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The War on the Israeli Home Front

Tuesday's massacre and other recent Palestinian attacks in Jerusalem have been intimate, the terrorism of neighbors.
©Alexey Stiop/
©Alexey Stiop/
Yossi Klein Halevi is a Senior Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Together with Imam Abdullah Antepli of Duke University and Jennifer Raskas, he co-directs the Institute’s Muslim Leadership Initiative. Yossi is the author of the New York Times bestseller, Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor and co-host with Donniel Hartman and Elana Stein Hain of the Institute’s award-winning podcast, For Heaven’s Sake. He is also the author of Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli

Published in the Wall Street Journal

On the morning of Feb. 25, 1994, the Jewish holiday of Purim, Baruch Goldstein, a far-right activist living in the West Bank town of Kiryat Arba, entered the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron and gunned down 29 Muslim men at prayer.

The horror within Israeli society was overwhelming and unequivocal. Speaking from the Knesset podium, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin excommunicated Goldstein from the people of Israel. The country’s two chief rabbis denounced the attack as a desecration of God’s name, the ultimate Jewish sin. The official publication of the West Bank settlement movement, Nekudah, denounced Goldstein, a settler, as a stain on its camp. Only a radical fringe sought to justify and explain the massacre as a response to Palestinian provocations.

Tuesday’s massacre by two Palestinian terrorists of four Jews at prayer in a Jerusalem synagogue is the Palestinian Baruch Goldstein moment. Yet rather than respond with shame to the murder of those Jews, as well as of an Israeli police officer, the Palestinian reaction has ranged from reluctant condemnation to outright celebration. Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, reportedly after being pressed by Secretary of State John Kerry, condemned the attack—even as he cited Israeli “provocative acts.” Less equivocal was Mr. Abbas’s adviser on religious affairs, Mahmoud Al-Habbash, who said of the terrorists: “We are behind them. The leadership is with them.” Palestinians cheered in the streets of Gaza.

Since 2000, when the Oslo peace process collapsed, Israel has been fighting one long war, interspersed with prolonged cease fires. In this war, the primary targets on the Israeli side are not its soldiers but its civilians. The first phase of this new unnamed war—and what might be called the war of the Israeli home front—were the four years of Palestinian suicide bombings on Israeli buses and in cafes, ending with Israeli victory in 2004. Then came the Lebanon War of 2006, when the Lebanese terrorist militia, Hezbollah, fired missiles into towns and villages in northern Israel. At the same time, thousands of missiles fired by Hamas from Gaza were falling on Israeli communities in the south.

An Ultra-Orthodox Jew looks down from a roof top over people mourning the victims of a recent attack by two Palestinians on Jewish worshippers at a synagogue in the Ultra-Orthodox Har Nof neighbourhood in Jerusalem on Tuesday. AFP/Getty Images
Now a new phase of this open-ended war against the Israeli home front has begun, concentrated in Jerusalem as it has been in the past. But this latest wave feels different. In recent weeks, terrorists in Jerusalem have twice driven their cars into crowds of Jewish pedestrians and on another occasion stabbed a Jewish passerby with a screwdriver. The synagogue attackers, who were killed by police, wielded axes in the murders. This is not the impersonal terrorism of suicide bombers and rocket launchers. This is an intimate war. The terrorism of neighbors.

As the madness intensifies, the argument for dividing Jerusalem as it had been before the Six Day War in 1967, when Israel assumed sovereignty over all of the city, will be revived. “Separating” Palestinians and Israelis will take on a new urgency. Initially, the argument is compelling: If these two populations cannot coexist, then why not redivide the city?

But an Israeli withdrawal from parts of Jerusalem might well result in a Hamas takeover of those areas. Hamas, after all, is far more popular among Palestinians today than Mr. Abbas’s corrupt regime. For all the agony of the status quo, the alternative of “sharing” Jerusalem with Hamas is far worse.

For at least the time being, the status quo will remain sustainable. By far the majority of Palestinians in Jerusalem have rejected violence. Even as the region has disintegrated, the mixed city of Jerusalem has maintained, almost unnoticed, its civility and common decency. Most Palestinians I know in Jerusalem have tacitly accepted the status quo. East Jerusalem Palestinians have equal access to Israeli social services; Jews and Arabs routinely mix, as patients and doctors and nurses, in the city’s hospitals.

Not that Palestinians aren’t angry at Israel for inequities in allocating resources, and especially building permits. For many Palestinians, though, the alternative to Israeli control over united Jerusalem has seemed worse, given the disarray in the Palestinian national movement.

Meanwhile, the Israeli government needs to continue reaffirming the status quo on the Temple Mount, a site sacred to Muslims, Jews and Christians but long administered by Muslims. Many religious Jews are deeply pained by that status quo, which denies them the right to pray at Judaism’s holiest site. Still, nothing threatens Jerusalem’s peace more than a change in the Temple Mount status quo. For that reason, Islamist extremists have been claiming falsely for decades that Israel intends to permit Jewish prayer there. And Palestinian spokesmen are now repeating that lie to justify the synagogue massacre.

In an era of moral madness, in which much of the world judges Israel more harshly than it judges Hamas, this must be said: Nothing Israel does or doesn’t do is responsible for provoking young Palestinians to hack to death Jews in prayer. The provocation is Jewish prayer itself, the right of the Jewish people to live in its land.

One image from the synagogue massacre will haunt Jews for a long time to come. According to a medic on the scene, terrorists severed an arm wrapped in the straps of tefillin, the phylacteries in which religious Jews recite their morning prayers. That terrible image has reinforced the prevailing sense within Israeli society that the war against the state of Israel is only the latest phase of an old war against the Jews.

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