On Friday, July 14, 2017, 7:00 am, three terrorists, all Israeli Arab citizens, shot dead two Israeli Druze Border Police officers.
The three Arab-Israeli gunmen – Muhammad Ahmed Muhammad Jabarin, 29; Muhammad Hamad Abdel Latif Jabarin, 19 and Muhammad Ahmed Mafdal Jabarin, 19 – arrived in Jerusalem from their hometown of Umm al-Fahm by bus and entered the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem, called Al-Haram Al-Sharif by Muslims.
The three attackers had an accomplice, who brought the guns in a backpack onto the Temple Mount and left them in the Al-Aqsa Mosque. That accomplice, also an Israeli Arab, has been arrested.
Two of the attackers exited the mosque together, while the third assailant exited by himself with the bag of weapons on his back. The three walked together down an alley at the site to switch their clothes before returning without the bag, with the weapons now hidden on their bodies.
The terrorists attacked the officers in an alleyway, coming from the direction of the Temple Mount and fled back there as other officers gave chase. The police then opened fire, shooting the terrorists dead inside the esplanade of the complex.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack. One of the gunmen, Muhammad Hamad Jabarin posted a selfie of himself in front of the Dome of the Rock shortly before the attack, with the message: “Tomorrow’s smile will be more beautiful, God willing.”
Arab Muslims used the sacred Al-Aqsa Mosque compound to prepare and stage a terrorist attack. They tried to take refuge in the Mosque after killing the policemen knowing that it would be even a greater incident if the Police entered the holy Mosque to try to arrest them. They didn’t see any religious or moral constraints in desecrating the holy place.
This was a terrorist attack with strategic consequences, likely to:
• Provoke an incident on the place of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in order to shatter the fragile status quo and incite the Arab and Muslim world against Israel
• Provoke tension between the Arab minority and the Jewish people in Israel
• Provoke tension between the Arab Muslim and Druze communities in Israel
For security reasons and in search of other weapons, police closed the Old City and Temple Mount to civilians on the day of the attack and on Saturday, July 15. The closure was the first time Israel had shuttered the compound on a Friday, Islam’s holy day, in nearly 50 years. On July 16, 2017, the Temple Mount compound was reopened, but metal detectors were installed to prevent weapons from being brought in.
The heads of the Waqf, [the Jerusalem Islamic religious trust, administered by Jordan, controlling and managing the edifices on the Temple Mount, including the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock], objected (and still object) to the installation of metal detectors and called on Palestinians not to enter the Temple Mount compound. Clashes broke out between Palestinians coming to pray in the mosque and the Israeli security forces, and massive prayers were held nearby.
The role of the Islamic Movement’s northern faction in Israel
Umm al-Fahm, a large Arab town in central Israel, is controlled politically by Israel’s Islamic Movement-northern faction headed by Sheikh Raed Salah, considered to be an integral part of the Muslim Brotherhood and also of the Hamas movement. Salah was convicted in Israel of funding Hamas, and of having contact with an Iranian intelligence agent – he served a two-year sentence from 2003 to 2005. In 2010, he served a five-month sentence after being convicted of assaulting a police officer and leading a violent demonstration. Raed Salah was released from prison in January 2017 after serving a nine-month sentence for incitement to violence.
While the movement has not become a fully-fledged terrorist organisation, it has played a key role in encouraging violence, and was behind the events that led up to the outbreak of the second intifada.
In the 1990s, the Islamic Movement illegally built an enormous underground mosque under the Al-Aqsa mosque [in the so-called Solomon’s Stables], endangering the foundations of the old building and destroying all Christian and Jewish historic archeological artifacts at the building site, while constantly claiming that Israel was seeking to destroy the Al-Aqsa Mosque. This is why the second intifada is called the Al-Aqsa intifada – and why Ariel Sharon’s visit to the compound was used as a pretext for launching it.
The Islamic Movement incited Palestinians and Israeli Arabs to violence. Within Israel, one of the results of such incitement was the October 2000 clashes in the Wadi Ara region between Israeli Arabs and police, in which 13 protesters were shot dead. At that time, the government and police did not know how to deal with the movement.
Israel outlawed the northern branch of the Islamic Movement only in November 2015, with the government explaining that the group has for years “been waging a campaign of deceitful incitement under the banner of ‘Al-Aqsa is in danger,’ which blames Israel by falsely accusing it of intending to harm the Al-Aqsa Mosque and to violate the status quo there.”
Sheikh Salah blamed Israel for the July 14 incident, declaring that the Israeli government “is responsible for all the bloodshed” at the Temple Mount, including the deaths of the Arab-Israeli gunmen, whom he called martyrs.
For the moment, Israeli police have not said if the investigation of the background of the three terrorists has revealed direct links to the Islamic Movement of Israel. However, the Israeli Minister of Intelligence, Israel Katz, has declared in an interview to the Israeli Channel 2 TV, that there definitely is a connection between the three Umm-al-Fahm terrorists and the Islamic Movement. Significantly, some 10,000 (according to other sources 3,000) mourners from Umm al-Fahm took part in the funerals of the three Temple Mount terrorists who shot dead two Israeli Druze police officers, shooting fireworks and praising the young men as “martyrs” and “heroes”.
Palestinian and Arab reactions
In a statement released late Friday after the current meeting, the High Follow-Up Committee for Arab Citizens of Israel termed the attack a “rejected individual act that doesn’t serve the struggle of the Arab masses to defend their presence, rights and holy sites.” But it later went on to say that the “occupation” bears responsibility for any bloodshed at the mosque.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin condemned Arab-Israeli leaders for not speaking out against the terror attack at the Temple Mount, saying their silence was akin to an endorsement of the shooting.
In an effort to calm the atmosphere, Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority, telephoned Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and strongly condemned the attack. He also called on Netanyahu to reopen the holy site. Abbas asked the United States to “intervene urgently” and compel Israel to remove metal detectors.
Mahmoud al-Batash, Mahmoud Abbas’ advisor for religious matters and the head Qadi (Muslim judge) of the Palestinian Authority, said in a sermon that the escalation threatened to ignite a religious war and cause an “explosion.” He said Al-Aqsa mosque had to be open to Muslims and that the [Israeli] “occupation” was the main reason for the instability and lack of security in the Middle East and around the globe, but he did not condemn the attack itself. The Fatah movement claimed the Israeli decision to close Al-Aqsa mosque was dangerous and an unacceptable escalation.
Fatah, Mahmoud Abbas’ movement, rebroadcast Abbas’ famous 2014 speech, in which he called on Palestinian Authority citizens to defend Al-Aqsa “in any way whatsoever” – which was followed by terror and violence. Fatah posted photos of the terrorist murderers, calling them “Martyrs.” The Palestinian Authority called for a “Day of Rage” and, as the weekend approached, called for “rage for Al-Aqsa.”
King Abdullah of Jordan spoke with Netanyahu and condemned the attack, rejected all forms of violence in holy places, and called for the Temple Mount to be opened. The Jordanian Minister for Media Affairs Muhammad al Momani, called on the Israeli government to avoid taking actions that change the “historical situation” at the complex and reopen it to worshippers.
Meanwhile, the Jordanian parliament honoured the three terrorists with lawmakers standing in prayer in honour of the “martyrs”. The parliament’s Speaker Atef Tarawneh pointed to Israel’s “occupation” over Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem along with its “oppression” and “tyranny” as a justification for “continued resistance” against Israel.
Hamas issued a series of announcements welcoming and praising the attack and condemning Israel for closing the Temple Mount. The events were a good opportunity for the organisation to strengthen incitement to escalate “the Jerusalem intifada”, and exploit the demonstrations to protest Mahmoud Abbas’ policies towards the Gaza Strip. Ismail Haniyeh, head of Hamas’ political bureau, claimed Israel was trying to gain control of Al-Aqsa Mosque, and praised the “jihad fighters in Jerusalem” for their struggle against the occupation and the shaheeds (martyrs) who had died during the attack.
The Egyptian government warned of the consequences of preventing prayers from being held, and members of the Egyptian parliament called the decision to close the Temple Mount an “act of terrorism.”
Saudi conduct is of utmost interest, as Saudi Arabia is the custodian of the two Holy Mosques in Mecca and Medina. According to London-based Arabic outlet Elaph, the decision to reopen the revered complex to worshippers came after the Saudi King Salman personally intervened in the issue, urging Israel via the White House to immediately end its closure of the Temple Mount.
Saudi Arabia knows something about radical Muslims attacking Islamic holy places. On June 23, Saudi Arabian police foiled a planned terrorist attack against Mecca’s Grand Mosque, where Muslims from around the world converged for the conclusion of the holy Ramadan fasting month. Six foreign visitors and five members of Saudi Arabia’s security forces were injured in the collapse of a three-storey building where a suicide bomber, part of a group of three cells, had barricaded himself and exploded.
In April 2016, near the end of Ramadan, three suicide bombers and two members of the security forces were killed in the unprecedented attack on the mosque and tomb of Prophet Muhammad in Medina, Islam’s second holiest site. Authorities arrested 46 members of a cell responsible for the attack. The arrested suspects included 32 Saudis and 14 members of different Arab and foreign nationalities.
Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Aboul Gheit said in a statement that Israel’s “banning Palestinians from praying” will only “inflame extremism and escalate tension” in the region but did not mention the cause of the temporary closure – the terror attack earlier in the day.
The United States President’s press secretary strongly condemned the attack, “which took place at ground zero of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” The White House statement reads, “There must be zero tolerance for terrorism. It is incompatible with achieving peace and we must condemn it in the strongest terms, defeat it, and eradicate it.” Then White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said: “The attack forced the government of Israel to temporarily close the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif to conduct its investigation. Israel has assured the world that it has no intention to alter the status of this holy site, a decision which the United States applauds and welcomes.”
The UN and the EU also condemned the attack. “There can be no justification for such a crime or any act of terror. The EU offers its condolences to the families of the victims of the shootings.”
The Israeli tactical decision to install metal detectors at the gates of the Temple Mount for obvious security reasons, taken hastily by Netanyahu while he was on an important diplomatic visit abroad, following the advice of the Israeli Police and his Minister of Internal Security Erdan, fitted perhaps the first days after the attack but was opposed by the Security Service, the Army Intelligence and defence officials.
Their evaluation was not only that serious violence would ensue during the Friday prayers but objectively, it would be difficult to operate the metal detectors effectively at critical times, such as when a mass of more than 100,000 worshipers is seeking to enter the Temple Mount for Friday prayers.
At a cabinet meeting on Thursday, July 20, it was nonetheless decided to leave the metal detectors in place.
However, on Tuesday, July 25, following a crisis with Jordan over an attack at the Israeli Embassy in Amman, Israeli ministers decided that the metal detectors would be removed, and replaced with security measures based on “advanced technologies.”
The Prime Minister’s Office said that the security cabinet “accepted the recommendation of all of the security bodies to incorporate security measures based on advanced technologies (‘smart checks’) and other measures instead of metal detectors in order to ensure the security of visitors and worshippers in the Old City and on the Temple Mount.”
Israeli media reported that high-resolution cameras capable of detecting hidden objects would be the alternative.
The events of Friday July 21
Israeli leaders have said that metal detectors are used at Muslim holy sites around the world, including in Medina and Mecca. But Palestinians argue that “Mecca is completely different,” with Saudi Arabia protecting Muslims, while the security at the Temple Mount “is about controlling us” and changing the status quo.
Palestinian Muslim leaders, and Arab Israeli politicians, had urged the faithful not to enter the Temple Mount site until Israel removed the metal detectors. They portrayed Israel’s measures as an encroachment on Muslim rights.
Widespread clashes between Palestinian stone-throwers and Israeli troops erupted after midday Friday prayers in Jerusalem and the West Bank on July 21, as thousands performed the prayers in the streets, rather than in the shrine. Three Palestinians were killed and several dozen injured by live rounds, rubber bullets and beatings.
Under pressure from his own Fatah movement and the Palestinian public, Mahmoud Abbas announced on the evening of July 21 that his government would “freeze contact on all levels” with Israel until newly installed metal detectors were removed from the entrances to the compound.
Later that night, three Israelis were killed and one severely wounded in a stabbing attack in the West Bank town of Halamish by a Palestinian who penetrated into a private home in the community. Hamas issued a statement of support for the attack, calling it a “necessary reaction” to new Israeli security procedures at the Temple Mount. In a tweet, it called the attack “heroic.”
Jerusalem’s top Muslim cleric told worshippers on July 21 that he expects a “long test of wills” with Israel.
In light of the continuing incitement by the PA, Hamas, and even Israeli Arab Muslim leaders, and the number of growing casualties on the two sides, it seems the violent massive demonstrations, the tension and the threat of escalation will continue for a while, even after the metal detectors are withdrawn from the Temple Mount.
Hamas and radical elements in the Arab community in Israel will try to take advantage of the “momentum” and attempt other terrorist attacks and incidents to enflame the situation and provoke a “third violent intifada.”
Dr. Ely Karmon is a Senior Research Scholar at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) and The Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS) at The Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya, Israel.