THERE was little to indicate that Ghassan Abu Jamal was about to carry out the deadliest attack in Jerusalem for six years. The 27-year-old father of two had expressed anger over Israel’s decision to restrict access to one of Islam’s holiest sites.
“But so had everyone else. We were all angry,” said Ghassan’s uncle, Daoud Abu Jamal. “But no one else did what he did.”
Ghassan and his cousin, Uday, 22, walked into a synagogue in an ultra-orthodox Jewish district on the western outskirts of Jerusalem last Tuesday. Brandishing a meat cleaver and a pistol, the two Palestinian men murdered four rabbis as they prayed — among them a British-born father of six.
Eight worshippers were wounded; some lost limbs. Police shot dead Ghassan and Uday, who were both labourers, at the scene. A policeman was also killed.
The attack on the synagogue and Israel’s response have raised fears that a decades-old conflict over territory and identity has begun to take on a new, religious dimension.
“Unfortunately, the ideology that characterises this wave of violence is religious,” said Meir Margalit, a civil rights activist and former city council member. “And a religious conflict is far harder to solve.”
On Friday the families of the two men gathered to mourn them beneath a makeshift tent in a rundown area. Israel has refused to return their bodies in what appears to be an attempt to deter further attacks.
“We already have so much pain in our hearts,” said Mohammed al-Ayen, 59, the family’s lawyer. “If the police don’t return the bodies then it will force more people into the streets. Israel’s policies are already turning ordinary, calm guys into monsters.”
It has also told the families it will demolish their homes today. The policy was abandoned several years ago when an Israeli military committee found it failed to deter attacks and enraged Palestinians further. It was revived last week when Israeli security forces used sledgehammers and explosives to demolish the flat of a Palestinian who ploughed his car into a crowded tram station, killing a three-month-old Israeli girl in a pram.
For weeks Palestinians have seethed at what they believe are Jewish attempts to gain greater access to the city’s most sacred place, which houses the al-Aqsa mosque and is also Judaism’s holiest site.
A spate of “lone wolf” attacks by Palestinians have killed 10 Israelis and one foreign visitor. At least 10 Palestinians have also died.
The latest cycle of violence began with the incident at the tram station, but was followed several days later by an attempt by a lone gunman to assassinate a far-right Jewish activist who campaigns for Jews to be allowed to pray at the site — known as the Temple Mount among Jews and Haram al-Sharif among Muslims.
Israeli police killed the gunman and later ordered the first full closure of the site in 14 years. The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, described the move as “tantamount to a declaration of war”.
Israel reopened the site and reduced the age restriction — which had limited worshippers to men over 35 and women — but that failed to stem the spate of violence, with Palestinians using knives and cars to kill more Israelis.
Days later a Palestinian bus driver was found hanged in a bus depot in Jerusalem. Israeli authorities insist his death was suicide but Palestinians say a post-mortem examination proves the man was lynched.
The spate of attacks has led to a climate of fear felt by both Jews and Muslims in Jerusalem. There are almost daily clashes between Palestinians and Israeli police.
After dark on Friday, Palestinians attacked seven Israelis who were making their way to Sabbath eve prayers, stabbing one in the back and hitting another with an iron bar.
In recent months rocks and Molotov cocktails have been hurled into Ma’ale Zeitim — the largest Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem, established in the middle of a Palestinian neighbourhood.
Last month Jewish schoolgirls from the settlement were taken to hospital after attackers hurled stones at their car.
“This week the classes in schools have been cancelled every single day,” said Miriam Schwab, 38, a mother of six from Canada who was one of the first to move into the settlement. Schwab said she now told her children to be cautious: “I tell them to stay behind cement blocks, stay away from the main roads.”
Some argue that the violence in Jerusalem bears the hallmarks of another Palestinian intifada, or uprising, aimed at achieving statehood.
Highlighting the sensitivity over the compound that houses the al-Aqsa mosque, the last intifada erupted when Ariel Sharon, later the Israeli prime minister, visited the compound in 2000.
But the recent violence is not all about al-Aqsa. Memories of this summer’s 50-day war in Gaza, in which 2,200 Palestinians died, are still fresh.
Palestinians are also frustrated by the lack of progress towards realising their dream of creating their own state and the continued expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Israel last week approved the construction of 78 homes in two settlements on West Bank land annexed to Jerusalem. There are plans to build a further 4,000 homes.
“People are trying to say that this is just a wave of violence but we are in the third intifada,” said Margalit. “The authorities can stop it with force but it is clear that the model for a united Jerusalem has collapsed.”
Some are more circumspect. The suicide bombings that characterised the second intifada have been replaced with “lone wolf” attacks launched by people who appear to be acting without direction from the militant groups that operate in the West Bank and Gaza. Others note a lack of popular support for an uprising among Palestinians on the West Bank. Protests have been small with the majority preferring to stay at home rather than take to the streets.
Much hinges on Israel’s response to the recent attacks. Military incursions, mass detentions and increased surveillance in Palestinian neighbourhoods could fan the flames. The revival of house demolitions — a policy condemned internationally as counter-productive — has already enraged many.
Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, has sought to blame Abbas for attempting to provoke a new intifada by encouraging the attacks.
Yet the head of Israel’s domestic intelligence service has challenged this view.
“Abu Mazen [Abbas] 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 last week.
Israel’s decision to drop age restrictions for attending prayers at the al-Aqsa mosque appeared to have dampened tensions slightly in Jerusalem, although riots still erupted in the West Bank with Israeli security forces using rubber-coated steel bullets to disperse protesters.
“This is a crucial time, there’s terrorism, religious conflict and violence. It is us who pay the price, the blood of our children,” said Abbas, speaking in Ramallah after Friday prayers. “I am warning against turning a political conflict into a religious one. Let’s talk about politics not religion.”
By Miles Amoore and Inna Lazareva