Overnight, one mosque outside Ramallah chose not play the melodic hum of the call to prayer to mark pre-dawn worship. Amid fierce clashes that took place across the West Bank and Jerusalem following two attacks on Israelis, and the killing of the Palestinian assailants and raiding of their homes, the mosque amplified the Palestinian national anthem.
The unrest marks the peak of growing tensions over the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. Intense clashes escalated yesterday and early this morning, on into the afternoon, prompting Palestinians to speculate if we are seeing the beginnings of a “third Intifada,” or uprising.
More than 100 Palestinians were injured in the upheaval, including two journalists.
This morning Israeli police announced a two-day closed military zone in the Muslim quarter of the Old City and limits on prayer at al-Aqsa mosque to men over the age of 50. Women of all ages are permitted to pray.
The first attack
In Jerusalem shortly after sunset on Saturday, Israeli authorities said, a 21-year-old Palestinian, Mohannad Halabi, stabbed two Israeli settlers in the Old City, Aharon and Adele Bennett, according to Israeli police and statements made by Adele Bennett. The couple were accompanying their two children, an infant and a toddler, to the Western Wall when the attack occurred. Army reservist Rabbi Nechemia Lavi, who resides in Yeshiva Ateret Cohanim, an East Jerusalem settlement in the Muslim quarter, intervened to aid the Bennett family. Halabi then stabbed Lavi and grabbed his gun, shooting at bystanders until Israeli border police rushed to the scene and shot and killed him.
Adele Bennett was hospitalized with moderate wounds. Aharon Bennett and Lavi were laid to rest in consecutive funerals in a north Jerusalem cemetery this morning.
“We will reach the killers of the innocent and pure, and we will reach their inciters and their dispatchers, and will deliver them a stinging blow,” said Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in an eulogy for Lavi, employing his strongest language yet on the recent attacks carried out by both Israelis and Palestinians. “I want to offer my support for the security forces, operating decisively at this time around Jerusalem, and throughout the land of Israel against the murderers,” he said, in apparent reference to an Israeli couple killed deep in the occupied West Bank on Thursday night.
Attacker motivated by slaying of Palestinian, Israeli forces storming al-Aqsa mosque, says third Intifada has started
In the days leading up to the attack Halabi, a law student at al Quds University in East Jerusalem, had posted a flurry of announcements on Facebook advocating violent acts against Israeli civilians and soldiers. One message was addressed to Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas.
“According to what I see, the third Intifada was launched,” Halabi posted on Facebook the night before the attack. He also wrote:
“How long will this humiliation and shame last?”
“Resistance is within the limits of the law and is a legitimate framework.”
The messages appeared to originate from Halabi’s attendance at the funeral two weeks ago of Diaa Talameh, 21, from Khursa near Hebron. Talameh was a Palestinian killed by Israeli forces during clashes.
“What touched me the most in being at the funeral was that everyone was crying except the mother and father, and more women showed up then men,” Halabi wrote. Over the last month he also posted notes of distress over Israeli forces entering and firing munitions into the Muslim holy site of al-Aqsa Mosque.
“It’s all written on Facebook, the anger that is there,” Halabi’s uncle told me on the patio of their family home in Surda, a middle-class suburb of Ramallah. “Freedom fighters today are called terrorists, we don’t have the right to protect our land. They [the Israeli army] destroyed Gaza, Jenin, the whole of the West Bank– and we are the terrorist,” he said.
The Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad has claimed responsibility for the attack. However, Halabi’s family deny that he was affiliated with the group.
Hours after the killings in the Old City, clashes erupted outside of Ramallah when groups of settlers descended on the Palestinian city lobbing rocks and burning tires. During the clash Israeli soldiers injured five Palestinians with rubber bullets, according to a spokesperson for the Red Crescent. The clashes continued in the north of Ramallah until 3:30 a.m. when scores of Israeli soldiers in Jeeps arrived at the Halabi family home in Surda. With rumors circulating that Israeli forces would arrive overnight to demolish the house, the Halabi family emptied their home of furniture. They piled bedrooms, dressers and dislodged expensive marble countertops and sinks, in preparation for the destruction of their home.
“We already know what they will do, so we beat them to it,” Halabi’s uncle said.
Home demolitions are a punitive measure that was commonplace during the second Intifada as an Israeli tactic of deterrence aimed at the families’ of Palestinians whose relatives carried out fatal attacks against Israel. The practice is illegal under international law as a form of collective punishment, and until last year Israel had enacted a moratorium against leveling homes as punishment.
Dozens of Palestinians from Surda and nearby villages gathered at the entrance of Surda this morning and in front of the Halabi house.
Soldiers searched the home, questioned relatives, and then left an hour and a half later. Yet clashes continuing in the surrounding area until dawn. By late afternoon, rubble from the encounter was still smoking.
A second stabbing and rightists chant ‘death to Arabs!’
Meanwhile, in Jerusalem throngs of rightists paraded through the city center after midnight, chanting “Death to Arabs!” And mobs attacked a Palestinian driver.
Outside of Damascus Gate, Palestinian Fadi Aloon from the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Issawiya was killed by Israeli police shortly after 2 a.m., after allegedly stabbing 15-year old Israeli Moshe Malka, according to a statement by Israeli police. Aloon’s family say their son did not carry out the attack, referencing a video that shows the young Palestinian fleeing on foot, chased by ultra-Orthodox Israelis who shouted “shoot him!”–before being gunned down by the authorities. The footage cuts off just as an Israeli security officer is filmed kicking the body of the deceased.
Israeli soldiers then raided the al-Aqsa mosque, arresting 40 worshippers inside of the holy site complex. At daybreak, soldiers entered the Aloon home in Issawiya and arrested the deceased’s father, prompting clashes with residents.
Malka is currently being treated in a Jerusalem hospital for injuries.
A coming Intifada?
Throughout last night, some Palestinians on social media echoed Halabi’s statement that a third Intifada had taken root. A source close to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remarked, “They want a third intifada? They’ll get a second Defensive Shield,” according to Israel Hayom.
Defensive Shield is the name of the Israeli military operation during the second Intifada designed to use shock and awe tactics against Palestinian communities to deter suicide attacks. It was the largest army incursion in the West Bank since the June 1967 war and left 497 dead. During this period the Israeli military brought tanks into every major Palestinian city, enacted curfews across the West Bank, and laid siege to the compound of then-chairman of the PLO, Yasser Arafat.
Today PLO Central Committee member Hanan Ashrawi responded sharply to the Israeli tactics.
“The collective punishment that the Palestinian people have suffered over the past 48 hours, including Israeli settler and military attacks against civilians, proves that the Israeli government is deliberately creating a situation of violence and instability that threatens to spiral out of control,” she said. “This government is thereby attempting to create the conditions for a new ‘Defensive Shield’ operation similar to that of 2002 in which the Israeli Army carried out the senseless destruction of Palestinian lives, infrastructure and institutions.”
The head of Israel’s opposition was also critical of the government. Issac Herzog said early this morning, “Netanyahu has lost control over the security of Israeli citizens and Jerusalem.”
A meeting of Israel’s security cabinet was announced today. Netanyahu is expected to declare new policies to quell the spiraling turmoil. Last Monday night settlers carried out “price tag” attacks against across the West Bank including the firebombing of a vehicle as reprisal for the drive-by shooting and killing of a settler couple in the northern West Bank the previous day.
This meeting comes two weeks after Netanyahu declared a relaxing of Israel’s live-fire policy, approving sniper fire aimed at Palestinian stone throwers and steep prison sentences for stone throwers.
In response to the on-going strife surrounded al-Aqsa mosque, Jordan, the steward of the Muslim holy site, has said that it is mulling recalling its ambassador from Israel.