Understanding the Recent Violence in Jerusalem

On October 1st, Etim and Naama Henkin were killed while driving in their car near the Israeli settlement of Itamar on the West Bank. The attacks were claimed by Al Asque Martyrs Brigade, an extremist militant organization which swears allegiance to the Palestinian political party Fatah. The attacks were allegedly a retaliation for the July deaths of a Palestinian couple and their 18 month old son by suspected Jewish extremists in Duma, near the Henkin’s hometown of Neria.

Two days later, the first of what would become a month-long pattern of attacks occurred in Jerusalem. Muhammed Halabi, a 19 year old Palestinian from al-Bireh, near the West Bank city of Ramallah, killed two Israeli Men- Nehemia Lavi and Aharon Banita- and injured a woman and her son in a knife attack in Jerusalem. He was later shot and killed by border police.  From there, things have only intensified. With more and more deaths happening every day, both Palestinians and Israelis have lost their lives, either from the stabbing attacks by Palestinians against Israelis or from casualties caused by the Israelis themselves, as violent clashes between police and Palestinians have left many dead.

Nearly a month after the deaths of Etim and Naama Huntin, many questions persist as to the nature of recent violence. Why now? And, who is to blame? Why are the attacks mostly carried out by knifepoint? And, why are the assailants so young? Is the Israeli security response justified? And, perhaps most importantly: Is this a Third Intifada (“Uprising”), the likes of which haven’t been seen since 2000?

The source of the most recent conflict between Israelis and Palestinians can be traced back to September 13th of this year. One narrative describes young Palestinian men barricading themselves within the historically significant Al-Aqsa mosque and  hurling rocks and fireworks at Israeli police officers,  eventually spilling out onto the surrounding streets before subsiding. However, Palestinian news sources claim that Israeli police stormed the mosque without provocation during morning prayers and proceeded to make arrests, which in turn led to the conflict.

Whatever the truth may be, the September 13th events surrounding the Al-Aqsa mosque can be directly tied to October’s stabbing attacks. The Al-Aqsa mosque has a unique place in the religions of both Israelis and Palestinians: for Israelis, it is the location of the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism. To Palestinian Muslims, it is known as Haram al-Sharif (“The Noble Sanctuary) and serves as their faith’s third holiest site. Since the Six-Day War of 1967, the site has existed in a sometimes-uneasy compromise between the two religions: Jews are allowed to visit the site but withheld from the right to pray there, a right that Muslims are still fully allowed.

However, in recent years, far-right voices in the Israeli media and politics have called for greater accessibility for Jews to the site, citing its importance to their religion. Palestinians see this as yet another infringement on their already limited sovereignty and constrained way of life, similar to settlements on the West Bank being perceived as an unlawful and oppressive occupation. Israelis often block young men below the age of 50 from entering the mosques during periods of increased security and risk- this especially occurred following the September 13th clashes.

For many Palestinians, the events of September 13th are metaphorically the straw that broke the camel’s back. Frustrated by what they see as a continued infringement on their rights, both at the Al-Aqsa mosque and on the West Bank, some have taken to violence as a form of action, which has, in turn, led to tighter and tighter security on the part of the Israelis. Many initially non-violent protests have turned into clashes with police, leading to the deaths of several Palestinians at the hands of Israeli security.

There is also the question of the Palestinian attackers themselves – freedom fighters and martyrs to some, terrorists to others. Unlike the previous two Intifadas, there is little sign of the kind of organized movement that has the capability of supplying suicide bombs and other relatively expensive weaponry to its members. Instead, the weapons of choice are rudimentary- knives, screwdrivers, vehicles- suggesting that each attack may be individually motivated, although perhaps spurred on by networks of radical, violence-inclined Palestinians on social media. There is also the age of the attackers to be considered. Most are in their late teens or early twenties, with only a few of older ages.The fact that many are too young to remember the horrors of the last Intifada, which took place in 2000, may be the reason behind why so many of the attackers are from a younger generation.

Finally, there are criticisms to the Israeli response to the attacks. Many people claim that several shootings of young Palestinian men by Israeli security were the result of stereotyping, with no actual attack having taken place. Others are criticizing the number of deaths of Palestinians that have occurred in clashes with police during protests, sometimes resulting in the deaths of children as young as 10 or 11. Israelis, meanwhile, claim that these harsh security measures are warranted as a defense against a segment of Palestinians that don’t desire peace but only Israeli deaths and bloodshed. Israel has claimed that leadership within the West Bank’s Fattah is inciting and encouraging these attacks, while Abbas- the Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)- has said that “acts of aggression” by Israelis in the West Bank and in Jerusalem lie at the heart of of the attacks.

Several proposals by the International community have emerged as a plan to stop the recent violence. France has recommended putting forth an international monitoring force at Al-Aqsa, something which both Israel and Jordan (which had control over the mosque until the ’67 war) have rejected. Even more recently, Secretary of State John Kerry has proposed a plan that would involve round-the-clock video monitoring of the site as well as Israeli reaffirmation of Jordan’s “special” cultural role as custodian over the mosque and the continuation of the current policy that allows only Muslims to pray at Al-Aqsa.

Despite these steps, violence continues, and the death toll on both sides of the conflict is rising. Many say that addressing the issues of the Al Aqsa mosque alone will only temporarily defuse tensions, and the larger issue of the nature of Israel and Palestine must still be addressed for this conflict to one day truly come to an end.