Why Is Jerusalem Exploding — Again?

The latest wave of violence centered on the Temple Mount is as predictable as it is virtually unstoppable.

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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A Palestinian protester kicks a burning tire during clashes in Jerusalem, September 15, 2015.
A Palestinian protester kicks a burning tire during clashes in Jerusalem, September 15, 2015.Credit: Reuters
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

So what is going on in Jerusalem? Why has a wave of violence suddenly swept through the streets of the Old City, the Temple Mount plaza and the neighborhoods of East Jerusalem with Palestinians throwing stones, flares and firebombs, and Israeli security forces resorting to batons, tear gas and rubber bullets?

First of all, the question should be rephrased. It’s not a sudden occurrence. Since the summer of 2014, Jerusalem has been afflicted by chronic violence, even if it doesn’t always make headlines. In recent, purportedly calm months, there hasn’t been a day without stones being thrown at the Jerusalem light rail system or at motor vehicles, confrontations with the police or harassment of Jews on the Temple Mount and in the alleyways of the Old City, firebombs thrown at the homes of Jews in Palestinian neighborhoods or the firing of flares at police positions. On most days all of these things have happened.

As for the Temple Mount, the site — considered Judaism's holiest and revered by Muslims who call it Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary) — has yet again revealed its explosiveness. This week's wave of violence apparently began when Israeli security forces received information indicating that young Palestinians intended to hole themselves up on the Temple Mount prior to the arrival of Jews who planned to go there on the eve of Rosh Hashanah. As a result, on Sunday morning dozens of Israeli police broke through onto the Temple Mount, which is under the daily administration of the Muslim religious trust, the Waqf. That spurred confrontations between Israeli security forces and young Palestinian males at the entrances to the Al-Aqsa mosque at the site.

The police took additional steps to stem the violence. They dispersed the young Palestinians, locked the mosque and prevented students who study on the Temple Mount from entering. But in a Jerusalem-style twist of logic, all of these steps only heightened Palestinians' fears that the mosque was under threat. Like similar scenarios in the past, rumors spread, calls to action were heard and the violence spread.

Another example of the problem of the Temple Mount logic was Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon’s decision a week ago, with the enthusiastic support of Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, to declare two organizations affiliated with the Islamic Movement — the Mourabitoun and the Mourabitat — illegal, on the grounds that they were fomenting violence at the site. From Israel’s standpoint, this decision would serve to keep violent influences away from the mount, but Muslims saw it as additional proof that Israel was “plotting something” on the Temple Mount. The Mourabitoun were seen by Palestinians as guardians of the mount, and their exclusion was perceived as an effort to change the delicate status quo there.

Police use stun grenades against Palestinian demonstrators in a street of the Muslim quarter in Jerusalem's Old City after scuffles with Israeli riot police on September 14, 2015.Credit: AFP

In the fall of 2014, it appeared that the Israeli government had come to understand the internal logic of the cycle of violence. Following a meeting between Jordanian King Abdullah and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel took a series of steps, including limiting admission of Jews to the Temple Mount and of Israeli politicians in particular, in an effort to show the Palestinians that Israel had no intention of changing the status quo and that the arrangements in place on the mount were firm. The result in fact was a period of calm at the site and around it. But since then, those insights have been forgotten.

The problem is not easily solvable. Almost 50 years after Israel gained control of East Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War, it is still not free to do as it pleases on the Temple Mount or in East Jerusalem as a whole. It doesn’t matter who makes the decisions. Whoever it is must work within many constraints and weigh factors such as ties with Europe and the United States, the alliance with the Kingdom of Jordan, security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority and the reaction on the street in East Jerusalem.

Likud minister Miri Regev and Jewish Temple Mount activists will continue to claim that these constraints can be shattered, for example, by barring access to the mount to Muslims as a punishment, permitting Jews to pray there or using greater force. But they too know that such options are not even up for discussion and that the current constraints are iron-clad.

That, however, is not the only cycle in which the Israeli prime minister is trapped. After every such wave of violence, he convenes a “special” meeting," “consults with security officials” and orders “zero tolerance” and a “firm” response. Just two weeks ago, such a meeting was held. Netanyahu promised a new policy and directed that there be a review of open—fire orders. In July, a law was approved authorizing up to 20 years in prison for those convicted on stoning a moving motor vehicle. (In October of last year, Netanyahu had sought to enact monetary sanctions against the parents of stone throwers and in June 2014 he sought the stiffer penalties). In practice, stones will continue to serve as a weapon as well as the ultimate means of protest for Palestinians in Jerusalem and elsewhere.

This week a Jerusalem motorist was killed when the car he was driving hit an electricity pole after his car was apparently stoned. The prime minister is therefore correct in saying that stones can constitute a lethal weapon — even though such instances are rare.

The increased penalties for stone throwing, which went into effect in July of last year, are not deterring additional incidents. The result of these measures, according to sources on the ground, is that young Palestinians who spend longer time in jail for the offense become better adept, form tighter networks with other Palestinian groups and emerge even more violent. Bottom line: The constraints end up feeding the cycle of violence.

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