The attack on the Kehilat Bnei Torah synagogue in West Jerusalem on Tuesday, in which two Palestinian men killed four rabbis and a police officer before being shot dead, has brought with it intimations of a brewing religious conflict in the holy city. Although this is only the latest incident in a spate of recent attacks, it’s set apart by the choice of target and by the backdrop of escalating tensions over the right to pray at the Temple Mount/ Haram al-Sharif. This cycle of violence started with the abduction and murder of a Palestinian teenager in a suspected reprisal attack for the abduction and killing of three Israeli teenagers in June, and persisted through the two-month-long conflict in the Gaza Strip.
If this frequency of attacks is a portent, political leaders on both sides have little time to lose in getting their respective houses in order. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu seemed reluctant to rein in the hate-mongering rhetoric from his rightwing coalition partners and chose to pin the terror directly on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, despite Israeli security officials categorically telling the Knesset that Abbas is not encouraging terror. Netanyahu’s ministers must realise that weakening and abusing Abbas doesn’t ensure the safety of Israeli citizens, nor do the plans for new settlements in East Jerusalem.
Abbas, on the other hand, had to be coaxed by the US into condemning the synagogue attack and has not been forthcoming with unequivocal statements. Most importantly, these attacks were said to have been undertaken by “lone-wolf” attackers, not affiliated with any organisation. This diffusion is as much a problem for Abbas as it is for Netanyahu. If what has so far been a national conflict with religious trappings morphs into a full-blown sectarian war, there are far too many unsavoury presences in the neighbourhood, such as the Islamic State, that would look to cash in.