Palestinians’ new weapons of choice can be found in every kitchen and parked outside their doors, presenting Israeli security forces with what may be their toughest challenge yet.
Nine people, including five killed yesterday at a Jerusalem synagogue, have been attacked in the past month by Palestinians who deliberately plowed cars into pedestrians or wielded knives and cleavers. Israeli Police Commissioner Yohanan Danino says assailants have acted on their own. This combination of readily accessible weapons and rogue attackers makes it impossible to foretell who will act, or where.
“It’s the lone-wolf syndrome,” Jonathan Fine, a senior researcher at the International Institute for Counter– Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, said last week. “It’s the worst kind of terrorism you can think of because it’s unpredictable.”
Violence has been mounting since July, after a Palestinian teenager in Jerusalem was burned alive in suspected retribution for the killing of three Israeli Jewish youths shot to death by their kidnappers in the West Bank. Knifings and runovers have multiplied amid recent unrest over competing claims to the most sacred site in Jerusalem’s Old City and the death of a Palestinian driver found hanged in his bus. Postings on social media urge Palestinians to employ these methods to kill Jews.
Fear is taking hold. Ruth Shervey, a 19-year-old law student in Jerusalem, said she recites a chapter from the biblical Book of Psalms before she leaves the house.
“I pay attention when I cross the street: I look 20 times before I cross,” she said in an interview. “When I wait for the bus, I stand as far back from the street as I can.”
One of the victims of a previous attack was a three-month-old baby killed by a driver who rammed into a group of people waiting at a tram station.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has accused Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas, the militant group that rules the Gaza Strip, of inciting the violence. Last week, Abbas lauded Palestinian protesters for trying to keep Jews from “defiling” a contested Jerusalem shrine that’s holy to Muslims as the al-Aqsa mosque complex and to Jews as the Temple Mount, the location of their biblical temple.
Palestinian youths are striking out to draw attention to a statehood cause that’s getting lost amid other turmoil in the Arab world, said Abdel Majid Swelem, a political science professor at Birzeit University in the West Bank.
The Israeli government “thinks now is the time to resolve the battle for Jerusalem while the Arab world is busy with its situation and the international community doesn’t care about the Palestinian issue,” he said. The Palestinian response is “all due to frustration and the lack of a political horizon.”
‘Atmosphere of Terror’
Assailants have used knives, cars and even earthmovers in the past to kill Israelis. They’ve turned again to “primitive methods such as cars and knives because security in the West Bank and Jerusalem is so tight,” said Hassan Abdo, a Gaza-based political analyst.
Militants also figure that the spectacle of charred buses and blown-up cafes costs Palestinians sympathy for their cause, Fine says. Enter the lone assailant, who needs no training and can act at will, deepening Israelis’ sense of insecurity.
“The important thing is not how many people they kill but the fact that they do it and the atmosphere of terror,” said Fine. “Everyone is walking around watching cars now. That’s what terrorism does.”
Some attackers evade Israel’s barriers and security forces to slip in illegally. Others assault on their own turf, in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, territories Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war.
Militants in Gaza, having been pummeled by Israel in the summer war, “are encouraging their people to act in the West Bank knowing they can’t act from within” the coastal strip, said Yaakov Amidror, Netanyahu’s former Israeli national security adviser. Religious incitement is another “very strong motivation,” he said. Israel, the U.S. and European Union consider Hamas a terrorist group.
A campaign to use low-tech weapons is being waged on social media. An Arabic-language song on YouTube encourages drivers to “run over the settlers,” and on Facebook, Palestinians are urged to mow down Jews. The Anti-Defamation League, a U.S.-based organization fighting anti-Semitism, has counted more than 90 such Facebook pages.
A posting on Hamas’s website showed a hand holding a dagger draped with the organization’s green flag, with a call to avenge the bus driver’s death. While an Israeli autopsy concluded he committed suicide, some Palestinians say he was killed by Jewish extremists and Abbas has called him the victim of a “heinous crime.” They haven’t offered evidence to back up their claims.
In yesterday’s attack, assailants armed with cleavers and a pistol entered a Jerusalem synagogue, killing four men, three dual U.S.-Israeli citizens and one a British dual national, police said. A rescue service spokesman said they chopped off the arm of a man wearing phylacteries, small boxes containing scriptures that Jewish men strap to their heads and one arm during morning prayers.
Danino, the police chief, called the assault one of a series carried out by “individuals who decide to do terrible things.”
The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a small militant group, took credit for the assault, contradicting Danino’s version of lone actors.
The use of a pistol “suggests something a little bit more premeditated” than runovers and knifings because guns are “a lot less available than a car or a rock or a Molotov cocktail,” said Mark Heller, a research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.
Even so, the latest violence doesn’t diverge from the pattern of assaults that aren’t complicated to plan or execute. “Getting guns in Jerusalem is not a problem,” said Fine, the counter-terrorism specialist. “There is a whole black market of weapons.”
Daniel Ohana, a 24-year-old security guard and math student, said the unpredictable violence has driven him to carry a weapon.
“I used to leave my gun at home because it’s not very comfortable to carry,” he said. “Now I don’t leave the house without my gun or my pepper spray.”
For Related News and Information: Four Killed in Palestinian Attack at Jerusalem Synagogue (3) Israel Boosts Security in Wake of Stabbings by Palestinians Jerusalem Seethes as Rival Claims to Holy Site Turn Violent
To contact the reporter on this story: Alisa Odenheimer in Jerusalem at [email protected]
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at [email protected] Amy Teibel, Glen Carey