Tuesday morning’s attack on an Orthodox synagogue complex in Jerusalem, which left four rabbis—three U.S. citizens and one Briton—dead during morning prayers is the worst act of violence suffered by Israeli civilians in years. (Update, Nov. 18, 2014: A fifth victim, a Druze police officer injured in the attack, died on Tuesday night.) In the New York Times, the leader of a religious emergency response team compared the carnage at the site to “scenes from the Holocaust.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to respond with a “heavy hand,” and the incident will add to the growing perception that the recent unrest in the city resembles something close to a new intifada, albeit one characterized more by sporadic uncoordinated attacks than a mass organized uprising.
The Times reports that the attackers were “described as being motivated by what they saw as threats to the revered plateau that contains Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock.” Hamas has also stated that the attack was in retaliation for an incident involving the death of a Palestinian bus driver whose body was found in Jerusalem yesterday.
At the moment, Jews are allowed to visit, but not pray, at the complex, the third-holiest site in the world for Muslims. Netanyahu has promised to keep it that way, most recently in a conversation earlier this month with King Abdullah II of Jordan, the complex’s official custodian.
However, hard-line Jewish religious activists have been pushing for the right to pray at the site, which Jews refer to as the Temple Mount, and a number of lawmakers, including members of Netanyahu’s Likud Party, support the movement. One of the leaders of the campaign, U.S.-born settler and activist Yehuda Glick, was shot last month, prompting Israel to take the rare step of closing off access to al-Aqsa entirely. Israel has frequently placed restrictions on entry to the site or barred specific groups, such as young men, from praying, but the full closure was described by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as an “act of war.”
Both Netanyahu and Secretary of State John Kerry said that Tuesday’s attack was the direct result of “incitement” by Palestinian leaders. This was referring not only to the “act of war” remark but also a speech last week in which Abbas accused Israel of waging a “religious war” by allowing “settlers and extremists” to pray at the site. “We will not allow our holy places to be contaminated,” he said at a ceremony in Ramallah to honor the 10th anniversary of Yasser Arafat’s death. Abbas condemned Tuesday’s attack, though there were reportedly celebrations in parts of Gaza and the West Bank.
Amid all of this, the violence has been growing. Over the past month, Reuters reports, “five Israelis and a foreign visitor have been deliberately run over and killed or stabbed to death by Palestinians. About a dozen Palestinians have been killed, including those accused of carrying out the attacks.” These also included a Palestinian man fatally shot by Israeli security forces during a demonstration in the West Bank last week.
The most recent incident involves 32-year-old bus driver Yussuf al-Ramuni, whose body was found hanged in his vehicle on Monday morning. Police say it appears to be a suicide but his family has rejected this explanation and reports have circulated in the Palestinian media that he was murdered by settlers.
Going forward, it seems unlikely that Netanyahu will change the policy at al-Aqsa. But the voices in favor of doing so, including within his own coalition, are strong enough that it at least seems plausible to Palestinians that this could happen.
Likewise, while Abbas’ comments certainly haven’t calmed the situation, neither his Fatah movement nor Hamas actually appears to be orchestrating the violence. Abbas almost certainly doesn’t want another devastating intifada, which, if it comes, could potentially be driven as much by frustration with the Palestinian Authority as with Israel.
While important for understanding the recent outbreak of violence, the al-Aqsa question may ultimately be secondary to the lasting anger from last summer’s Gaza war and overall frustration with the lack of political progress. If al-Aqsa weren’t the flashpoint right now, it seems likely that something else would be.