Corking the Volcano: Terror and Counter-terror in Jerusalem
On March 6, 2008, a Palestinian resident of the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Jebel Mukabber entered an Israeli religious seminary in West Jerusalem and opened fire on students with an automatic weapon, killing 7 (all but one under the age of 17) and injuring many more. On July 2, 2008, a Palestinian resident of the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sur Baher working at a construction site in West Jerusalem commandeered a bulldozer and drove it through crowds in West Jerusalem, killing 3 and wounding many more. On July 23, 2008, in an apparent “copy cat” attack, a Palestinian resident of the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Umm Tuba working on a road crew in West Jerusalem commandeered a bulldozer and drove it through a crowd in West Jerusalem; while nobody was killed or severely wounded in the attack, many were lightly wounded and at least one was moderately wounded.
In the wake of these attacks, a debate has emerged in Israel over how to deal with what many Israelis now see as the terror threat posed by Palestinians in East Jerusalem. There are loud calls from politicians and from the public for punitive actions like demolition of homes and revocation of residency rights and/or social benefits of family members of the attackers, as well as curbs on the freedoms of all Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, including limitations on freedom of movement (to keep them out of Israeli areas) and restrictions on access to large vehicles (to stave off another bulldozer attack).
Justifications for such measures center on deterrence and security, but honest observers, including writers of editorials in many Israeli papers, recognize that at the heart of these calls are two things. First, a desire to hold someone responsible and to exact from them a price – a desire that is complicated by the fact that all of these acts have apparently been freelance initiatives, not linked to Hamas or any other organized party, therefore denying Israelis someone (still alive) from whom they can demand accountability. Second, these calls stem from desperation to deal with a situation that does not have an easy solution and whose cause is fundamentally linked to a larger political issue, namely, the future of Jerusalem and the fundamental relations between Israelis and Palestinians in the city.
It was clear from the outset that Israel’s initial decision to build a physical barrier/fence wall to separate Israelis and Palestinians signaled Israel’s conclusion that since it cannot effect the desire of Palestinians in the West Bank to harm Israelis, it would instead deny them the opportunity to do so. It was also clear early on that while this logic made some sense with respect to most of the West Bank, it did not hold in Jerusalem. Since 1967, the reality in Jerusalem is that the Palestinians of the city have had unlimited opportunity and ability to harm Israelis; the fact that they have historically refrained from harming Israelis reflected a lack of desire to do so. Astute observers warned in advance that, perversely, the same policies that Israel was implementing to deny West Bank Palestinians the opportunity to harm Israelis were likely to create, for the first time since 1967, a desire among a significant portion of Jerusalem’s Palestinians to do harm to Israelis (even a small minority, in this case, is significant).
Sadly, this is exactly the situation that has emerged today. During the second Intifada, Israel has arrested hundreds of West Bank Palestinians every month for security-related offenses. During the first 7 years of the Intifada, Israel has arrested a total of 270 East Jerusalem Palestinians (less the .1% of the population) for similar offenses – meaning the total arrests for 7 years in Jerusalem is less than the number of arrests every month in the West Bank. Clearly, Palestinians of East Jerusalem have not participated in acts of violence in significant numbers. This is the good news. The bad news is that when they have participated in acts of violence, it has been with devastating effect. And the news gets worse. During the first 6 months of 2008, 71 East Jerusalem Palestinians have been detailed for security offenses. This is a remarkable and dramatic increase that cannot be attributed to a statistical anomaly.
No one – least of all Israeli security officials – should be surprised by the current events and the sharp rise in East Jerusalemites’ participation in security related offenses. This is what happens when someone corks a volcano. Or in the case of East Jerusalem, when Israel cuts 250,000 Palestinians off from the West Bank, and simultaneously fails to integrate them into the fabric of life of the city (which is incidentally not something they desire), creates a leadership void among them, treats them as an alien hostile population, and continues to speak in the language of long-expired fictions that depict Jerusalem as the unified-capital-of-Israel-and-only-Israel-never-again-to-be-divided.
The policy responses to the terror attacks in Jerusalem being discussed – demolitions, expulsion from the city, and denial of entitlements – are based on the notion that the Palestinians can be bought (with rights and entitlements), and when this fails, they can be broken, using draconian, collective punishment measures. Unfortunately, such responses – which in the case of home demolitions were used in the past in the West Bank and then stopped, after security authorities recognized that they were not only ineffective but counterproductive – will only make more spontaneous terror emanating from East Jerusalem more likely. Treated as a hostile alien population, it is likely that more of this population will become exactly that – alienated and hostile. Other proposed responses – like not letting Palestinians from East Jerusalem have access to heavy vehicles – indicate the irrational direction this discussion is taking. Absent a more serious analysis of what Israel can and must do to address the problems of East Jerusalem, it is only a matter of time before we see proposals to bar East Jerusalemites from possessing metal cutlery and garden fertilizer.
Regrettably, I believe it is likely that, pending political agreements that resolve the future of Jerusalem and all of its residents, the violent trend in Jerusalem will continue, regardless of what Israel does. At best, a wise Israeli response can slow and weaken the trend; at worst, an imprudent Israeli response can accelerate and strengthen it. Anti-terror intelligence operations are of course critical, but in the context of freelance terror attacks, which lack any organizational support or assistance, intelligence operations have not been and will not be a hugely effective antidote. Given this reality, I would suggest the following as terror “retardants” in Jerusalem:
a. Drench East Jerusalem with services. Historically East Jerusalem has been neglected by the Jerusalem municipality, but this situation has become more acute as outlets to the West Bank have been cut off. The East Jerusalem population has lost jobs, social safety nets, and markets for products. For East Jerusalem neighborhoods left on the West Bank side of the barrier, the situation is even more dire. In addition, there is still a serious shortage of schools, with the denial of education in East Jerusalem representing perhaps Israel’s greatest contribution to Hamas. An interesting element in these recent attacks is the strange mixing of religious motivations and criminal background in the recent perpetrators. The response to these attacks appears to be to view them as religiously motivated, and to simultaneously blur the distinction between terror and crime.
b. Restore the connection between East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Without compromising on security, Israel should encourage ties between East Jerusalem and the West Bank, including facilitating access in both directions. Permitting West Bankers to pray on the Haram al Sharif, and encouraging East Jerusalemites to participate in the institutions of President Abbas’ Palestinian Authority, for example, will go a long way to restoring the fabric of life between the West Bank and East Jerusalem and will help stabilize the situation.
c. Permit Palestinian political activity in East Jerusalem. It is in Israel’s interest to permit Palestinians of East Jerusalem who support the peace process and reject terror to engage in political activity. Doing so is also an explicit Israeli obligation under the Roadmap – one which unfortunately has been largely ignored. By shutting these institutions down completely, as Israel has done, Israel has left the field wide open for Hamas. It is time for Israel to permit the re-opening of Palestinian institutions like Orient House – institutions that stabilize the situation by effectively enfranchising the long disenfranchised Palestinians of East Jerusalem.
d. Give Palestinians of East Jerusalem a political horizon. Israeli declarations regarding the eternal indivisibility of Jerusalem are not only disconnected from reality. They also have a pernicious effect on the ground, inflaming extremists among both Israelis and Palestinians in the city. It is time for Israel to articulate, at a minimum, that the future of East Jerusalem and its residents will be negotiated in good faith, and that Israel will not use the interim between now and final status negotiations to try to predetermine the outcome.
e. Restore Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation in Jerusalem. In the mid-1990s, Israel and the Palestinian Authority engaged in tacit security cooperation in Jerusalem, with the PA’s Jibril Rajub taking a leading role. If such security cooperation was considered useful and acceptable in 1996, in the context of an Arafat-run PA, Israel should seriously engage President Abbas with the goal of restoring discreet yet effective security cooperation between Israel and the PA in East Jerusalem today.
f. Reject collective punishment in all its forms.
Regrettably, the Israeli authorities have opted for a punitive course of action. Even though the Israeli security authorities do not claim that the terrorists’ families had advanced knowledge of the attacks, nor were they complicit in them, the Ministry of Defense has announced its intention to demolish the family home of the terrorist who carried out the attack at the religious seminary. The family appealed last week to the Israeli Supreme Court, which handed down a temporary restraining order preventing the demolition, pending deliberations on the family’s substantive claims.