continuous violent confrontations, including stone and petrol bomb throwing, forced the police to boost its presence in East Jerusalem by a few thousand more personnel. One of the main rallying calls by the teen militants was “stop the Israeli takeover of Al-Aqsa.”
AN ISRAELI commentator rushed to call it “the Children’s Intifada” referring to the 13th century “Children’s Crusade” to ex - pel Muslims from the Holy Land.
The security establishment is, however, reluctant to define what is happening in the capital as an intifada. They don’t wish to be seen as veteran generals preparing for a new campaign by basing themselves on the experience of previous battles.
The Shin Bet prefers to define the events as “popular terror,” but the question of what to call it – intifada, terror, popular terror – is simply a matter of semantics dependent on the viewpoint of the beholder.
There is no doubt, however, that Jerusalem is on fire. Though the blaze is at a low level for the present, an errant wind could fan the flames and the conflagration could quickly spread to the West Bank.
The wave of violence began in early July with the murder of Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khdeir by three Jewish religious extremists seeking to avenge the abduction and murder by Hamas operatives of three yeshiva students, who had been hitchhiking near Hebron. Neither the Shin Bet nor the police have any idea when the current vicious cycle of violence will end.
Since the murder of the Jewish youths in June, followed by the Abu Khdeir murder and the outbreak of the Gaza war soon after, there has been a significant increase in the number of violent incidents in the Jerusalem area in both Arab and Jewish neighborhoods. The violence, mainly in the form of throwing stones, firecrackers and petrol bombs by young Palestinians at police and Jewish civilians, has escalated into vehicular terror attacks and the attempted assassination of Jewish Temple Mount activist Yehuda Glick.
Still, we are dealing with localized events. The hot spots are two Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. One is Issawiya near Mount Scopus and the Hebrew University campus. The other is in Silwan, or the City of David as it is referred to by Jewish right-wing residents.
This is the area Jewish settlers have earmarked as their place of choice to “Judaize” Palestinian East Jerusalem. They are busily involved in purchasing, legally, or illegally, Arab property. Even President Reuven Rivlin, a veteran right-wing politician, expressed his revulsion describing their behavior as the actions of “thieves in the night.”
And, of course, there is the explosive issue of the Temple Mount, a sacred site for both Jews and Muslims.
Extremists on both sides manipulate the already fraught situation to fan the flames. Hamas, supported by the Northern Branch of the Israeli Islamic Movement, disseminates the claim that Jews intend to destroy the holy mosques to build the Jewish Third Temple.
Right-wing Israeli politicians, heavily escorted by police, carry out demonstrative visits to the Temple Mount (a similar visit by Ariel Sharon to the site in 2000 was one of the matches that set off the flames of the second intifada).
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who does not want to see another Palestinian uprising, unfortunately chose not sit idly by and added his own inflammatory remarks, accusing the Israeli government of being responsible for the violence. In fact, Benjamin Netanyahu’s government would dearly like peace and tranquility to be restored to the city.
HOWEVER, THE prime minister vacillates when it comes to restraining the right-wing constituents in his coalition.
Netanyahu’s tactics are transparently clear. First, he sits passively by, allowing the flames to take hold. Why? Because he senses that calling for calm is not well received by his supporters. Netanyahu also fears the rise of Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the Bayit Yehudi party, who does not miss an opportunity to score political points even at the cost of national interests, including foreign relations.
Time and again, Bennett has challenged Netanyahu as part of his plan to win the next elections and replace the Likud leader as the next prime minister, so Netanyahu also has to present himself as a loyal hard-core right-winger.
But when Netanyahyu is challenged by international pressure and threats from Jordan to break off diplomatic relations, he feels he must pay lip service to calming things down. On November 6, Netanyahu spoke on the phone with Jordan’s King Abdullah and promised that Israel remains committed to maintaining the status quo on the Temple Mount. Jordan, under the terms of the peace treaty with Israel, retains a special status regarding administration of the Mount.
Still, Jewish zealots encouraged by some irresponsible right-wing Knesset Members argue that Jews have the right to visit the place and pray there, even though religiously this notion is controversial and challenged by Jewish theological scholars and rabbis.
The two Chief Rabbis recently reiterated the prohibition, for religious reasons, against treading on the Temple Mount.
The dispute over the Temple Mount is a recipe for a potential religious war. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is rooted in national, political and territorial aspirations.
It also has socioeconomic aspects of almost 50 years of Jewish patronizing rule based on discrimination and negligence of the needs of the Arab community. Jerusa - lem doesn’t need to be dragged into a new dimension – a religious war.
What is required are responsible leaders on both sides who should spare no effort to damp down the flames. What is also needed is the restoration of the peace negotiations that have been stalled by Netanyahu’s intransigence and Abbas’s belief that the Israeli prime minister is not a partner for peace who would be ready to make painful concessions as he once promised.
Jerusalem is sitting on the edge of a volcano. Israeli and Palestinian leaders must show responsibility, self-restraint and political courage. Otherwise, any minor incident could escalate into another terrible war – the name of which has yet to be determined.
Yossi Melman is an Israeli security commentator and co-author of ‘Spies Against Armageddon.’ He blogs at www.israel - spy.com and tweets at yossi_melman