May 24, 2019

In Israel, no one’s backing down from a Third Intifada

On the platform of the central bus stop and hitchhiking post for Gush Etzion, a Jewish settlement bloc that spills over Israel’s eastern border into Palestinian territory, wet sand was poured on Nov. 11 to cover a human-sized blood stain from the night before. 

Israeli mother Sharon Katz, 52, examined the sand and the smashed vehicle barriers where Maher al-Hashlamoun had plowed his minivan into 26-year-old Dalia Lemkus before stabbing her to death on Nov. 10. “I wanted to get out of the car and go to her,” the witness told the Journal, dazed. When she spoke, Katz had returned to the scene of the attack, at the suggestion of a friend, seeking some kind of catharsis. “I thought maybe I could put my sweater on her and stop the bleeding.

“She was dying. She was dying,” Katz said of Lemkus, choking back tears. “I can’t get it out of my head.”

A first responder from Magen David Adom, Israel’s version of the Red Cross, described the attack: “First, he knocked her down with the car. And when she crawled back up here,” the paramedic said, pointing to the bus platform. “He stabbed her to death.”

As the chaotic scene unfolded, Katz’s daughter Adi, terrified, begged her mother not to leave the car to intervene. And sure enough, just as Lemkus was taking her last breaths, Sharon and Adi Katz said they watched her Palestinian attacker stab two more passers-by who had tried to help — one in the cheek and one in the gut.

Miraculously, Lemkus had survived another knife attack at this very hitchhiking post (in Hebrew, trempiada) eight years earlier. The stop is also right across the street from the now-infamous trempiada where three Jewish schoolboys were kidnapped in June — igniting the 50-day summer war. But Lemkus didn’t let that stop her: At the young settler’s funeral, many of her friends and family remembered her as fearless, stubborn and determined not to let terrorists drive her off the Jewish homeland. As a tribute to Lemkus, they said, they would continue to do the same.

On the morning of Nov. 11, hundreds of Israelis — mostly settlers, many of them immigrants — gathered in Lemkus’ hometown, another hilltop settlement in the Gush Etzion bloc called Tekoa, to pay their respects. A Muslim call to prayer could be heard echoing through the valley of Arab villages below as young settlers carried Lemkus’ body, via stretcher, down Tekoa’s steep hillside to the town graveyard. Someone strummed a guitar; others hummed along. There were many tears.

“Dalia! Dalia!” wailed her mother, a native of South Africa, as Lemkus was lowered into a grave at Tekoa’s cemetery. “Thank you Dalia, just for being you. I love you so much. We won’t stop doing anything in this country — it belongs to us.

HaShem forgive me, but I hope he dies!” her mother added, sobbing, referring to the man who had killed her daughter.

The Gush Etzion car and knife attack came just hours after another fatal stabbing in Tel Aviv, in which Nur a-Din Hashiya, an 18-year-old Palestinian man, reportedly stabbed 20-year-old Israeli soldier Almog Shiloni to death outside a busy train station. Several more attempted stabbings were reportedly thwarted in Jerusalem that same night — a spike in violence that, for some, pushed recent unrest into Third Intifada territory.

“The second hit-and-run attack this evening proves without any doubt that we are in the midst of a Third Intifada,” Gush Etzion Mayor Davidi Perl said in a statement, calling for a harsher crackdown on Palestinians by Israeli security forces as well as for more Israeli building in Palestinian territory. 

“We are in an intifada,” Israeli Knesset member and former public security minister Danny Danon said in a politicized statement attacking Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s weak response.

Not everyone is on board with the label yet, however, and there is a long history of naming the Third Intifada too soon. As a Palestinian shopkeeper in East Jerusalem said to Buzzfeed’s Middle East reporter a couple weeks ago: “I think you journalists think you get a prize for being first.”

“This is not an intifada,” Nabir Taha, 50, another East Jerusalem shopkeeper, told the Journal, speaking from behind the counter of his convenience store. 

“It’s the feeling of the people,” Taha said. “It’s the feeling that it’s not right what Israel is doing. That’s not an intifada. It’s just that we cannot take any more.”

Whatever its name, the recent escalation of Palestinian anger throughout Israel and the West Bank is the most dramatic of its kind since the Second Intifada a decade ago.

And it has a different feel to it. The First Intifada against Israeli occupation in the late 1980s and early ’90s was fought by Palestinians with stones and Molotov cocktails; the Second Intifada, with bombs and suicide vests. Now, the latest uprising may have revealed its hallmark: lone wolf attacks using everyday objects, impossible to ban, as deadly weapons.

Namely, cars and knives.

In a chilling trend leading up to the Nov. 10 spree, two Palestinians from East Jerusalem — Abdel Rahman al-Shaludi and Ibrahim al-Akari — rammed their cars into crowds of people waiting at a stop for the Jerusalem light rail. On Oct. 22, al-Shaludi careened through the light rail station near the French Hill neighborhood, killing an infant and an Ecuadorian immigrant. And on Nov. 5, al-Akari killed an Israeli border cop and a 17-year-old Israeli boy when he smashed into another station, even closer to the Old City.

A relative mourns near the coffin of Israeli border policeman Jaddan Assad during his funeral in his village of Beit Jann on Nov. 6. A Palestinian rammed his vehicle into pedestrians at a light rail station in East Jerusalem on Nov. 5, killing the Israeli police officer and wounding 13 others. Photo by imago/Xinhua

Combined with the Gush Etzion vehicular kidnapping in June — and a tractor attack on a Jerusalem bus during the war that followed — this car-as-weapon trend has inspired calls on social media for a larger “car intifada.”

One image being passed around, showing a sedan in the shape of a gun, is stamped with the message: “Achieve the objective — even with your car.” Another likens the white van driven in the Nov. 5 light-rail attack to the M-75, a type of rocket used by Palestinian militant group Hamas in last summer’s war with Israel. And a music video widely circulated on Facebook is encouraging lone wolves to “Run over the settlers! Run over the settlers!”

The uptick in stabbing attacks, too, has birthed a wave of “knife intifada” hype online.

“There is no other action we can do, because of all the security and checkpoints,” Hassan Awad, a 34-year-old from Beit Hanina in East Jerusalem, said of the car and knife attacks. “I think there will be a lot of this in the coming days.”

Even if this new, low-budget Palestinian uprising assumes a different name each week — car intifada, knife intifada, urban intifada, silent intifada, post-intifada — the rage behind it has been on a steady rise.

Awad said he sees this uprising as “not something planned,” but more a series of outbursts from individuals in response to the constant “pushing and pressuring” from Israeli authorities.

Especially, he said, given recent events at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound — a Muslim holy site at the center of Jerusalem’s Old City known to Jews as the Temple Mount. In the past weeks and months, in defiance of an Israeli law saying Jews can’t pray there, Israeli activists have been visiting the Temple Mount almost daily to demand their right to pray. (And, long-term, their right to replace the Al-Aqsa mosque with their own Third Temple.)

Alongside hundreds of other men under age 35, Awad was blocked from entering the Al-Aqsa compound on Nov. 7, as police tried to prevent rioting in the aftermath of the second Jerusalem light-rail attack. So Awad laid his yellow prayer rug on the street outside the Old City and prayed to a line of heavily armed Israeli policemen. “I would prefer to do it inside, but I have no choice,” he told the Journal.

An old family friend of al-Akari, the second light-rail attacker, guessed al-Akari had not taken the recent Al-Aqsa closures lightly either.

“I’ve known him since he was 2 years old. He’s a nice man — always goes to God to pray. Everybody here loved him,” said the family friend, a smiley 57-year-old business owner in East Jerusalem named Mohammed Bakri Abu Ashraf.

However, he said, “I think something snapped in his head. Everybody has cars like this — for family, for work, for holiday. I couldn’t do something like that, and I would have thought the same for him. But his mind went out. They didn’t let him pray. It changed his head.”

Abu Ashraf’s snack shop is located in the Shuafat neighborhood of East Jerusalem, right near where it meets the Shuafat refugee camp — the pressurized community where al-Akari lived, walled in by giant slabs of concrete and Israeli watchtowers. On Nov. 7, clouds of black smoke mixed with tear gas billowed over the wall. Inside, Palestinian youth were caught in their routine dance with police: Kids would throw stones and fireworks at police, and police would fire tear gas and rubber bullets back. The clashes lasted for days.

An elderly Palestinian man who couldn’t get inside the Shuafat camp to see his family on Friday due to the riots, said he was sympathetic to the protesters’ frustration. “This is the first time in 1,400 years that anybody has entered Al-Aqsa with guns and shoes,” he said of clashes at the site earlier in the week. (An exaggeration, but one echoed often around town.)

Many East Jerusalem residents also said they were enraged by the fact that, in the scramble following recent terror attacks against Israelis, all but one of the Palestinian suspects have been shot dead, as opposed to apprehended or merely injured.

“Couldn’t they have shot him in the leg?” asked Abu Ashraf of his friend al-Akari.

Riots reached northern Israel over the weekend after surveillance footage showed 22-year-old Kheir Hamdan, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, shot dead by police officers after pounding on their car window while allegedly holding a knife. A disturbing video of Hamdan’s death further fanned the flames in Jerusalem.

“The urgent task of reinstating some calm to the city cannot be achieved by applying more repressive measures while at the same time mouthing halfhearted commitments to reviving the status quo in the Holy Basin,” wrote Naomi Chazan, former deputy speaker of the Knesset, in the Times of Israel. “What is needed now, more than ever before, is a return to reason: to an understanding that two peoples inhabit the land of which Jerusalem is the heart and that their destinies are irrevocably intertwined.”

Jerusalem’s new resting state is high alert. Clusters of armed police stand on nearly every corner — more than 1,000 officers have been added to usual deployment — and are backed up by the constant buzz of helicopters and surveillance drones overhead.

By last weekend, cement blocks lined each light-rail stop across Jerusalem, “in order to prevent vehicles from plowing into people,” Israel Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said. “After the second attack, police have mobilized new units at stops along the line that runs through Jerusalem … and in Arab neighborhoods, in order to prevent suspicious vehicles from leaving.”

However, he said, “Let’s get our terminology straight. No one’s talking about a car intifada.”

But the seed of fear has been planted. Jewish Israelis are now finding themselves, instead of watching out for someone dressed in a bulky jacket — as in the Second Intifada — scanning faces through windshields. When walking along busy streets, and especially near the rail line, many twitch at the sound of a revving engine. Crowds are standing a little farther back from the tracks. Nowhere feels safe.