Fragile Calm Falls Over Jerusalem After Day of Violence Over Temple Mount – but Will It Hold?

Three Palestinians were killed in widespread violence around Jerusalem. Despite the police's relative successes in quelling violence, it could start anew

Israeli security forces arrest Palestinian men following clashes outside Jerusalem's Old city July 21, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Awad
AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS

Three Palestinians were killed Friday, two of them in Jerusalem and one in Abu Dis, a neighborhood east of the city. Though there were still the occasional outbreaks of violence in a few pockets of the city, calm has been restored to most parts of Jerusalem.

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Thousands of people participated in protests and clashes with Israeli police around the Old City following the end of the afternoon Muslim prayer on Friday. Protests of such magnitudes and scope have not been seen in the city since the summer of 2014, when Palestinian teen Mohammad Abu Khdair was kidnapped and murdered by Jewish extremists. The current assessment is that violence might start anew once night falls.

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Despite the large numbers of protests, as of Friday evening, the Jerusalem Police have successfully contained the events outside the Temple Mount and prevented the protests from turning into widespread clashes in Jerusalem itself. The Jerusalem police have developed in recent years advanced techniques for dealing with mass disruptions. It is the art of managing a mob through roadblocks and riot dispersal tools. The goal is to limit protests and prevent them from spilling over to the western party of the city and its main arteries. In that respect, the police were successful on Friday.

>>Analysis: Israeli Defense Chiefs Believe Metal Detectors Not Worth the Bloodshed>> Analysis: Temple Mount Protests Could Turn Into an Intifada in the Blink of an Eye>>

However, two caveats must be noted. Firstly, the sheer number of Israeli forces required and the steps the police took caused massive disruptions to life in East Jerusalem, and, to a certain extent, the entire city. Such measures cannot become permanent and cannot be feasibly implemented every Friday. For example, since Thursday night, Jerusalem was surrounded by police checkpoints that prevented Muslim worshipers from entering the city and every car was searched. Almost all of East Jerusalem's centers of commerce were shut down and scores of officers poured into the city's Palestinian areas, manning dozens of checkpoints.

The second caveat is that the motivation for lone wolf terror attacks is not shooting up. It is important to remember that almost every assailant from the past three years said (online before their death or after their attack and during their investigation, if they survived) that the reason for their attack was a burning desire to protect Al Aqsa. Images of Al Aqsa empty from worshipers for a second Friday in a row may inflame those very same people to return to the streets and the number of potential points of friction between Israeli forces and East Jerusalem residents will only grow.

The police tactic that succeeded today was dividing the Palestinians into smaller groups of protesters. Thus roadblocks were set up to prevent the protests from converging at one site. It seems the final instruction was to break up all pockets of protest even without provocation from Palestinians.

In Wadi Joz it was hard to discern if even a single bottle of water was thrown at the forces before they stormed the protesters. Stones, in any case, were thrown only after. The use of horses, cannons, stun grenades and others managed to quickly disperse the worshipers' protest.

The problems began shortly after the initial protests were broken up, when small pockets of protesters continued to clash with cops. Two protesters, one in Ras al-Amud and the other in A-Tur were shot. According to Palestinians, at least one of them with live rounds, and both died of their wounds. Their bodies were quickly removed from hospitals after Israeli forces surrounded them, with the hopes of taking them to an autopsy, and were quickly buried. The fact that there are two "martyrs" is likely to further inflame violence.

Alongside these issues, one should note one more fact. Minutes before Friday's prayer, the police allowed Muslim worshipers to enter the Temple Mount through the Cotton Merchants' Gate, one of the gates that opens up from the Muslim Quarter, without the metal detectors that started this current storm. The police are leading a large public diplomacy campaign with the Arab public to prove that it is the Muslim authorities that are breaking the rules on the Temple Mount. From time to time, it sends out photos of prayers at the site. Palestinians who noticed they were being filmed backtracked and then refused to enter. It turns out, that when there's a will there's a way to allow Muslims to worship at the site without metal detectors.