How Jerusalem’s synagogue attacks introduced a dangerous new enemy: Lone-wolf terrorism

On Tuesday afternoon, hours after axe-wielding assailants inflicted a terrible carnage on a Jerusalem synagogue, the Israeli Government Press Office released a series of photographs, each more grisly than the last. They documented a moment of profound violence: blood-slicked floors, blood-splattered walls and lifeless limbs. Even in a city accustomed to death, the scene was difficult to absorb.

An Israeli emergency services member
An Israeli emergency services member cleans the sidewalk at the scene of an attack on Israeli worshippers by two Palestinians at a synagogue in Jerusalem on Nov. 18. (JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

I’ve seen many, many incidents here and abroad, but I don’t ever remember the sight of something like this, Yehuda Meshi Zahav, head of Israel’s ZAKA emergency service, told Haaretz. Like pictures we’ve seen of the Holocaust — seeing Jews wrapped in prayer shawls, phylacteries on their arms and heads, lying in an enormous pool of blood on the floor of a synagogue. Another onlooker told Foreign Policy: It looked like a pogrom.

Authorities immediately started looking for those who had killed five people in the synagogue. The assailants, both of whom were shot dead after charging into the temple with axes, knives and a gun, were laborers. They were young cousins. Neither was destitute. Still, were they agents of Hamas? Or some other terrorist cell? Who was behind this calculated attack?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who vowed to respond harshly, accused Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of committing blood libel and inciting the violence. One of Netanyahu’s top aides then told Haaretz: The terrorists’ hands held the axes, but the voice was the voice of [Abbas.] The Israel Defense Forces quickly dispatched a blog condemning Hamas, which the United States and Israel consider a terrorist organization, for cheering the attacks. And the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine claimed responsibility, but that assertion soon came under suspicion as relatives of the Palestinian assailants said the men worked alone.

Statements about the attack issued by the Palestinian factions Hamas and the Popular Front do not constitute a claim of responsibility, Abu Salah, the killers’ uncle, told Haaretz. It relates to the stance of the organization in support of any action against the [Israeli] occupation.

Without any group to blame, analysts agreed the killings underscored a chilling new reality for Jerusalem: entrenched terrorist networks such as Hamas or Islamic Jihad may no longer be the greatest concern when diffuse Palestinian fury can quickly solidify into violence. Such hatred explodes spontaneously, unencumbered by an organization. While Israeli politicians heaved accusations at Palestinian leaders, Yoarm Cohen, chief of the Israeli security force Shin Bet, said Abbas wasn’t inciting acts of terror, overtly or covertly. These attacks were driven by subtler forces.

According to longtime Israeli scribe Ben Caspit, other high-level Israeli police authorities suspected the same. We are no longer looking at random incidents by isolated individuals, an unnamed senior police source told Caspit. Because these cousins planned the massacre, got hold of a gun, collected intelligence information, knew exactly where they were going and at exactly what time. On the other hand, this act cannot be attributed to an institutionalized terror organization, to training or infrastructure. These are ‘atmosphere’ attacks, local attacks committed by local people influenced by the general atmosphere, by state of mind.

The effects of this atmosphere were seen often in the past several weeks, when Palestinians killed more Israeli civilians than during last summer’s conflict. Some were stabbed to death. One was run over by a car. One controversial activist said he was called an enemy of al-Aqsa, the third-holiest site in the Muslim world, and shot. Whereas suicide bombings and concerted movements grounded earlier periods of violence in Jerusalem, this one was marked by lone-wolf attacks.

The attacks in the current wave of violence have employed the tools of everyday life, and are therefore more difficult to stop, observed Israel-based journalist Yardena Schwartz in Foreign Policy. Israeli intelligence has gotten pretty good at thwarting planned terrorist attacks. But it’s a bit harder to prevent a Palestinian driver from plowing his car into a crowd of hitchhikers on the side of the road, and then stabbing a young woman to death, as occurred in the West Bank just one week ago.

While there doesn’t seem to be a single organization behind the attacks, there does appear to be unifying resentment. Israel’s decision last month to suspend access to the al-Aqsa Mosque infuriated Palestinians and sparked several protests. Some Jerusalem neighborhoods today seethe with amorphous anger.

We have no security in this neighborhood, and the situation has been tense in Jerusalem for a long time, one local resident told The Washington Post. Lately, they have been looking at us with cold eyes, eyes of hate.

It’s that same hatred that relatives of the assailants spoke of on Tuesday. At first, Abu Salah said he couldn’t believe his nephews would do such a thing, but later reconciled the violence. But there is no doubt that they, like many young people in Jerusalem, were affected by the huge pressure that is being exerted on the Palestinians, he told Haaretz. There is no doubt that what Netanyahu’s government has been doing recently contributes to the fact that someone would go out to do something so severe.

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How Jerusalem’s synagogue attacks introduced a dangerous new enemy: Lone-wolf terrorism

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