Holocaust Remembrance Day attack in Jerusalem: Comments from a European security perspective – by Maria Alvanou

The phrase “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” has been used in the discussion for decades now regarding whether violence conducted by Palestinians against Israelis constitutes terrorism or not. Different geopolitical interests, ideological approaches, historical accounts, and even personal affiliations, in conjunction with the complexity of the Middle Eastern issue and the grievances people have been facing in this area, have led to different characterizations. Some have called them terrorism, others insurgency or resistance. And indeed, from an operational point of view, when attacks have been aiming at military targets, things can be blurred. However, there have been some true textbook cases of terrorism. Such a case has been the one of January 27th, 2023, that has led UN Spokesperson, António Guterres to state: “There is never any excuse for acts of terrorism.  They must be clearly condemned and rejected by all.”[1]  

The following characteristics of the attack by a gunman opening fire and killing 7 people, should be considered:

  1. Location: Synagogue in Jerusalem. The attacker chose as location a synagogue, a place of religious worship. He knew he would victimize people who gathered to pray to God, a solemn activity that has absolutely no aggressive or violent character. Choosing such a location the perpetrator also made it clear that there was not just an anti-Israeli, but also an anti-Jewish, antisemitic parameter to his actions. Furthermore, the hit took place in Jerusalem, the holy city of Jews, the city they traditionally, historically, and religiously considered as center of Judaism.
  2. Timing: International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The attack did not take place just during a Friday, while Jews were preparing for Shabbat. This was not just a religious gathering at a synagogue. The perpetrator chose the 27th of January. This is the day we globally remember the evil of the Holocaust and commemorate the millions of innocent Jews killed in appalling Nazi annihilation programs. The day we shout, “never again,” trying to make sure that this black page in human history will never be repeated, that same day was chosen to show that “once again” Jews can be massacred. The symbolic character is clear, as well as the impact the perpetrator was aiming at.

Palestinians celebrated the killings. Celebratory gunfire, cars honking, “Allahu Akbar” chanting from mosque loudspeakers, sweets distributed, all reactions showing a worrisome level of radicalization to violence. Any analysis should not ignore the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the vicious circle of violence that causes victims to both sides, as well as various obstacles that historically hinder the peace process and create the fertile ground for terrorism to appear. Yet, it is also necessary to see clearly and understand the rhetoric and narrative behind Palestinian terrorism. Antisemitic hate speech, dehumanization and moral disengagement processes have shaped the culture of terrorist violence. Generations of Palestinians have been brought up to hate Jews and be ready to kill Jews. They have been indoctrinated in many ways since young age to see terrorists as role models and continue their acts.[2] This was very much proven by the 13-year-old Palestinian boy who shot and wounded two people in East Jerusalem on Saturday morning, just a day after the synagogue attack.[3]

We need from a European security perspective to be incredibly careful about our reactions. There can be no ambivalent statements here. Josep Borrel, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy rightly stated: “The EU condemns in the strongest way the terrorist attack in Jerusalem. Israel’s security is of paramount importance to the EU.”[4]  It is important indeed to understand that by recognizing that the synagogue killings were a terror attack endangering Israel’s security, we as Europeans are consistent with the decision to fight terrorism both as a global phenomenon and in our own backyard. We should know by now that Israel has served as a test field for terror operational methodologies before they reach our door. Suicide bombings, knife attacks, vehicle ramming etc. that Islamists from various terror networks have used to attack European targets, were all successfully tried at first by Palestinians against Israel. We cannot afford to have double standards.

Additionally, this escalation of terror incidents against Israel is creating an elevated security threat in European countries. First of all, regarding possible terrorist attacks in European soil against targets connected to Israel and Israeli interests, even against Israeli tourists. Furthermore, because we could experience hate crimes, extremist/terrorist attacks against European Jewish citizens, with synagogues, Jewish neighbourhoods, Jewish schools, and kosher markets selected as vulnerable targets. Palestinian terrorists or Islamist terrorists claiming to support the Palestinian struggle could be behind such violence. In the island of Kos in Greece Palestinian immigrants were celebrating the Jerusalem attack[5], and this should also alarm us. It shows that inside immigrants coming to Europe there could be groups of people who are radicalized to antisemitism, a ready pool of terror sympathizers (if not possible future recruits) that could radicalize others too. Thus, we have to be alert and ready to monitor and prevent such dynamics inside our societies.

There is an idea was that there is no “bad publicity” when it comes to terrorism. The moment terrorists carry out their violence and the message of fear is transmitted, they have succeeded. The worse the violence, the better for them and their “brand name” in the terror scene. But this may not be that true always, especially when it comes to Palestinian groups. From the very start of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict they have tried to earn the sympathy and support of the international community, and they have been presenting their violent activities (e.g. plane hijackings during the ‘70s) as resistance and freedom fighting against a powerful army and due to years of grievances. This has been a successful tactic, that led in gaining supporters. Additionally, they have wanted to stay away from the label “terrorists” and e.g., they kept (a relative) distance from Al Qaeda and Daesh, avoiding being perceived as collaborating with networks that attacked Europe and have been addressed by European authorities as terror ones. Because international public opinion matters for Palestinians.

It is imperative for Europe to understand that events like the one at the synagogue in Jerusalem are pure terrorism, posing risks also to European security. More than ever, today we know that terrorism anywhere in the world, could mean potentially terrorism at home. It is understandable that the Palestinian cause has supporters in European society and politics, but even those supporters must make it clear that the end does not justify the means. There are red lines also regarding resistance and freedom fighting when it comes to civilian victimization. We cannot selectively turn a blind eye to terror operations, with the argument that the side using them is weaker from a military point of view. Israeli civilian lives matter too, and terrorism is just terrorism.

[1] https://news.un.org/en/story/2023/01/1132947

[2] For different ways of indoctrination and incitement reported inside Palestinian society, see indicatively: https://www.un.org/unispal/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/AHRC46NGO42_050321.pdf, https://www.businessinsider.com/hamas-kid-summer-camp-2016-8

[3] https://www.npr.org/2023/01/28/1152308932/two-men-wounded-attack-jerusalem

[4] https://twitter.com/josepborrellf/status/1558793463155593217

[5] https://en.protothema.gr/immigrants-in-kos-facility-shout-allahu-akbar-celebrating-the-killing-of-7-jews-in-jerusalem-video/