November 10, 2014 | Foreign Policy

Jerusalem, on a Knife’s Edge

Stabbing attacks and random acts of Palestinian terror have brought the violence in Gaza and the West Bank into the heart of Israel.

This is not the Third Intifada. At least, it probably isn't. But the persistent violence that has racked Jerusalem could certainly spark a wider popular protest movement across the Palestinian territories. Call it Jerusalem's Arab Awakening.

In recent weeks, the holy city has seemed to be on the edge of an explosion. On Nov. 5, Ibrahim al-Akri killed an Israeli border guard and wounded three when he drove his car into a crowd. Two weeks before, Abdelrahman al-Shaludi killed a 3-month-old baby and a 22-year-old woman and wounded at least six others in a similar vehicular attack. The latter two perpetrators hailed from the East Jerusalem neighborhoods of Shuafat and Silwan.

The violence only seems to be spreading. On Monday, Nov. 10, two Israelis were killed by Palestinian men in separate stabbing attacks in the West Bank and Tel Aviv. Last Friday, in the Lower Galilee town of Sakhnin, Israeli police shot and killed a man wielding a knife, setting off protests and rock-throwing among Palestinian youth.

The Jerusalem attacks, which have taken place against the backdrop of months of sporadic violence in East Jerusalem, mark a watershed moment for the city's Arab community. This could be the first time since the Wailing Wall riots of 1929 — arguably the violent turning point in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict — that Jerusalem is the epicenter of Palestinian unrest.

Since the Israelis conquered the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in 1967, it has always been actors from these territories who have served as the driving forces behind Palestinian unrest against Israel. For example, the first spark for the First Intifada came from Gaza, after an Israel Defense Forces vehicle collided with a truck full of Palestinian workers, killingfour. The funerals led to mass protests, which soon swept across both territories.

The Second Intifada erupted after then opposition leader Ariel Sharon's tour of the Temple Mount, the platform atop the ruins of the Jewish Second Temple that is also home to Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock. The uprising was even called the Al-Aqsa Intifada. However, the impetus for the unrest came from the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority leadership. Prior to the outbreak of the intifada, Palestinian President Yasser Arafat called young members from his Fatah faction “the new generals” and threatened to “launch a new intifada” in order to establish an independent Palestinian state. The Israelis went so far as tocorner Arafat in his compound in Ramallah in a bid to quell the violence.

If anything, Jerusalem Arabs have traditionally stayed out of the fray. Much of this likely has to do with the Arab businesses — many in the Old City — that rise and fall based on tourism or are otherwise tied to the Israeli economy. But mercantile interests don't explain everything: A surprising poll released in 2011 indicated that some 40 percent of Jerusalem Arabs preferred to live in Israel rather than a future Palestinian state; 85 percent of Jerusalem Arabs also elected not to vote in the 2006 Palestinian elections.

This desire not to rock the boat with Israel, however, may have run its course. The first sign of trouble came right after the abduction and brutal murder this summer of 16-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir, a Palestinian resident of Shuafat, by three Israelis, two of whom had histories of mental illness.

Before it could even be established whether the killing was motivated by nationalism, Shuafat descended into utter chaos. Protesters threw rocks and Molotov cocktails at border police while rioters destroyed the light-rail station that passed through the heart of town.

Ever since, Shuafat has refused to die down. The unrest persisted throughout this summer's Gaza war between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist faction Hamas. As the death toll mounted and images of Gaza's destruction appeared day after day on their television screens, other Jerusalem Arab neighborhoods also erupted in protest, including Issawiya and Abu Tor. The areas immediately surrounding the Old City also saw their share of tire burning, rock throwing, and other forms of protest.

The Israel Police reported that between July and September, 740 individuals were arrested in East Jerusalem for “disturbing the peace,” and 246 indictments have been filed. Another report suggested that incidents of violence against Jews living in East Jerusalem neighborhoods nearly doubled from less than 200 in July 2013 to 360 in July 2014.

Meanwhile, the Temple Mount has become a flash point for conflict, adding even more religious significance to the rising tensions. In August, hundreds of Israelis ascended onto the platform on the Jewish holiday of Tisha B'Av, which commemorates the destruction of the first and second Jewish temples in Jerusalem. Angrily rejecting Jewish claims to the holy site, masked Palestinians erupted in violence for two days straight, attacking police with stones and firebombs. But it did not end there. In late September, Palestinian youths shot firecrackers and threw stones at police officers from the Temple Mount. That same month, the Kuwaiti foreign minister made a high-profile visit to the holy site, where he affirmed Palestinian and Arab claims to the contested holy site and echoed concerns among many Palestinians that Jerusalem is undergoing a process of “Judaization.”

In an apparent attempt to buck this trend, Moataz Hijazi of East Jerusalem shot Jewish activist Yehuda Glick at close range on Oct. 29, leaving him in serious condition. Glick is a prominent opponent of the Israeli law that prohibits Jews from praying on the Temple Mount, in part to prevent exactly the kind of unrest we are seeing today. He argues that the Temple Mount is, in fact, the holiest site of the Jewish people and that Jews should be allowed to pray there.

Glick, who is recovering from his gunshot wounds, is not a lone voice. Several Israeli lawmakers are pushing to lift the prohibitions against Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount. One is Likud parliamentarian and Knesset Deputy Speaker Moshe Feiglin, who took a tour of the Temple Mount with a formidable security entourage on Nov. 2, soon after Glick's shooting. Feiglin said that he sought to “change the reality” of the ban on Jewish prayer at the site and argued that “the giving up of Israeli sovereignty on the Temple Mount will lead to conceding Jerusalem and the whole country.”

That a majority of Israelis may not agree with Glick and Feiglin is, at this point, almost inconsequential. The Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem continue to seethe, and now some of the Arab Israelis from Israel's north are getting into the act. Dozens of protesters in Kafr Kanna this weekend hurled stones at police, set tires ablaze, and blocked the road leading into town after Israeli security forces shot a 20-year-old who reportedly tried to stab an officer.

Muslim world leaders — including the king of Jordan and the president of Turkey — are calling for Israel to take steps to restore calm. The Arab media has let loose a barrage of scathing editorials and programs that have, once again, put the Middle East on edge.

This regional tension has added another layer of complexity to Israel's response to the Arab Jerusalem Awakening. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will likely need to tread lightly, taking care to ensure that anger from the Arab world or even some of Israel's European partners does not lead to diplomatic eruptions or Israeli isolation. At the same time, he will need to take a hard line domestically — acting swiftly and decisively against those who carry out attacks against Israelis and reaffirming Israel's sovereignty over all of Jerusalem, including the Arab neighborhoods.

For now, the violence seems to be spiraling out of anyone's ability to control it. Some 30 Palestinians were injured on Nov. 7 after Israeli forces responded to unrest in the Shuafat refugee camp in East Jerusalem. On Nov. 9, Israeli media reported that Palestinians from Bir Nabala, a town near Jerusalem, drilled and hammered a large hole in a wall along a West Bank highway. Meanwhile, a new YouTube video extolling the virtues of vehicular assault against Israelis is going viral.

Israel is, of course, eager to contain this Jerusalem Arab Awakening before it becomes a trigger for wider Palestinian unrest. But even if relative calm can be restored, the recent disturbances portend a long-term challenge. That challenge is perhaps best symbolized by Shuafat's light rail, which city planners deliberately ran through the Arab neighborhood to foster coexistence. It won't be easy to find a new route for the rail. Nor will it be easy to rebuild trust among those who use it.

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