There is a feeling of déjà vu as we witness the events currently unfolding in Jerusalem. Yet, like all déjà vus, some things are fundamentally different. The latest round of violence occurred on Wednesday, when a Palestinian teenager was critically wounded by police gunfire in East Jerusalem. On Tuesday, two Palestinians wielding meat cleavers, an ax and a gun murdered five people in a synagogue—four of them while praying, along with a police officer who tried to save them—before they were shot dead by an Israeli policeman. A day earlier, a Palestinian bus driver was found hanged in his bus, and while the Israeli pathologists claimed he had committed suicide, the Palestinian pathologist disagreed, maintaining that he had been murdered.
While these were just the most recent casualties in the Holy City, it is crucial to remember that other structural forms of violence directed against its Palestinian residents have been deployed without restraint over the past weeks. Jewish settlers have embarked on yet another round of expansionist real estate schemes in Arab East Jerusalem, taking over Palestinian houses. Simultaneously, Palestinian neighborhoods in the city have been blockaded, restricting the movement of thousands of residents, as the Israeli government decided yet again to build new apartment units on expropriated Palestinian land. The old British Mandatory practice of demolishing homes belonging to the families of suspected terrorists has been reinstituted as a form of deterrence. And, perhaps most importantly, Members of the Knesset and right-wing groups have launched a concerted campaign to nullify the existing status quo on the Temple Mount—whereby Jews pray at the Wailing Wall and Muslims at the Haram al-Sharif—by allowing Jews to assert their sovereignty over this sacred Muslim site.
This last bit is crucial for understanding one of the alarming transformations taking place in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One might recall that the second intifada erupted immediately after Ariel Sharon’s provocative visit to the Haram al-Sharif compound in late September 2000. At the time, Palestinian demonstrators hurled stones at Israeli police, who fired back tear gas and rubber-coated metal bullets. Demonstrations rapidly spread to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and it took several years and thousands of fatalities before Israel managed to quell the popular uprising.
This time around, events are influenced by other theaters of violence in the Middle East. Put differently, the nationalist discourse of Sharon—as well as Yasir Arafat—is now being successfully hijacked by a religious rhetoric. Members of ISIS are threatening to smash all national borders until they reach Jerusalem, while in our neck of the woods, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is invoking religious tropes to condemn Israeli efforts to change the status quo at Jerusalem’s holy sites in the hope of garnering support among a constituency that has become more religious over the years.
Naftali Bennett, the right-wing economy minister in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Cabinet, retorts by calling Abbas “a terrorist because he said that Jews are contaminating the Temple Mount.” Bennett and his allies in government are thus playing into fears of Muslim fundamentalism in the West, even as they present Jewish fundamentalism as innocuous. This transformation is dangerous not necessarily because nationalist struggles are less bloody than religious ones—they are not—but because it is fueling extremism on both sides.
This, it should be stressed, is precisely what the Israeli government wants. It would like to present the conflict as a clash of civilizations à la Samuel Huntington, rather than as a Palestinian struggle against colonial domination. Alongside the government’s attempt to pit fundamentalist Jews against Palestinians, most Israeli politicians on the right, which now dominates the country’s electoral landscape, have been working overtime to bolster the “no partner for peace” myth as another justification for their ongoing refusal to resume negotiations with the Palestinian leadership. The Palestinians are not only part of a different and barbaric civilization, they claim, but their leaders are terrorists, or at the very least support terrorism.
A few hours after the synagogue massacre, Netanyahu maintained that the attack was “a direct result of the incitement lead by Hamas and Abu Mazen [President Mahmoud Abbas].” And in a televised address that echoed Bennett, he averred that the Palestinian leaders are “saying Jews are contaminating the Temple Mount, that we intend to destroy the holy sites and change the prayer routines there. These lies have already exacted a very heavy toll.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman added that “Abbas has intentionally turned the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict into a religious one between Jews and Muslims, and the systematic incitement he leads against Jews—who he says cannot visit the Temple Mount because they are ‘impure’—is the ‘go-ahead’ for these despicable terror attacks.” Bennett concluded that “Abbas, one of the biggest terrorists to have arisen from the Palestinian people, bears direct responsibility for the Jewish blood spilt on tallit and tefillin while we were busy with delusions about the [peace] process.
This is the moment when the déjà vu becomes most apparent. Arrows just like these were shot at Arafat in the years and months before his mysterious death a decade ago. This time around, however, there was an unexpected intervention that exposed the lie behind the demagogic scare tactics: Yoram Cohen, the head of Israel’s secret services, also known as the Shabak, weighed in against Netanyahu and his cabinet members.
On the day of the attack on the synagogue, Cohen asserted that no one among the Palestinian leadership is calling for violence. “Abu Mazen is not interested in terror,” he explained, “and is not leading [his people] to terror. Nor is he doing so ‘under the table.’” The head of Shabak went on to blame the Israeli leadership for the religious turn. He warned that the Palestinian reactions in East Jerusalem were exacerbated due to “a series of confrontations centering around the Temple Mount—including the ascent to that holy site by MKs [Knesset Members], as well as proposed legislation that would change the status quo in the compound.”
Wittingly or not, Israel’s top security officer thus accused the prime minister and his comrades of incitement and spreading lies, exposing how these political leaders are fueling religious tensions as well as producing the “no partner” myth in order to sustain the strife. This is not a minor event, since it is the first time in Israel’s history that the head of the secret services—during his tenure in office—has contradicted the prime minister and has publicly revealed his duplicity.
If even the Shabak, the organization responsible for torturing and assassinating Palestinians during forty-seven years of occupation, thinks the Israeli leadership has gone too far, then matters are becoming really scary. Yes, there is a sense of déjà vu, only this time it seems that Israel’s political entourage has already fallen into the abyss.