Israeli defense officials are still uncertain as to what exactly U.S. President Donald Trump will announce Wednesday about moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. Even senior administration officials don’t seem to know for sure whether Trump will suffice with a vague, general statement about recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital – though even that would be something new – or whether he’ll make an explicit commitment to move the embassy to the city by some specific date in the near future.
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Either way, Israel is preparing for the possibility of escalation in Jerusalem and the West Bank in response to the president’s announcement, as well as the possibility of demonstrations in Arab capitals.
After Trump’s phone conversation with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday, the Palestinian media reported that Trump intends to announce the embassy move. But Israel isn’t entirely sure this is a final decision, for two reasons: the president’s tendency to flip-flop and change his mind right up to the last minute, and the massive pressure campaign being waged by both Arab states and the European Union in an effort to persuade him not to take any irreversible steps.
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For Abbas, inflaming the atmosphere against Israel over the embassy crisis is convenient to some degree, given that the reconciliation talks between the PA and Hamas are currently stuck, and many of the steps both Palestinian parties committed to take haven’t yet been taken.
Abbas’ Fatah party has already announced three days of rage in the West Bank and Jerusalem over the embassy issue, starting Wednesday. On Tuesday afternoon, Israeli defense officials began consultations about how to handle the expected unrest. The army has prepared a comprehensive plan with different alert levels that will be activated as needed, and several battalions that are currently in training have been warned that they might be sent to the West Bank toward the end of the week.
The severity of any escalation will depend to a great extent on the degree to which Trump’s announcement is seen as negative for the Palestinians. Thus the more concrete his promise is, and the more it’s anchored by a detailed timetable of steps to move the embassy, the worse the reaction is likely to be.
The most sensitive site, of course, is Jerusalem itself. But there are also fears of violence in Hebron, where hundreds of settlers live in the heart of a Palestinian population, and which is also home to the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a site holy to both Jews and Muslims.
The risks for which defense officials are preparing include mass demonstrations, stone-throwing and firebombs at the usual friction points like army checkpoints and near roads traveled by Israeli vehicles. Another possible danger is an intensified effort to commit lone-wolf attacks, like stabbings or attacks with improvised weapons. The most dangerous time will be this Friday, after the main prayer service at the mosques, from the afternoon on.
The biggest problem is the religious interpretation liable to be placed on the event in the Arab and Muslim world. If the embassy ultimately moves, it will move to western Jerusalem, but reports in the Arab media refer merely to Al-Quds – and that could be seen as intent by the Crusaders (America) to hand the keys of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Temple Mount over to the Zionists (Israel).
The last time the evil genie of religious hatred emerged from its bottle was in July, after Israel stationed metal detectors at the entrances to the Temple Mount. In that case, Israel ultimately caved. But the violence lasted for almost two weeks and took the lives of three members of one Israeli family, who were murdered in the settlement of Halamish, as well as six Palestinians.
That period also witnessed the incident in which an Israeli security guard at Israel’s embassy in Amman killed two Jordanians. As a result, that embassy has stood empty for more than four months.