JERUSALEM—The relative calm of recent months in this tensest of cities was shattered just after midday Sunday by a major vehicular attack that left four Israeli soldiers dead and over a dozen injured on a picturesque promenade overlooking some of the world’s holiest sites.
The man behind the wheel of the truck, reportedly a Palestinian father of four from East Jerusalem, was shot dead at the scene.
Even in the context of a new wave of Israeli-Palestinian violence that began in late 2015, this attack stands out for its lethality with the death toll potentially set to climb.
But the choice of weapon, a heavy flatbed truck, as well as the perpetrator’s reported allegiance—to the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS—immediately brought to mind recent attacks in Berlin and Nice.
A terror tactic now so well-known globally had apparently come back to the city where it first made its name.
The victims of the attack were part of a larger group of some 300 cadets from the Israeli army’s officer training course out on an educational day trip to the capital. The location, the Goldman Promenade in the Armon HaNatziv neighborhood, is popular with joggers, dog walkers, and tourists for its sweeping vistas of Jerusalem below: the walls of the Old City, the golden Dome of the Rock mosque, the white graves of the Mount of Olives.
The cadets were disembarking from their tour bus and gathering on the promenade sidewalk when the truck jumped a curb and ran into them at speed. As multiple eyewitnesses told The Daily Beast, the soldiers present realized it wasn’t an innocent traffic accident when the truck kept driving, and then it tried to reverse, even after plowing through the group.
An alert soldier and civilian security guard were the ones who, in local terminology, “neutralized” the driver before he had time to cause further carnage.
Questions are now being asked in certain circles about how many of these future officers ran away from the incident in fear, as seen in security camera footage released afterwards.
A short distance from the scene even two hours after the attack some three dozen of these soldiers/eyewitnesses were still milling about, still clearly in shock—likely awaiting a fuller debriefing.
Nationalist firebrands are already drawing a connection between the (non)response and the well-publicized conviction last week of an Israeli soldier on manslaughter charges for shooting dead a disabled Palestinian terrorist (a connection the army has rejected out of hand).
At the scene of the attack, in a drama replayed uncountable times in Israel over the decades, a large mix of reporters, emergency personnel, and heavily armed police were all attempting to do their respective jobs.
For all that, the area was relatively somber and quiet—in contrast to the immediate aftermath of the attack when, according to Daniel Katzerstin, head of a first-responder EMT unit, it was chaos. “People were screaming and crying, soldiers and civilians were hugging,” he said. “We had to treat patients, to set up a triage center, to get the hundreds of people in the [promenade] plaza away from the scene so the police could secure it.” Some of dead and injured, in fact, had to be rescued from underneath the truck’s tires.
Under the promenade, the pines of Jerusalem’s “Peace Forest” fan out under the ridge. Less than 200 meters from the scene of the attack sits the entrance to the headquarters of the United Nations’ Middle East Peace mission, in the old British High Commissioner’s compound. The Hebrew name Armon HaNatziv is taken from this relic of British rule: the “Commissioner’s Palace.”
Not unusually for Jerusalem, this neighborhood, predominantly Jewish, sits adjacent to Jabal Mukaber, a Palestinian neighborhood that has sent out its fair share of terrorist attackers during this recent wave of violence—including today’s truck driver.
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Fadi Qunbar, 28, made for an unlikely attacker. According to Gal Berger, the veteran Palestinian Affairs correspondent for Voice of Israel Radio, Qunbar didn’t belong to any of the militant Palestinian factions and had no prior security background. Indeed, according to Berger, Qunbar wasn’t even that religious, which is a common refrain among future ISIS sympathizers. Evidence actually linking him to the group has not yet surfaced, however.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking at the promenade later in the day, seemed to confirm the initial reports, saying “this is part of the same pattern inspired by ISIS that we saw first in France, then in Germany and now in Jerusalem.”
Yet as a terror tactic, Jerusalem has known vehicular attacks dating back to at least 2008. Indeed, in the fall of 2014, several such attacks in short succession led to what was termed in militant Palestinian circles “the ramming Intifada,” replete with a catchy Hamas-inspired song on social media. The tactic was revived—some might say perfected—during this last wave of violence, with some two dozen vehicle attacks in Jerusalem and the West Bank since 2015.
As a result, the physical topography of Jerusalem has changed in the last year, with concrete barriers and bollards sprouting up at every bus stop and light rail station—locations that prior to today were the preferred site of such attacks.
The Goldman Promenade, sadly, had no such protection, although that will likely change as well.
Even in Israel, even in Jerusalem, completely preventing such attacks is a near impossibility. “There was no prior warning,” Roni Alsheich, Israel’s National Police commissioner, told reporters at the scene. “The attacker doesn’t need more than two to three seconds of opportunity to find a target to attack, and this is what happened here.”
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As of this writing, Israel’s security cabinet has hurriedly assembled to formulate a response. It’s unlikely that they will come up with anything that has not been tried before: sealing off Jabal Mukaber, whose inhabitants are Israeli residents of Jerusalem and can therefore travel and work freely in Israel (unlike their Palestinian brethren in the West Bank); not returning Qunbar’s body for burial; demolishing the family home.
The fear after all such attacks is that it could potentially mark the start of a wider escalation, with copycats taking inspiration from today’s heavy death toll. There’s no doubt, however, that politically the attack comes at an extremely sensitive time.
The UN Security Council resolution passed last month condemning illegal Israeli construction in the Occupied Territories does, in theory, apply to the site of today’s attack; Armon HaNatziv falls right on the eastern side of the 1949 Armistice Line.
Secretary of State John Kerry and other foreign ministers are set to meet in Paris next weekend to discuss Israeli-Palestinian peace and the best way forward, a meeting Israel will boycott.
And President-Elect Donald Trump has signaled his intention to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem— possibly to a site not far from the attack—leading to warnings from the Palestinians, Arab capitals, and the Obama administration of an “explosion” in Jerusalem and beyond.