While the entire world is watching the Russian-Ukrainian border, some people are determined to light their own small bonfire closer to home, in Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories. The renewed conflagration of clashes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem has brought back unpleasant memories of the events of May 2021, when tensions in the neighborhood – and even more so on the Temple Mount – ignited days of violence and fighting with Gaza, and in the Arab-Jewish cities inside Israel, too.
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Somewhat symbolically for Israeli-Palestinian relations, the disagreement once again centers on tiny plots of land in Sheikh Jarrah, on which endless hatred and disgust from both sides is being focused. Over the weekend, the home of a Jewish resident of the neighborhood, whose car had been torched a number of times in the past, was the target of arson. This was enough to draw protesters who are looking for a fight. And then Knesset member Itamar Ben-Gvir (Religious Zionism) rushed in to pour gasoline of his own on the bonfire – and reestablished his “parliamentary office” right there.
Luckily, someone in the government got their act together on Sunday evening and the inciting MK was removed from the scene in a violent confrontation with police. Ben-Gvir’s poor acting skills during the clash gave his lunatic ideas a run for their money. On Monday morning, he promised to return to Sheikh Jarrah.
But when sorrows come, they come in battalions. In the northern West Bank, the atmosphere has been escalating steadily since last week, when three armed Fatah militants were killed in an Israeli police counter-terror operation. And just Sunday night, someone in the IDF decided that they urgently needed more kindling, and sent soldiers into the West Bank village of Silat al-Harithiya, near Jenin, to demolish the home of one of the men charged with the murder of Homesh yeshiva student Yehuda Dimentman two months ago. In the clashes that erupted during the demolition, a 17-year-old Palestinian was killed, it seems by Israeli fire. And the blaze continues to burn.
The Gaza Strip is attentively watching everything unfolding in Jerusalem and the West Bank. In May 2021, Hamas surprised Israeli intelligence services and exploited the tensions on the Temple Mount to send a message. The organization fired six rockets at Jerusalem in a show of solidarity with the Palestinian struggle in the city. Israel responded with Operation Guardian of the Walls.
Hamas’ actions contradicted the prior forecasts in Israel, according to which the leadership in Gaza had no real interest in a confrontation. But in the Gaza Strip they thought otherwise, and were willing to suffer heavy Israeli bombardment to send a message. That message was also directed at the residents of the West Bank, with the goal of further undermining the rule of the Palestinian Authority there.
Since the end of last week, Hamas in the Gaza Strip has been broadcasting similarly violent threats. Have the circumstances changed significantly? The PA is having increasing difficulty in governing and Hamas still wants to push it further up against the wall. At the same time, the situation inside the Gaza Strip is a bit different.
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After the military operation last year, Israel made relatively far-reaching changes to ease the economic circumstances in Gaza. Some 10,000 workers from Gaza – under the guise of “businessmen and merchants” – enter Israel every day to work. The Qatari money transfers to the strip were mostly sorted out, except for the specific issue this month of salaries for government workers. Goods, too, are entering Gaza more easily and continuously than in the past.
Life in the cold Gaza winter is also a bit more reasonable now compared to past years. The electricity and water supplies are also working normally – that is, for Gaza. And Hamas’ military arm has a lot of work to do – which they are vigorously performing – to rebuild the tunnels damaged during the fighting and upgrade their rocket systems in the Gaza Strip. Firing rockets at Israel now could be an excessive step, one that would prompt a harsh Israeli response. At the same time, there is not much of a point in launching incendiary balloons at Israel when the Gaza border area is wet, and the chances of setting its fields on fire are quite low.
Will all these arguments – and the world’s focus on Eastern Europe – be enough to rein in a new conflagration? The commentary, from both the media and intelligence services, has already miscalculated so many times that it seems too dangerous to make predictions. Removing Ben-Gvir and his improvised and impractical office from Sheikh Jarrah, if it comes to pass, is a first step in the right direction. But it is doubtful whether that will be enough to calm tensions. This time a large part of the Israeli right is in the opposition, and it has an interest in the continued upheaval in Jerusalem.
The Bennett government will have to manage the situation with maximum caution over the next few weeks to prevent it from spilling over into another military confrontation. And as usual, the danger will radiate outwards from Jerusalem, and particularly from attempts to strengthen the tensions' religious component.