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.