On Sunday night, the Israeli police finally removed barriers outside Damascus Gate, allowing Palestinians to enter Jerusalem’s Old City. The Palestinians celebrated the decision - which Israel took after “consultations with religious authorities, local leaders and shop owners” - as it ended a crisis that started with the holy month.
Palestinian protesters and Israeli forces clash year round. But the aggressiveness of violence significantly increases when religion is involved. This time the escalation started when Palestinian citizens accused Israeli police of putting up barriers to prevent them from breaking the fast on the steps of Damascus Gate, an area where thousands of Palestinians traditionally gather after the night-time prayers in Ramadan.
According to Wesam Afifa, a Palestinian political analyst and journalist, speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly, Israel generally “commits violations and attempts to create new realities” in Jerusalem, with settlers periodically storming Al-Aqsa Mosque. He sees these moves as the major cause of “continuous waves of escalation”. “Tensions usually increase during Ramadan because the people of Jerusalem face difficulties in terms of movement. Israel obstructs their freedom of worship and ability to reach mosques, which leads to confrontations like those that happened around Al-Aqsa Mosque and Damascus Gate.”
Afifa added that violence reaches Arab neighbourhoods in Jerusalem, for many Palestinians encounter deportations - which happened in the Sheikh Jarrah area - and are attacked by settlers who try to take over their homes. “These violations and plans pushed the Palestinians to confront the occupation authorities, and they actually managed on many occasions to force the latter to reverse its decisions. This includes its willingness to close all the gates of Al-Aqsa and turn them into military checkpoints to reduce the number of Palestinians in the area, while allowing settlers to share Al-Aqsa with the people of Damascus Gate.”
At least 100 Palestinians were wounded, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent, and more than 50 arrested. Israeli settlers attacked Palestinians and chanted anti-Arab slogans in many areas. Social media footage showed a march in Jaffa Street, a major road in Jerusalem, rallying towards Damascus Gate and chanting “Death to the Arabs”. The situation had severely deteriorated in the last few days, and - as has always been the case - violence reached the Gaza Strip. Gazan militants fired dozens of missiles into Israel, so much so that Israel’s chief of staff Aviv Kohavi postponed his visit to the United States because of ongoing “events and possible developments”.
International attention has been paid the developments in Israeli-occupied territories. Jordan’s Foreign Ministry held Israel accountable for the violence and slammed the “incitement and provocations by extremist Jewish groups last night in the Old City of occupied East Jerusalem.” The US Embassy in Jerusalem issued a statement in English, Hebrew and Arabic to express its deep concern, hoping that “all responsible voices will promote an end to incitement, a return to calm, and respect for the safety and dignity of everyone in Jerusalem.” The European Union (EU) made a similar statement, calling for “calm and an immediate lowering of tensions and for restraint”.
There is no doubt that Jerusalm is one of the most controversial issues in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The Palestinians want the eastern part of the city, which Israel captured and occupied during the 1967 War, to serve as the capital of their future state.
But this dream is apparently hard to reach, especially after former US president Donald Trump recognised the city as Israel’s “undivided capital” and moved Washington’s embassy to it. This was the best piece of news the Israelis had heard in many years. The anti-Palestinian strategy of Trump resulted in the total collapse of the peace process, which had already been stalled since 2014, as the Palestinians decided to boycott his administration.
Jerusalem can be described as a “powder keg”, argued Ian Lustick, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “There are many factors involved, including severe inequality in services to Arabs and Jews; policies of intimidation, displacement and ‘Judaisation’ of Arab neighborhoods in Al-Quds; steady deteriorations in relations between Palestinians and increasingly nationalistic and belligerent ultra-orthodox Jews; the absence of political leadership among the nearly 350,000 Palestinians living within the Israeli municipality of Jerusalem, and the ferocity of ‘Lehava,’ an extreme right-wing, anti-Arab, and misogynist group of Jewish men,” Lustick said. “Mobs of these thugs exploited individual acts of Palestinian violence, as well as Palestinian protests against closure of the Damascus Gate area, to conduct a pogrom against Arab Jerusalemites.”
Lustick believes that Israel is seeking to de-escalate violence in and around the Gaza Strip, taking a “very positive step” by deciding to remove the barriers and allow Palestinians to congregate at Damascus Gate during Ramadan. But he warned that the “likely cancellation of Palestinian elections and political disarray in Israel may both produce conditions for new outbreaks of violence, not only in Jerusalem, but in specific portions of the West Bank as well, and even among Palestinian citizens of Israel.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly