Is Abbas to blame for deadly synagogue attack?

Is Abbas to blame for deadly synagogue attack?

“You cannot incite in the evening and condemn in the morning”

A man viewing a bullet hole inside the Jerusalem synagogue where two terrorists with a gun and knives killed four worshippers and injured eight during morning services, Nov. 18, 2014. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
A man viewing a bullet hole inside the Jerusalem synagogue where two terrorists with a gun and knives killed four worshippers and injured eight during morning services, Nov. 18, 2014. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

TEL AVIV — After a gruesome attack by two Palestinian cousins left four dead at a Jerusalem synagogue, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu singled out one person for blame: Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

In a statement issued by his office, Abbas denounced the Tuesday morning attack, saying he “condemns the killing of civilians no matter who is doing it.” But over the past few weeks, as a string of violent attacks have unsettled Jerusalemites, Abbas has issued statements some see as encouraging violence against Israelis.

In late October, he called for a “day of rage” over the temporary closure of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, saying the move amounted to a “declaration of war.” Days later he called the shooter of Jewish Temple Mount activist Yehuda Glick a “martyr” in a letter to the attacker’s family.

“This is the direct result of the incitement being led by Hamas and Abu Mazen, incitement which the international community is irresponsibly ignoring,” Netanyahu said following the synagogue attack, using Abbas’ nom de guerre. “We will respond with a heavy hand to the brutal murder of Jews who came to pray and were met by reprehensible murderers.”

In the attack, the two Palestinians entered a synagogue in a haredi Orthodox neighborhood of Jerusalem and attacked worshippers with a gun and butcher knives.

Four Israeli rabbis were killed in the attack: Mosheh Twersky, 59, head of the Toras Moshe Yeshiva in Jerusalem and a grandson of Rabbi Joseph Soleveitchik, the founder of modern Orthodoxy; Kalman Levine, 55; Aryeh Kupinsky, 43; and Avraham Goldberg, 68.

Twersky, Levine and Kupinsky were dual Israeli and American citizens; Goldberg was an Israeli and a British citizen. Eight others were wounded, including one Israeli police officer.

The assailants, members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, were killed by Israeli police at the scene.

Despite Abbas’ condemnation, Israeli politicians and American Jewish groups admonished him for inciting the violence.

“There’s hypocrisy at work here,” Finance Minister Yair Lapid said in an interview with i24 News. “You cannot incite in the evening and condemn in the morning.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who called the attack “an act of pure terror” while traveling in London, also called for an end to Palestinian incitement, though he didn’t mention Abbas by name.

“To have this kind of act, which is a pure result of incitement, of calls for days of rage, of just an irresponsibility, is unacceptable,” Kerry said at a news conference Tuesday. “So the Palestinian leadership must condemn this, and they must begin to take serious steps to restrain any kind of incitement that comes from their language.”

In the West Bank, a senior official from Hamas’ political echelon told a visiting journalist that he found Tuesday’s attack encouraging. The attack appeared to be a spontaneous response to Israeli actions, the Hamas official said, not a coordinated assault organized by the military wing of Hamas.

“Hamas has been trying for a long time, but particularly since the summer, to foment and incite unrest in Jerusalem and the West Bank,” the journalist, Neri Zilber, now a visiting scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said of his meeting with the Hamas official, whom he declined to identify by name. “It’s obviously a high Hamas interest to foment this type of instability to keep the Palestinians in the West Bank rising up against both Israeli authorities and Palestinian authorities, which they see as going hand in hand.”

Zilber, who meets regularly with Hamas political figures and has written for the Washington Post, the Atlantic and Foreign Policy, said the attack wasn’t unexpected given the current environment in Jerusalem.

“You have an escalating pattern of lone wolf attacks, and I think it was only a matter of time before a bigger attack materialized,” he said.

Some analysts say placing the blame on Abbas is a mistake. They point to the Palestinian president’s longtime opposition to violence as well as the Palestinian Authority’s ongoing security cooperation with Israel, which some credit with preventing the recent unrest from spiraling into a full-blown uprising.

“From the perspective of the Palestinians, every Palestinian that is killed in the conflict with Israel, no matter the circumstances, is thought of as a martyr,” said Itamar Radai, a research fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center. “Abu Mazen lives in his society. There are codes he can’t completely break.”

Radai said that recent statements by Abbas should be understood as a reflection of his frustration with Israel and his efforts to curry favor with his constituents.

On Tuesday, Yoram Cohen, the head of Israel’s Shin Bet internal security service, told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that “Abu Mazen isn’t interested in terror and isn’t causing terror,” according to Israeli reports.

“Mr. Abbas is a true partner of Israel who wants peace,” said Munib al-Masri, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Legislative Council. “We are fed up with occupation. We don’t want harassment in our holy sites. We want to sit down and talk about this.”

But Mordechai Kedar, an analyst at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, said Abbas only opposes violence when speaking to an international audience and that his inflammatory Arabic pronouncements show his true position.

“Within the Palestinian Authority, he calls for violence,” Kedar said. “In English, they speak with one mouth and in Arabic they speak with a different mouth. He can’t clearly say ‘Go kill Jews,’ but he says it in an unclear way.”

(JTA’s Uriel Heilman contributed to this report.)

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