There Are Those Who Benefit From Jerusalem Escalation

Tensions allow Palestinian Authority to shirk responsibility, and Hamas to divert attention away from Gaza. And then there's Qatar.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Israeli Police stand by as Palestinians protest in Jerusalem's Old City on September 17, 2015.
Israeli Police stand by as Palestinians protest in Jerusalem's Old City on September 17, 2015.Credit: AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Tension in Jerusalem, which for the first time has led to rocket fire from Gaza on Sderot and Ashkelon, has broken out at a convenient time for many officials on the Arab side. For various reasons, a focus on the Temple Mount benefits the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. It might even be good for Qatar, which has increased its involvement in events between Israel and its neighbors.

An escalation serves the PA somewhat because East Jerusalem is under full Israeli control; the PA can’t be considered responsible for the violence. It also provides a good backdrop for the speech by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the end of the month at the UN General Assembly. The elderly rais has promised to drop a bombshell in that speech; it could be that the Palestinians will officially renounce — all or in part — the Oslo Accords.

The tension is also good for Hamas, whose problems are growing in the Gaza Strip. The Gazans’ frustrations over the deteriorating conditions there, particularly the worsening power outages, have stoked a protest wave against Hamas and the PA. At the end of the week the Egyptians began flooding tunnels along the Strip’s border at Rafah, heightening the sense of siege. So a diversion of the discussion back to events in Jerusalem benefits the Gaza government.

Events on the Temple Mount (and possibly also prisoner Mohammed Allan’s resumption of his hunger strike) appear to be the backdrop for the rocket fire from Gaza Friday night; one caused damage in Sderot and the other was shot down over Ashkelon by an Iron Dome battery. The rockets were fired by an extremist Salafist groups.

Israel responded with a limited bombardment of Hamas positions, the same approach since the end of the war over a year ago — the feeling is that Hamas doesn’t want another round of fighting at this point and that a measured military response will get Hamas to rein in the smaller groups without worsening tensions.

The less obvious player in the picture is Qatar. The country became more active in Gaza after the war, amid large contributions for Gaza reconstruction by the United Arab Emirates. A Qatari official regularly shuttles from Ramallah to Gaza and more than once stops for meetings in Tel Aviv.

The Qataris had hoped for a long-term cease-fire between Israel and Hamas that would include a total lifting of the Israeli siege on Gaza. But it has recently been made clear to them that Israel would not be a partner to such steps.

The overenthusiasm by Qatari-owned Al Jazeera in covering events in Jerusalem might also be motivated by vengeful feelings in Doha, the Qatari capital. This could be the reason tensions on the Temple Mount open most news broadcasts there, preceding updates on the daily massacres in Syria.

This could also be the reason a few days ago Al Jazeera claimed that “buses with settlers and Likud activists” were on their way to the Mount in what sounded like a strange (and just as reliable) echo of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s warning on Election Day.

Incidents over the weekend resulted in only a few injuries. At the moment it seems that flooding the city with police and Border Police could help reduce some of the tension.

Meanwhile, Israel has informed the Palestinians, Jordan and the Gulf states that it has no intention to change the status quo on the Temple Mount. But the area is still simmering. Demonstrations have been organized in recent days in neighborhoods and villages far from the Old City and have sometimes spilled over into the West Bank.

The situation in Jerusalem is expected to stay tense throughout the High Holy Days — also because of the many Jewish visitors expected in the Old City. The police will have to maintain their greater presence in the coming weeks, but at the same time show restraint.

This task falls on a police force that has been operating for nearly three months without a commissioner. Netanyahu is pushing for changes in the rules for opening fire that would give the Jerusalem police greater powers, but the army believes that Central Command’s current orders, which are slightly softer than those governing the Jerusalem police, are certainly enough.

The chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, Gadi Eisenkot, recently noted that 19 Palestinians have been killed by IDF fire this year in response to stone-throwing or firebomb attacks. He believes that this high number hasn’t calmed things down, so he and Central Command aren’t giving in to pressure by settler leaders and right-wing MKs to come down harder on incidents in the West Bank. They’re also not changing the IDF’s rules of engagement.

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