In the past three weeks, terrorists have committed attacks in southern Israel, outside Haifa, and most recently, in and around Tel Aviv. Yet as of this writing Jerusalem has mercifully been spared bloodshed. That is cold comfort for the families of the dead, whose lives have been destroyed by the recent string of attacks in Israel. But it is deeply geopolitically significant, and keeping the peace in Jerusalem may well save many lives.

The perpetrators of the four attacks that have taken place since late March come from varying backgrounds—the first two were Israeli Arab citizens who, somewhat bizarrely, claimed to be Islamic State supporters (IS has little following among Palestinians in the occupied territories and even less inside Israel). The attackers in Bnei Brak and Tel Aviv were both from the northern West Bank. Scholarship dating back several decades supports the case that would-be terrorists behave according to a copycat effect, with each incident carrying the potential to “inspire” imitators. While it would be wrong to suggest these were truly random events—the terrorists were motivated by anger and hatred toward Israelis—the lack of unifying organizational affiliation among the recent attackers is striking. But it is also no obstacle for Hamas or other Palestinian groups, who can graft the actions of others onto its agenda. 

Scene of the recent terror attack in Hadera by Israel Police, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 (License linked to image).

There is no more potent example of this tactic at work in recent memory than Hamas’s actions last spring, when the Gaza-based terror organization leveraged scenes of inter-communal violence in Jerusalem and the case of Palestinian residents facing eviction in the city’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood to create a pretext for war with Israel. To be clear, a pretext does not make for a moral justification, but it nevertheless has political consequences. Just days before last May’s brief Gaza war, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia had condemned Israel for the actions of Israeli police at al-Aqsa mosque and over Sheikh Jarrah. By shifting attention from Jerusalem to the Gaza Strip and engaging in open hostilities with Israel, Hamas drove governments that might have been sympathetic to Palestinian causes in the holy city squarely into Israel’s camp.

May 2021 Operation Guardian of the Walls in Gaza by Israel Defense Forces, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 (License linked to image).

Israel faces an acute risk of the inverse situation occurring this time around. Four terrorist attacks took place in close succession within the Green Line, severing any immediate geographic link between the attacks and hot button political issues related to the West Bank or Jerusalem. This made it easy for the Abraham Accords states to condemn the attacks without reservation. Even Turkey—whose relationship with Israel has tepidly improved only in recent months—spoke out. The terrorists struck in mostly Jewish areas rather than in more mixed cities. 

An attack in Jerusalem would upend these dynamics. It would raise the specter of fighting between Jews and Arabs in Israel proper of the kind witnessed last year. Any Israeli security response to events in Jerusalem would draw greater scrutiny from Middle Eastern partners. The overlap between Passover, Ramadan, and Easter later this week brings these issues into sharper relief.

Violence in Jerusalem and unrest surrounding the holidays need not be a foregone conclusion, however. Confrontations between police and Palestinian demonstrators outside Damascus Gate since the start of Ramadan resulted in a handful of arrests and injuries, along with rebukes from the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, and Egypt—the latter, which had hosted a trilateral summit with Israel and the UAE, yet it is nothing approaching the scale of inter-ethnic rioting of last April and May. 

Following the most recent attack in Tel Aviv, the Israeli military announced a closure of the northern West Bank city of Jenin. However, to his credit, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz has not introduced any new limits on Palestinian travel specific to Jerusalem. This helps to keep the stakes low during Ramadan, when the issue of access to holy sites will be especially sensitive. But the recent defection of coalition whip and Yamina Member of Knesset Idit Silman to the Netanyahu-led opposition puts new parliamentary elections closer on the horizon than at any previous point in this government’s ten-month tenure.  That means there could be new incentive for the Israeli right to demand tougher action from Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and his political partners and frame any careful, conciliatory measures around Jerusalem as weak on terrorism.

The West Bank city of Jenin by the Catholic Church of England and Wales, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 (License linked to image).

Four terrorist attacks in a short span of time have claimed 14 lives and injured many more. Preventing the next attack is critical, and insulating Jerusalem from the events of the past few weeks will be especially important.