Jerusalem attack prompts debate

An onlooker peers into an overturned car at the scene of an Arab attack on downtown Jerusalem on July 2, 2008. (Brian Hendler)

An onlooker peers into an overturned car at the scene of an Arab attack on downtown Jerusalem on July 2, 2008. (Brian Hendler)

JERUSALEM (JTA) – Last week’s deadly tractor rampage in Jerusalem has prompted a furious public debate in Israel about what steps the government can and should take to protect Jerusalemites against would-be Arab terrorists.

The attack, in which a Palestinian from eastern Jerusalem used a tractor to kill three people and injure dozens on Jaffa Road, drew furious and sometimes confused responses from the Olmert government.

Several ministers called for the terrorist’s home, in an Arab village on Jerusalem’s outskirts, to be razed. Deputy Prime Minister Haim Ramon reiterated his proposal for that village, Sur Baher, and other outlying Arab neighborhoods to be cut out of Jerusalem.

Their residents would become West Bank Palestinians, ineligible for the rights afforded to Jerusalem’s Palestinians.

“These are Palestinian villages that were never part of Jerusalem,” Ramon told Army Radio. “They were annexed to it in 1967.”

The debate about how Israel should react to the threat from Arabs within its borders reflects the dilemma of a Jewish state proud of its ethnically mixed democracy, but also mindful of the pull of pro-Palestinian sympathies among the country’s large Muslim minority.

Husam Duwayat, the driver of the tractor, was one of some 200,000 Arabs in Jerusalem who identify as Palestinian but live within Israel’s borders.

Hailing from territory Israel captured during the 1967 Six-Day War and annexed to Jerusalem shortly thereafter, these Arabs are considered by Israeli law to be resident aliens. They bear Israeli identity cards and have all the rights of Israeli Arabs except the right to vote in national elections.

That makes it difficult for the state to crack down on them without either appearing prejudiced or, in effect, declaring limits on its national sovereignty.

Some Israeli officials’ calls for demolishing Duwayat’s home were met with ambivalence.

“The order to demolish the homes of families of terrorists, residents of an Arab neighborhood in Jerusalem, is something I do not understand at all,” wrote Yaron London, a Yediot Achronot commentator. “Do we not believe that Israel is ‘Jewish and democratic’ and that the same law applies to Tel Aviv as to Sur Baher?”

Demolishing the homes of Palestinian terrorists in the West Bank or Gaza Strip was a longtime Israeli practice until recently, when domestic and international criticism prompted the Israel Defense Forces to discontinue it. Nevertheless, it was in keeping with martial law instituted by the former British rulers of Palestine.

Used against an Arab in Israel, the tactic would raise accusations of double standards, since the state never considered such a response to the occasional act of Jewish terrorism.

Privately, Israeli security officials say the quandary about what to do in Duwayat’s case is compounded by questions about what motivated his murderous spree.

Authorities have been unable to establish any firm link to Palestinian terrorist groups, and they are considering the possibility that the 30-year-old father of two simply may have taken leave of his senses.

Duwayat had previous romantic ties to a Jewish woman and a history of drug offenses.

A “lone attacker” theory also was suggested in the attack by an eastern Jerusalem Arab last March that killed eight students at the Mercaz Harav yeshiva. In that case, however, the target and the weapon pointed more obviously to a political motivation.

Despite the pain and anger surrounding last week’s attack, many Israelis recognize that eastern Jerusalem Arabs, like Israeli Arabs as a whole, are relatively unlikely to take up arms on behalf of the Palestinian cause, though they may pay lip service to anti-Zionism.

Opinion polls show that most Arabs are loath to give up their rights in Israel, with its democratic freedoms and welfare stipends.

That means that any ethnic-specific security measures run the risk of straining the already frayed fabric of Jewish-Arab ties in Israel while doing little to thwart terrorists acting on their own.

Thus, Israeli officials predict, security precautions will remain tactical rather than institutional. Police officers and private guards at public venues and targets such as Israel’s airports will continue to subject Arabs to more intensive scrutiny than Jews. The Shin Bet will continue to monitor Israeli Arab communities for pro-Palestinian sedition, just as its secretive Jewish division monitors far-right settler groups for violence.

But there cannot be sweeping legislation that undermines the collective rights of 20 percent of Israel’s population.

The exception is in cases in which an Arab openly sides with a foreign enemy of the Jewish state. That’s why Israel moved quickly to revoke the resident rights of Jerusalem Arabs serving in Hamas after the Islamist group swept Palestinian Authority elections in 2006.

By pure coincidence, Duwayat’s rampage was followed by the ratification of a bill banning an Israeli Arab who visits an enemy state from serving in the Knesset.

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