Jerusalem: the politics behind the latest explosion of violence in the Holy City
By Carlo Aldrovandi* –
The recent violence at the al-Aqsa mosque/Temple Mount area and in
the Old City of Jerusalem has spiralled into something bigger and more
dangerous. Clashes between Israeli security forces and Palestinian
protesters at the weekend have left hundreds injured. Tensions rose further on
Monday night after Israeli airstrikes launched in retaliation for Hamas rocket
attacks killed 25 people in Gaza City.
This latest episode cannot be attributed to a single cause.
It should rather be connected to a broader landscape of destabilising factors
whose cumulative weight led to the current crisis after months of incubation.
A chain reaction was nevertheless triggered by ongoing
attempts to evict Palestinian families living for generations in the east
Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh
Jarrah. A legal battle is being waged between the Palestinian residents and
Nahalat Shimon – a
settler organisation tied to the Zionist movement in Israel which is trying to
Jerusalem’s demographics in favour of a Jewish population.
Support towards the Sheikh Jarrah families instantly came
from several Palestinian constituencies, including an unprecedented number of
Arab citizens of Israel from Umm al-Fahm and Jaffa. At the same time, thousands
started demonstrating at Damascus Gate which in recent weeks has become east
Jerusalem’s “Tahrir Square” – the centre of Egypt’s 2011 “Arab Spring”
revolution. Many of the protesters were Muslim worshippers who came together at
the gate after having attended prayers at al-Aqsa Mosque.
It is worth noting that the crisis unfolded during the final
days in the holy month of Ramadan: the climax of the Islamic calendar but also
the most volatile
time of the year in Jerusalem. On Friday May 7 alone, some 200 Palestinians
were seriously injured and many more were arrested following fierce
confrontations with the Israeli police.
Israeli police were too aggressive in their attempts to curb
demonstrations, which soon backfired with an expansion
of Palestinian protests across Jerusalem, the West Bank and many Arab
villages in central and northern Israel.
Turmoil on both sides
Inability to contain violence in Jerusalem and other
occupied territories is partly a result of internal issues with both the
Palestinian leadership and the Israeli government. On the Palestinian side,
there is a power struggle taking place between Hamas and the president of the
Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas. Hamas deliberately heightened tension
with Israel by firing rockets from Gaza as a propaganda strategy to build
political capital at Abbas’ expense. He, in turn, has
postponed elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council for fear of
losing ground against his Islamist rivals.
Israeli politics, meanwhile, has reached a debilitating
impasse after four general elections failed to establish a workable government.
This has had severe ramifications for the handling of the crisis.
And it’s important not to underestimate – as Israel’s
security chiefs obviously have – the disastrous consequences that COVID-19 has
had on east Jerusalem, leaving all too many young Palestinians unemployed and
even more hopelessly
alienated from their respective political leaderships. The young
Palestinians demonstrating on the steps of Damascus Gate, the streets of the
Old City and al-Aqsa are not animated by their parents’ ideologies, but mostly
a sense of anger, revulsion and frustration.
With such soaring tensions and political dysfunction on both
sides, the situation appeared likely to spin out of control during the flag
march scheduled on Jerusalem
Day. That event takes place annually to commemorate the reunification of
Jerusalem by Israel after the six-day war in 1967.
In recent times, with the growing influence of the settler
movement within the Netanyahu government and Israeli society, the parade has
become a cornerstone in the national consciousness of many religious Zionists.
Every year, before reaching the celebrations at the Western Wall Plaza,
hundreds of young Israelis make their way from Sheikh Jarrah, pause at Damascus
Gate and then continue along Al-Wad street – the main artery in the Muslim
Quarter in the Old City.
During the march, young Israelis wave their national flags
defiantly and chant patriotic songs. Meanwhile Palestinians watch the
procession from behind the security fences that the Israeli police forces put
in place especially for the occasion.
The way this celebration cuts across their everyday spaces
is felt by most Palestinians as a blatant provocation and a painful reminder of
the humiliation Israel inflicted on their national aspirations in June 1967.
Not only did the Six-Day War mean large-scale Palestinian dispossession, it
also established Israeli control over al-Quds (Jerusalem’s Arabic name) and
al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest site in Islam and a primary symbol of
On Sunday night thousands of Palestinians barricaded
themselves in the mosque with stones and Molotov cocktails in anticipation of
the Jerusalem Day Parade. According to the Palestinian Red
Crescent, clashes between Israeli police forces and the demonstrators,
which inevitably unfolded at al-Aqsa on Monday morning, left another 300
Palestinians wounded. That prompted an Israeli decision to prevent Jews
from entering the al-Aqsa mosque/Temple Mount area during Jerusalem Day.
Sensing quite how dangerous it would be to allow a march to
follow the route through some of the Palestinian population’s most symbolically
important spaces – and, with Jerusalem already on a knife edge – the Israeli
authorities announced that the flag march could go ahead but rerouted
its course away from the Damascus Gate and the Muslim Quarter. The Israeli
High Court of Justice also
deferred the hearings on the planned evictions of Palestinian families in
Sheikh Jarrah that had been scheduled for Jerusalem Day.
But these attempts to de-escalate appear to have been too
little and too late. As we now know, Hamas made the decision to fire rockets at
west Jerusalem and southern Israel, and the Israeli Defense Force retaliated
with air strikes, killing
25 people. Once more, Jerusalem is ablaze, with potentially dire
consequences for the stability of the whole region. May 11, 2021
in International Peace Studies, Trinity College Dublin. Laurea Degree in
Political Science from Bologna University (Italy) and a M.A. in International
Politics and Security Studies from Bradford University,
Disclosure statement: Carlo Aldrovandi does not work
for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation
that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant
affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Stefanie Fox, Executive Director of Jewish Voice for Peace:
“The horrors on the
ground in Palestine/Israel are devastating and increasing by the moment. The Israeli government is encouraging and enabling the imminent settler
theft of homes in Sheikh Jarrah, bulldozing homes in Silwan, storming Al Aqsa
mosque to attack Palestinians at prayer, and protecting rioting mobs of
settlers as they accost Palestinians”: