Unrest in Jerusalem

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region



Last week’s violence in East Jerusalem risks spreading throughout the Occupied Territories. The immediate cause of the protests seems to be the decision by the Israeli police to install metallic barriers at the entrance of the Damascus Gate ostensibly to prevent Palestinian youth from loitering during the month of Ramadan. However, for many Palestinians, the protests are an indication of a combination of factors, including pent up frustration from ongoing limits on their movements and the uncertainty surrounding the upcoming Palestinian parliamentary elections, as well as Israel’s heavy-handed treatment in general. That the violence has been instrumentalized by both sides has only made matters worse. Many observers have renewed their calls for a greater US involvement in favor of a long-term solution to the Palestinian question.

The unrest in East Jerusalem is seen, by some, as a prelude to more widespread violence that could engulf the rest of the Occupied Territories. Connecting the dots between rockets fired at Israel and the Jerusalem unrest, long-time journalist and analyst Yoav Limor, writing for Israel Hayom, concludes that “One cannot detach the events of Saturday in the Gaza sector from the ongoing riots in Jerusalem. Hamas wanted to project solidarity with the residents of east Jerusalem and gave recalcitrant groups in Gaza the green light to fire rockets at Israel…. In the senior diplomatic-security assessment on Saturday,… the riots in Jerusalem were cited as the driving force behind the recent violence and that the brunt of Israel’s effort must focus on reducing tensions in the city…. Aside from Gaza, the violence in Jerusalem, if it persists, can potentially spread to Judea and Samaria and even beyond – to the northern sector and perhaps even the entire Muslim world. Jerusalem is one issue every Muslim can rally around, and Israel must make sure the events in the capital aren’t perceived as a religious war.”

What is the main cause of the protests?

For Israel Hayom’s Shahar Klaiman, the violence is directly related to the uncertainty surrounding the upcoming Palestinian parliamentary elections, which may now be postponed, due to what Klaiman suggests is the PA’s perceived weakened electoral position: “The clashes in the Old City are fueled, among other things, by the Palestinian elections, slated to take place on May 22. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is actually looking for ways to walk back his intention to hold elections as polls predict Hamas, and potentially his rivals in Fatah – exiled strongman Mohammad Dahlan and Tanzim leader Marwan Barghouti, who is jailed in Israel for his terrorist activity – would deal him a stinging defeat…. All this means that recent events seek to pressure Israel to allow elections in East Jerusalem. Abbas has blamed Israel for the escalation and has lauded the rioters, but Fatah is not oblivious to the underlying message of the riots and the rocket fire.”

Jordan-based Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab, writing for Yedioth Ahronoth, agrees that the Jerusalem violence is connected to the parliamentary elections, but unlike Klaiman concludes that the main driver is Palestinian unhappiness with Israel’s attempts to smother Palestinian political expression in East Jerusalem and the rest of the Occupied Territories: “The recent demonstrations that began in Jerusalem and spread to the occupied territories cannot be disconnected from Israel’s efforts to try to deny the right to political expression…. The issue of Jerusalem cannot and must not be resolved by oppressive and unrestrained police actions, but by granting them freedom of political expression and the right to establish an independent political entity that will allow Palestinians to choose their leadership freely…. Instead of arresting Palestinian political and religious leaders, they should simply try talking to them…. The sooner Israel elects to deal with the issue on the political level and not as a security issue, the better it will be for all concerned and the sooner peace and quiet can return to the Holy City.”

The Iranian Press TV commentary on last week’s developments also holds Israel culpable for what it sees as ongoing “repression” and “settlers’ violence” as the main reasons for what a Press TV analyst characterized as the “Palestinian uprising…. [T]he rising number of aggressions by Israeli settlers against Palestinians combined with severe repressive methods used by Israel are the main factors behind the new wave of Palestinians’ uprising in the occupied territories. Saleh Abu Izzah, a senior expert in West Asia affairs… termed the current uprising as entirely distinct from previous ones, as it has drawn solid support from Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The analyst went on to say that the present Palestinian uprising sends various messages to different groups.”

What has the Israeli government done to quell the violence?

Referring to the violence that had taken place over the last few days, Haaretz’s Anshel Pfeffer described a typically celebratory scene, where “Hundreds of buses were lined up to take them all over Israel and the West Bank. The stalls in the street market were already in full swing, selling food for the breaking of the fast in seven hours, and in the singular Jerusalem Ramadan tradition, many were selling Shabbat challah from Jewish bakeries. There was a heavy police presence, but the officers were mainly concerned with ensuring a steady flow of traffic, later descending into chaos, leaving Jerusalem ‘on the brink of explosion,’ due to what he asserts is a lack of leadership on the part the Israeli authorities, who he argues have been ‘unable or unwilling to stop an escalation’ of the violence.

The National editorial also takes aim at Israel’s politicians, who, according to the UAE daily, are driven by political expedience and “cynicism” to embrace right-wing positions, thus creating greater animosity towards the Palestinian population: “The escalation, especially during Ramadan, is of concern to Arabs and Muslims globally…. These kinds of incidents pose a significant threat to efforts at fostering peace. They have been helped by the cynicism that prevails in some of Israel’s party politics, with mainstream politicians often drifting opportunistically to the extreme right of the political spectrum in order to outflank their conservative opponents…. Relatively small bouts of unrest can easily spiral into much larger bursts of violence and instability, and these can render long-term, peaceful solutions to the Palestine-Israel conflict more remote.”

Prime Minister Netanyahu, preoccupied with the various court hearings that may ultimately decide his political future, has been seen as reacting too slowly to the unrest, with Sami Abou Shahadeh accusing the PM in a recent op-ed for Haaretz of being complicit in the maltreatment of the Palestinians last week: “The images of hundreds of religious Zionist activists in occupied East Jerusalem chanting “Death to Arabs” come as no surprise to Palestinians. In fact, they are commonplace, daily occurrences, the result of decades of racist policies, laws and hateful anti-Palestinian incitement. But there is also a new element to these attacks: the role that Israel’s prime minister is playing. Netanyahu’s allies, particularly the Kahanist-supporting MKs, Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, called on their fanatic youth to take over the streets, a show of force and a mob to harass and assault Palestinians. It was clear that there was coordination with the police; they were supported by politicians; and from the government – not a single condemnation to date.”

What role can the United States play?

As the violence unfolded in Jerusalem, a non-partisan network of over 300 retired leaders of Israel’s security agencies authored an open letter, published by the Jerusalem Post, warning that unless the United States intervened “Israelis [and] Palestinians are headed for a collision…. We suggest that Washington not wait for violence to further escalate, but rather preempt it. We therefore welcomed Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s announcement that the US will restore aid to the Palestinians as evidence that preoccupation with other priorities does not preclude engagement when needed. To be sure, we cannot expect such senior intervention to become the routine, at least not for a while. Consequently, in the interim, the administration might empower mid-level officials overseeing this ‘file’ to lead an approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is less ambitious than one requiring presidential or secretarial hands-on engagement. While clarifying its (and our) long-term objective of a two-state solution, the administration will do well to accentuate stability as an interim, less demanding yet important and attainable objective.”

The message of the open letter has also been echoed by others, including the Gulf News editorial staff, which was quick to add that it was heartened by the early signs of a possible turn in the US posture vis-à-vis the Israeli-Palestinian question: “The new administration in Washington is still in its first few days, and there are already many files that need the immediate attention of President Joe Biden…. President Biden and his long history of working with international partners, nurturing diplomatic ties, building consensus between nations, and finding common ground to advance solutions, now offers a new opportunity to look forward and find a path to peace and stability. The path forward includes a comprehensive two-state solution, one that recognizes the rights, interests, and traditions of all parties. Any lasting peace and stability must go hand in hand, and that stability should be based on forging close economic ties and exploring opportunities that will enhance prosperity and foster growth.”

The Jordan Times editorial, likewise, congratulates the Biden administration’s “U-turn” regarding the funding of the UN programs providing humanitarian aid for Palestinian refugees: “The Biden administration has restored aid to the Palestinians, bringing much-needed relief especially to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, which has been reeling from a severe financial crisis. Biden’s sharp U-Turn from the policies of former US president Donald Trump, who cut assistance to UNRWA in 2018, renewed hopes that the current US administration could restore Washington’s role as a credible mediator in the seven-decade-old Palestinian-Israeli conflict…. The new US administration’s restoration of relations with and aid to Palestinians buoyed hopes of reviving the moribund peace process in a troubled region.”

But in a sign that there is still a long road ahead, award-winning Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab warns in an op-ed for Arab News that the US should not insist on “humiliating conditions” when it comes to providing financial assistance to the Palestinian government: “There are plenty of benefits from a vibrant US-Palestinian relationship. It is a natural act that reflects respect and understanding and paves the way for direct high-level engagement between Washington and the legitimate Palestinian representatives…. Unfortunately, anti-peace elements in the US don’t want to see genuine progress in the peace talks and therefore have been searching for ways to derail the attempts by Biden’s team to fulfill his promise of reopening the Palestinian mission. New humiliating conditions are being carbon copied from the Israeli right-wing playbook and presented as legitimate…. Any change to this constitutionally mandated committee to support prisoners and martyrs would need a two-thirds vote of the Palestinian legislature…. America has never made such humiliating conditions on a single friend or foe.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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