The Jerusalem powder keg has exploded
Not for the first time — and tragically probably not for the last time either — Jerusalem has become the center of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in its ugliest and most violent manifestation, threatening also to ignite the rest of the West Bank, Gaza, and relations between Jews and Arabs inside Israel. To say that the situation in Jerusalem has for long been a powder keg, just a trigger away from exploding, would be a massive understatement. In the last few weeks, the outbreak of violence in this holy city has been due to several issues inflaming an already unsustainable and volatile situation. Jerusalem is a microcosm of this century-long conflict between Israelis and Palestinians and, in such a densely populated city, all its symbols and areas of friction are concentrated in a relatively small space.
The scenes of Israeli security forces clashing with worshippers at Al-Haram Al-Sharif, resulting in hundreds of Palestinians injured, many of them critically, along with scores of Israeli police officers badly hurt, are a source of grave concern and could quickly lead to further escalations. Into the overall picture of the political impasse in relations between the Israelis and the Palestinians; the entrenchment of the occupation of the West Bank and the blockade of Gaza; the chaotic and ever more dysfunctional political landscape on both sides of the Green Line; and the general sense of hopelessness among the Palestinians, has been tossed in for good measure the mounting religious and nationalistic tensions in Jerusalem. But instead of responding with the required care, caution and sensitivity, the opposite has been the case, and the Israeli government and its law enforcement instruments must bear the lion’s share of responsibility.
This is not to say that there are no elements within the Palestinian political system and society that have an interest in inflaming the situation, whether in the belief that this is the only way to break the stalemate, for domestic political positioning, or because of their extreme nationalist and/or religious ideology vis-a-vis the conflict. However, for decades now, Israeli policies in Jerusalem have aimed to marginalize and alienate the Palestinians in their own city, where they make up 40 percent of the population.
There is, needless to say, the issue of timing in understanding the current flare-up. The holy month of Ramadan is reaching its climax and the day of commemorating the Nakba is just around the corner — two events where religious and nationalistic fervor and sensitivities are at their height. And when, into this tense atmosphere, there comes a tangible threat of eviction hanging over the heads of 13 Palestinian households numbering 300 people in Sheikh Jarrah, heavy-handed police actions against Palestinians throughout Ramadan, and East Jerusalemites prevented from participating in the now-postponed Palestinian elections, the recipe for a conflagration is complete.
There has also been an ongoing, concerted effort by Jewish ultra-right groups, with the tacit and sometimes more overt support of elements within the government, to send a clear message to Palestinians that, at best, they are tolerated as second-class residents of the city. It is anomalous that the Palestinians — who constitute a substantial minority in Jerusalem and who have lived under occupation since 1967 in a city, which, in contravention of international law, was formally annexed by Israel — are deprived of the same citizenship rights that their Jewish neighbors enjoy. They are barred from participating in Palestinian political life and also cannot vote in Israeli general elections, which makes them not only stateless but also powerless to have any say on the issues that matter to them.
To the chain of events that led to this most recent escalation in violence, which has reached an intensity not seen since at least 2017, first contributed the police, who, at the beginning of Ramadan, without consulting the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf or the Palestinian Authority, installed barriers to prevent people from sitting in the Damascus Gate plaza, the most popular public space during the month of Ramadan. Even if this was not a deliberate attempt to harass Palestinians during their holy month, the arbitrary nature of the decision most definitely left that impression and set the tone for friction and clashes. These saw Israel’s security forces using excessive force, including water cannons, stun grenades, rubber-coated bullets and mounted police.
Sporadic attacks by Palestinians on Jews in Jerusalem — including a video of a Palestinian teen slapping an ultraorthodox Jewish youth on the city’s light rail system that went viral on the social media app TikTok — heightened the tensions. While these were deservedly condemned, they still could not justify their cynical exploitation by the Israeli far right, which embarked on its customary racist provocations in the streets of Jerusalem. These people feel dangerously empowered in the aftermath of winning seats in the recent general election, and their support in the streets continues to grow.
The policy of Judaizing Jerusalem at the expense of the Palestinians is backfiring and now risks a full-blown uprising.
In the last few days, there has been mounting evidence that the violence in Jerusalem is having an impact on the West Bank and Gaza. Rockets and incendiary balloons have been launched into Israel, which retaliated once again with airstrikes that killed scores of Palestinians, including children. Add to this the protests in the north of the country by Palestinians living in Israel against Israeli forces’ storming of Al-Aqsa Mosque and the pending Sheikh Jarrah evictions and it becomes clear that the policy of Judaizing Jerusalem at the expense of the Palestinians is backfiring and now risks a full-blown uprising.
The lesson from the last few weeks is that the gridlock in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the stalling on a two-state solution is creating the conditions for the most extreme elements in the conflict to thrive and trigger more suffering and misery. The events in Jerusalem and how they affect relations with the rest of the Palestinians is a reminder to Israel that occupying people’s land and depriving them of their basic human rights can only lead to further hostilities. Hence, it is time for the UN Security Council, and Israel’s allies in Washington and Brussels, to remind it of its international obligations and call for all sides to hold fire on both the rhetoric and the weapons before another round of bloodshed erupts that could last for months, or even years.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg