SNAPSHOT: Significant escalation in Israel-Palestinian Territories tensions amid violent clashes in Jerusalem and cross-border exchanges with Gaza

SNAPSHOT: Significant escalation in Israel-Palestinian Territories tensions amid violent clashes in Jerusalem and cross-border exchanges with Gaza

OVERVIEW

  • A significant increase in tensions has occurred amid days of recent clashes between Palestinians and Israeli security forces in Jerusalem’s Old City.

  • Israeli police reportedly stormed the al-Aqsa Mosque compound in East Jerusalem on Monday (10 May) for the third consecutive day, using tear gas, rubber-coated steel rounds, and stun grenades against Palestinian worshippers inside the mosque. Video posted online shows Palestinians throwing stones and bottles at police. More than 700 people have been injured in violent clashes in the past 24 hours.
  • Meanwhile, militants in Gaza launched more than 150 rocket and mortar rounds toward Israel late on Monday, triggering alert sirens in Sderot, Ashkelon, and other areas in the Southern District as well as in Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh, and areas along the border with the Gaza Strip. Israel’s Iron Dome Defence system intercepted the majority of the rockets, while others landed in open areas. Some material damages were reported, and Israel reported six civilians were injured.
  • Israel responded with retaliatory airstrikes against Hamas targets in Gaza, with at least 24 people, including nine children, reportedly killed as a Tuesday morning (11 May). Israel's military said at least 15 Hamas members were among those killed. Hamas, which rules the coastal enclave, had previously issued an ultimatum demanding that all Israeli troops leave the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah and the Old City’s Temple Mount, where al-Aqsa Mosque is located, by 1800 on 10 May.

BACKGROUND

  • Jerusalem has been on edge for recent weeks. Palestinian protesters and Israeli police have clashed on a near daily basis in and around Jerusalem’s Old City, initially sparked by an Israeli move to block some Palestinian gatherings at Damascus Gate at the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in mid-April. After the posting of video online showing Palestinians attacking ultra-Orthodox passers-by, the far-right Lehava group staged protest marches through downtown Jerusalem chanting ‘Death to Arabs’, contributing to escalating tensions. 
  • While restrictions at Damascus Gate were eventually eased, confrontations have continued due to a Jerusalem court’s approval of a plan to evict dozens of Palestinians from the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah. The Palestinians live in houses built on land that courts have ruled were owned by Jewish religious associations prior to Israel’s establishment in 1948. The ruling is based on a 1970 Israeli law that allows Jews to reclaim lost property in East Jerusalem. The eviction plan would see the families replaced by right-wing Jewish Israelis. The Palestinian families appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, which delayed a planned hearing to discuss the appeal on 10 May until further notice.

GLOBAL REACTION

  • Across the world, countries have appealed for calm amid the ongoing violence and retaliatory attacks by Israel and the Palestinians. Efforts by the United Nations, Egypt and Qatar to mediate a solution to the fighting is ongoing, while the US, European Union, and UK have all called for lowered tensions.
  • The US Embassy in Israel on 10 May issued a security alert warning of the high likelihood for further protests and violence in the Old City and forbidding its personnel from visiting the Old City through 0700 on 16 May. The embassy also advised people to remain indoors from 1900 to 0800 until this date. Similar security alerts are likely to be in place for other embassies.
  • Meanwhile, the situation has sparked a number of protests in solidarity with Palestinians throughout the region, including in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Tunisia, and Pakistan.

ANALYSIS

  • The past few days mark the worst violence in Jerusalem, which both sides claim as their political capital, since 2017. The unrest highlights the lingering potential for various local causes to spark significant violence in the flashpoint city as finding a permanent solution to contentious issues such as the status of Jerusalem, final borders and Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, remains unaddressed.
  • The most recent flare-up will have implications for the current domestic political context in the Palestinian Territories, where the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Fatah party, which governs the West Bank, are weakened and their reputations damaged after PA President Mahmoud Abbas indefinitely delayed legislative elections that were slated for 22 May. The vote would have been the first to take place in 15 years and offered Hamas, who has been isolated for years in Gaza, a chance at a unity government with Fatah, a concept generally popular with Palestinians. The pretext for the cancellation was that Israel had refused to allow them to be conducted in East Jerusalem.
  • Hamas has blamed Fatah for the current situation in Jerusalem. The group, taking advantage of the PA’s limitations on operating in Jerusalem, likely wants to present itself as the defender of the city by firing rockets at the Jerusalem area with the support of other Palestinian militant groups in the coastal enclave such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). It is likely Hamas aims to instigate a short-lived but dramatic exchange of cross-border attacks in order to boost its support before returning to the status quo.
  • Israeli authorities have implemented a number of precautionary measures due to this high likelihood, including modifying flight plans towards Ben Gurion Airport (TLV), limiting gatherings outdoors to ten people and indoors to 50 people in parts of the Southern district, closing off highways in the vicinity of the Gaza Strip including the main Route 4, and halting train service between Beersheba and Ashkelon. The have also activated eight reserve brigades Israeli border police to help deal with the latest surge of violence. Authorities in Tel Aviv said on 10 May that public bomb shelters would open in the event that rocket fire targets the city. From 11 May, only schools and businesses with accessible bomb shelters will be open in central Israel.

OUTLOOK

  • Additional rocket attacks from Gaza into the Southern District and Jerusalem area and retaliatory airstrikes by Israel are likely in the coming 24 to 48 hours. Full-scale resumption of conflict with Gaza remains unlikely and both sides will prefer to return to negotiations and a ceasefire. Indeed, Gaza-based militant groups frequently conduct rocket and mortar attacks against communities in southern Israel during periods of elevated tensions. In most incidents there are no casualties or serious damage and the Iron Dome air defence system intercepts the projectiles. Likewise, Israel typically responds with airstrikes targeting Hamas and other militia group assets. However, as the current situation prolongs and tit-for-tat attacks continue, this will elevate the potential for miscalculation that could lead to extended cross-border exchanges.
  • In Jerusalem, further protests and associated violence are expected in the coming days, with a flashpoint date likely to be the Eid al-Fitr holiday on 12 May, which marks the end of Ramadan. The Israeli Supreme Court, which is looking at an appeal of the Sheikh Jarrah eviction case, delayed a planned hearing on 10 May until further notice, and this is also likely to be another flashpoint issue in the coming weeks. As such, the situation is unlikely to stabilise throughout at least mid- to late-May.
  • Another major flashpoint is the Palestinian observance of the 73rd Nakba (Catastrophe) Day anniversary on 15 May, which marks the displacement of Palestinians during the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. Demonstrations linked to this date are likely in the East Jerusalem neighbourhoods of Sheikh Jarrah, Wad al-Joz, At-Tur and Issawiya as well as in the West Bank and Gaza and other locations within Israeli that have large Arab Israeli communities. Hotspots for protest activity include public squares, government buildings, Israeli settlements, military checkpoints, and border areas, in addition to the al-Temple Mount/al-Aqsa Mosque compound and Damascus Gate entrance to the Old City. Travel restrictions for Palestinians are likely to be in place at major checkpoints, including those outside Ramallah, Jenin, Nablus, Bethlehem, Hebron, Jericho, Tulkarm, and Qalqilya, which may further spur protester anger.
  • There is a high probability that the current tensions could spill over into other locations such as the West Bank, particularly with Nakba Day approaching. Protests and acts of militancy are likely to increase, particularly those targeting Israeli settlements and the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). A number of low-level attacks that have taken place in recent days portend this threat: on 7 May three Palestinians opened fire near a Border Police base in Israeli territory near the northern West Bank; two of the attackers were killed when officers returned fire. In another incident on 3 May, an Israeli yeshiva student was shot in a drive-by attack at Tapuah Junction in the northern West Bank and later died of his injuries.

ADVICE

  • Operations managers should monitor updates and adhere to instructions issued by local authorities. Those in country should be prepared to take immediate action on hearing air raid warnings and know the location of their nearest air raid shelter. In the event no shelter is nearby, staff should stay indoors and avoid windows and exterior walls and relocate to a ground floor or basement.  Travel to areas within 40km of the border with Gaza should be deferred unless for essential purposed. 
  • Travellers should avoid visiting Jerusalem’s Old City and other flashpoint neighbourhoods until at least 17 May. They should expect an elevated security presence and associated travel disruptions. Adhere to the directives of security forces at all times and carry relevant identification. Do not attempt to bypass any security checkpoints or other restrictions unless cleared to do so; even unintentional security breaches will prompt an aggressive response from authorities. 
  • There is an underlying risk from lone-wolf terrorism during periods of elevated tension, including stabbing attacks, car-rammings, and shootings. Staff should avoid areas vulnerable to attack such as checkpoints, military and government assets and personnel, religious sites and gatherings, public transport, tourist sites, and crowded public areas. Report suspicious items or persons to authorities.