A number of days have passed since tensions have boiled over in the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, which came under the Israeli rule following the 1967 Six-Day War. And the conflict is threatening the stability of the Middle East. There have been violent clashes, particularly around the Al-Aqsa Mosque on top of Temple Mount, the third holiest site in Islam. According to recent reports, a third intifada is a possibility.
Tensions rose as a result of protests by Arab Israelis in the Sheikh Jarrah district of East Jerusalem in response to the planned eviction of several Palestinian families, approved by lower courts. Demonstrators were angered by the decision handed down by the court to evict four Palestinian families from their homes to be replaced by Jewish settlers who claim that the houses the former live in had been built on land “owned by Jewish religious associations before the establishment of Israel in 1948”. However, the Palestinians claim that they were able to return to the area in 1967 after “a UN Security Council resolution demanded Israeli forces withdraw from territories captured during the Six Day War”.
Tensions between the Palestinian disagreeing with the courts, and the police started in April, with the latest clashes breaking out on May 10 after the Israeli police stormed the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound on Temple Mount leaving more than 180 Palestinian worshippers wounded, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent Society.
In turn, Hamas (an organization based in the Gaza Strip, Palestine) got actively involved in the conflict and issued an ultimatum demanding Israeli police forces withdraw from the compound and free the detained Arabs. To show how serious their intentions were, Gaza militants fired rockets and balloons with incendiary devices attached to them in support of the protesters. In response to the launch of Operation Al-Quds Sword by Palestinian resistance factions, the Israel Defense Forces began counter strikes against Hamas dubbed Guardian of the Walls. It is unclear yet, how long these counter-strikes will last and what other territories, if any, they will affect. There have been rocket attacks, originating in the Gaza Strip, against regions around Ashkelon, Bet Shemesh, Jerusalem, etc. In Tel Aviv, municipal shelters are being opened in response to the ongoing bombardment from the Gaza strip. Municipalities of Ramat Gan, Bnei Brak and other Israeli towns and cities also announced they would open bomb shelters. There are public as well as private bomb shelters in Israel.
Rockets fired from the Gaza Strip have resulted in deaths and injuries among Israelis, which indicates the country’s missile defense system cannot fully protect its citizens from such attacks. And although Iron Dome, a part of Israel’s future multi-tiered missile defense system, is viewed as quite effective, it has not fully shielded the country from rockets launched from the Gaza Strip.
On account of escalating tensions in the region, on May 11, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) announced that 5,000 reservists had been “called up to bolster the forces on the Gaza border” in the nation’s Southern District. An IDF spokesman said that one aim of “Operation Guardian of the Walls” was to erase the rocket-launching capabilities of Hamas forces in the northern Gaza Strip.
The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs called on the international community to condemn Hamas and support the nation’s right of self-defense. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has stated that “terrorist groups in Gaza crossed a red line on the eve of Jerusalem Day” by attacking the nation “with rockets on the outskirts of Jerusalem”. He also said that Hamas and Islamic Jihad would pay “a very heavy price for their belligerence”.
On May 11, Ismail Haniyeh, a senior political leader of Hamas, warned that rocket attacks would “continue until Israel” stopped “all scenes of terrorism and aggression in Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa mosque”. Saleh al-Arouri, Deputy Chairman of Hamas Political Bureau, urged Arab nations to tear up their normalization agreements with Israel. TV channel Al Mayadeen reported about a discussion between Head of Hamas political bureau, Ismail Haniyeh, and the Emir of Kuwait. The former said that the Israeli occupation forces were trying to “displace Palestinians from the city of Jerusalem and the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, as part of the attempts to Judaize the city, change its demographic character, and close the Bab al-Amud area leading to the Al-Aqsa Mosque”. Ismail Haniyeh also stressed that it was important to “work in all directions and forums to stop the occupation plans in Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa”, and Israeli “crimes against Palestinian people in Gaza”. He also added that Hamas would continue to retaliate against Israel unless the occupation as well as aggression and terror in Jerusalem and the blessed Al-Aqsa Mosque stopped.
Mediators for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (Russia, the United States, EU and UN) expressed their concern about the latest developments in East Jerusalem. On May 11, the UN Security Council met virtually behind closed doors to discuss the “ongoing clashes between Palestinians and Israelis in Jerusalem”, but no joint statement was issued as a result.
There are a number of reasons for this. According to the Al Arabiya news channel, the initial draft statement issued a harsh condemnation against Israel, calling on it to halt settlement activities, demolitions and evictions, while Israeli forces were called on to exercise utmost restraint against peaceful protesters.
The Times of Israel has reported that the statement proposed by Norwegians and Tunisians “underwent a number of amendments per requests from the US and UK, whose representative made sure it included a condemnation of the firing of incendiary devices and rockets from Gaza”. However, the updated draft was not issued because the US mission asked for more time to deliberate the matter.
According to Elaph, an online newspaper, the United States made it clear to its partners during the closed-door meeting that it was working behind the scenes to calm the situation and was not sure that making an announcement at the current stage would help.
On May 11, there appeared a glimmer of hope in the city where three religions collide. Worshippers returned to the Al-Aqsa Mosque for morning prayers without any incidents as there were most likely fewer Israeli police officers in the area.
The involvement of mediators from the international community in the Israeli–Palestinian peace process gives us all hope that it will be possible to avoid a further escalation of tensions in the Middle East.
Vladimir Platov, expert on the Middle East, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.