Jerusalem holds its breath after synagogue slaughter

The horrific murder of five Israelis in a Jerusalem synagogue is the latest in a series of attacks, which has raised the question of whether this is the beginning of a new Palestinian intifada, or uprising.

Eleven Israelis have been killed in five separate incidents in recent weeks, involving vehicle rammings, stabbings and shootings.

Tensions in Jerusalem have reached a height not seen for more than a decade, and Tuesday’s slaughter is likely to push the city to a new level of fear, antagonism and vengefulness.

Jerusalem is now collectively holding its breath to see what comes next. Further attacks on Israeli Jews, revenge attacks on Palestinians, riots, rockets from Gaza, mass detentions, an Israeli security crackdown or military assault – all of these are possible.

The backdrop is months of rising friction focused on a holy site in the Old City that is sacred to Jews as the Temple Mount and revered by Palestinians as Haram al-Sharif, or the Noble Sanctuary.

Palestinians fear, with justification, that small numbers of hardline Jewish nationalists are attempting to challenge and break historic Muslim jurisdiction over the site.

Many observers are warning of the risks of a new religious dimension to the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict over territory.

Beyond that is mounting frustration among Palestinians over the failure to bring any nearer their goal of a state, the continual expansion of settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem by the Israelis, and the relentless grind and misery of life under military occupation.

The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and other Israeli politicians have suggested that Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas is trying to provoke a new intifada following the failure of peace talks by encouraging attacks and failing to rein in militants. The synagogue attack was a “direct result of the incitement being led by Hamas and Abu Mazen [Abbas’s nickname]”, Netanyahu said on Tuesday.

But this assertion was directly contradicted by the chief of Israel’s internal security agency Shin Bet. “Abu Mazen is not interested in terror, and is not leading [his people] to terror. Nor is he doing so ‘under the table’,” Yoram Cohen told a parliamentary committee.

In contrast to the suicide bombings of the second intifada, recent attacks appear to have been unco-ordinated assaults launched by individuals or small groups rather than meticulously planned operations mounted by militant groups. Neither of the perpetrators of Tuesday’s carnage had a security record nor did they operate within the framework of an organisation, Cohen said.

That could change. At least four Palestinian militant groups – Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Popular Resistance Committees – hailed the synagogue attack, and they may seek to drive forward future operations.

Enthusiastic reception
Another difference with the second intifada is the apparent absence of widespread popular support among Palestinians in the West Bank. Recent attacks have had an enthusiastic reception in the impoverished and volatile refugee camps, but so far there is little evidence of mass support – and a willingness to take to the streets – among the majority of Palestinians.

The United States secretary of state, John Kerry, and the United Kingdom’s defence secretary, Philip Hammond, condemned the attack on the synagogue in Jerusalem.

That could change, too. In response to the synagogue killings, Netanyahu could order military incursions, mass detentions, house demolitions, intensified surveillance and enhanced intelligence-gathering – the kinds of actions seen in the second intifada. But such measures may increase support among Palestinians for attacks on Israel, just as the military assault on Gaza in the summer saw Hamas’s popularity rise.

Whether the events of recent weeks are the start of a new cycle of violence, or whether the current tensions will subside for now, further acts of horror and bloodshed will be committed if the underlying causes of the conflict are not resolved. – © Guardian News & Media 2014

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