The November 18 armed assault on a synagogue in West Jerusalem, resulting in the killing of four orthodox rabbis and a Druze security guard, by two Palestinians, may signal the start of a deadly Third Intifada. The incident came in the midst of weeks of escalating violence centered in Jerusalem and a less than a week after a failed diplomatic effort by US Secretary of State John Kerry to consolidate a cease-fire around the Jerusalem holy sites.
The most dangerous new factor in the situation is the growing presence of the Islamic State beyond the territories of Iraq and Syria. Jihadist groups, including Ansar Beit al-Maqdis in the Sinai region of Egypt bordering on the Gaza Strip, have formally sworn their allegiance to Islamic State leader Sheikh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and there are active reports of similar IS cells springing up in Gaza and the West Bank.
Whereas the first two Intifadas were consciously launched by Fatah and Hamas leadership, there is no reason to necessarily assume that a Third Intifada will follow the same model. Since the eruption of a steady stream of violent attacks and counter-attacks in Jerusalem and expansion of Jewish settlements, beginning in August after the cessation of the Gaza attacks by the Israelis, some Palestinian leaders have come out calling for a Third Intifada.
Last week, Marwan Barghouti, the Palestinian leader who has been in jail in Israel for more than a decade and has been a bridge figure between Hamas and Fatah, declared from his prison cell that “resistance is the shortest path to freedom” and that the “ending of the occupation” is the number one priority.
Right after the Barghouti statement, Sheikh Raed Salah, head of the Islamic Movement in Israel, openly declared that “The Third Intifada has started… against plans of ethnic purification [in Jerusalem].” In a widely publicized statement, Salah declared that the “Zionists would meet the same fate as the Crusaders and then the British”.
Numerous regional and US analysts have rejected the idea that a Third Intifada would necessarily follow the model of the previous two revolts, noting that intifada is an expression of popular rejection of Israeli authority.
The growing violence between Israelis and Arabs has centered on the Haram al-Sharif, the holy site in Jerusalem that houses the Al Aqsa Mosque, and which is called by the Israelis, the Temple Mount. Palestinian violence escalated in recent weeks after Israeli police fired tear gas into the Al Aqsa Mosque in hot pursuit of Palestinian protesters. In retaliation, Rabbi Yehuda Glick, a well-known Temple Mount activist, was shot while leaving a rally site where he delivered a fiery speech demanding Jewish access to the Al Aqsa Mosque.
Just one week before the synagogue assault, resulting in the killings of four rabbis and a Druze security guard, John Kerry had been in Amman, Jordan, meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Jordan’s King Abdullah II after the two had held a tripartite meeting with Palestinian Authority President Abu Mazen. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi joined the tripartite parties’ talks by phone. The meeting was labeled a success after all parties agreed to retain the status quo in Jerusalem—including Jordan’s special status as a protector of the holy sites.
But the synagogue attack, the lynching of a Palestinian bus driver in Jerusalem, the car attack killing a Jerusalem police officer, the shooting of Rabbi Glick, and other daily incidents of violence ended any short-term hopes of a de-escalation of tensions.
Whether the eruption of violence in the past weeks proves to be the start of a Third Intifada is yet to be determined. The fact is that Israel is facing the gravest of threats of asymmetric warfare, which, for the first time, makes Israel a full participant in the region’s overall security crisis. One American intelligence source, speaking to MEB confidentially, warned that if the Islamic State establishes a firm presence on the Golan Heights, Israel will be facing a grave threat, drawing it unavoidably into the raging conflict with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.