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To prevent tragedies, we must tackle injustice

Violence has been ongoing in Jerusalem and other parts of Israel for months now. But sometimes it takes an individual incident of horror to put long-running unrest back at the top of the international agenda.

On November 18, two Palestinian men from East Jerusalem attacked a synagogue in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish district of Har Nof in West Jerusalem. Armed with a pistol, knives and axes, they killed at least four Israelis and injured eight more. The two attackers were shot dead at the scene by police.

Attacks on synagogues are unusual in this conflict and the incident has left Israel reeling. Responsibility was claimed by the Abu Ali Mustafa Brigades, the military wing of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a far-left group that has been responsible for numerous attacks over the years.

Leaders from around the world have condemned the attack as a brutal act of terrorism. US Secretary of State John Kerry said that the act was "a pure result of incitement, of calls for 'days of rage'". He called for the Palestinian leadership to "condemn this and… begin to take serious steps to restrain any kind of incitement and exhibit the kind of leadership that is necessary to put this region on a different path."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to respond "with a heavy hand" to the attack, and blamed "incitement" by Hamas, which runs the Gaza Strip, and the Palestinian Authority, which is in power in the West Bank. A member of his government called for the homes of the assailants to be demolished.

While Hamas has said that it supported the attack, the office of Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestinian Authority, appeared to heed Kerry's words when he issued a statement saying: "The presidency condemns the attack on Jewish worshippers in their place of prayer and condemns the killing of civilians no matter who is doing it."

The violence of the attack is shocking, made all the more so by the fact that those slaughtered had gathered to worship. But Netanyahu's pledge of an indiscriminate clampdown misses the point. British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond also condemned the "appalling violence" but added that: "Both sides must do everything possible to de-escalate tensions, which are extremely dangerous for the Israeli and Palestinian communities."

East Jerusalem has been consumed by unrest for months, ever since the July murder of a Palestinian teenager who was killed by hard-line Israelis in a revenge attack following the killing of three settlers in the West Bank. After the murder, there were riots in the teenager's neighbourhood, Shuafat. Protests have continued ever since.

According to the Palestinian Prisoners Club, an advocacy group, more than 1,300 residents of East Jerusalem have been arrested since the riots began. Al-Jazeera has reported that entire neighbourhoods have been continuously blanketed in teargas and "skunk water" which leaves a foul smell. It also reports that the municipal authorities are clamping down on previously unenforced laws around licensing and unpaid bills, as a way to victimising the city's Palestinian population.

Given that Palestinians in Jerusalem have already complained that they are the victims of collective punishment as a result of the ongoing unrest, promising ever-harsher and more indiscriminate crackdowns is not the way to de-escalate tensions. A particular grievance is that Israelis who carry out violent attacks on Palestinians often go unpunished, while Palestinians are routinely arrested and harassed by police – even when no crime has been committed.

Netanyahu's comments regarding a "heavy-handed response" demonstrate the way in which he and the Israeli state in general treat Jewish-perpetrated hate crimes as individual aberrations – crimes to be tackled through the courts – but Arab-perpetrated hate crimes as collective acts that are indicative of a sickness of leadership and of entire neighbourhoods and populaces.

The attack on the synagogue was indeed a hate crime; a hideous act of violence borne out of the tragic inability of people on both sides of the conflict to see the other as human. In the long-run, the only way to prevent further tragedies is to tackle structural injustice, improve the rule of law across the board, and work on community relations. Sadly, with elements on both sides intent on ramping up the rhetoric and the violence, the senseless cycle of death and destruction seems set to continue.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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