Jerusalem Escalation or Calm: Why the Coming Days Could Prove Fateful

Today is the last Ramadan Friday, as well as Iran's 'Jerusalem Day.' Meanwhile, another landmine awaits in the West Bank

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Palestinians gather for early morning prayer during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, shortly before Israeli police clashed with protesters at the Al Aqsa Mosque compound, last week.
Palestinians gather for early morning prayer during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, shortly before Israeli police clashed with protesters at the Al Aqsa Mosque compound, last week.Credit: Mahmoud Illean /AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Micro-tactics have become strategy. If only Israel can manage to cautiously navigate the situation on the Temple Mount until Ramadan ends, and if Memorial Day and Independence Day pass peacefully next week, there’s a reasonable chance that the escalation which began more than a month ago, with the terrorist attack in Be’er Sheva, will gradually fade. The political decision-makers, the security hierarchy and the police brass are all investing immense resources to stabilize things.

Nevertheless, the Temple Mount continues to harness a volatile potential which could trigger a wider explosion. The images of Israeli police forces bursting into Al-Aqsa mosque last week were enough to generate a wave of condemnations by Arab states, exacerbate the diplomatic tension with Jordan and give Palestinian organizations an excuse to fire rockets, from the Gaza Strip and from southern Lebanon. Another violent incident in the days ahead – today is the last Friday of Ramadan and also “Jerusalem Day” in Iran – could tip the scales into violence.

The ever stronger impression within the defense establishment is that the main part of what we’ve seen in the past month is the result of a Hamas initiative. Saleh Arouri, the deputy head of the organization’s political bureau, is steering much of the activity – from encouraging violence in the mosques on the Temple Mount, where Molotov cocktails, boards and stones are collected for clashes with the police, to initiatives aimed at generating terrorist attacks in the West Bank and rocket fire into the Galilee.

One form that Israeli caution has taken is the toning down of the offensive thrust in the West Bank. The Israel Defense Forces ensured that the arrests it made in the Jenin area in response to the wave of attacks were marketed to the public. But they scaled back the intensity of their operations as of two weeks ago, both for fear of sparking a response and because most of the wanted persons on the lists of the Shin Bet had already been taken into custody. During a lone operation in Jenin, an 18-year-old Palestinian was killed in exchanges of gunfire with the IDF. On Thursday it was decided to call up six reserve battalions for duty in the coming weeks. They will replace units of the regular army that were rushed to the seamline, the West Bank and the “Gaza envelope” in the wake of the escalation.

Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi wants to get the regular army back on its training schedule. The massive reinforcements, beginning a month or so ago, severely disrupted the IDF’s annual training program. In another week, “the month of war” will begin, in which a large part of the army will be engaged in a multi-arena exercise for several weeks. Exactly a year ago, in May 2021, the “month of war” was put aside for a real mini-war, namely Operation Guardian of the Walls in the Gaza Strip, and an equally real outburst of violence in the mixed cities inside the Green Line. This time, the General Staff hopes that circumstances will allow it to prepare for the future without having to stop and attend to the present.

Another land mine that’s waiting to be defused in the West Bank is the yeshiva in the settler outpost of Homesh. Following the murder of Yehuda Dimentman last December, Defense Minister Benny Gantz agreed to allow dozens of settlers to remain in Homesh for 30 days of mourning. But their presence at the site is illegal. (It’s also contrary to the Disengagement Law, under which four settlements in northern Samaria were evacuated in 2005.) But it's not just a judicial question: Kochavi, too, is complaining during meetings about the unjustified allocation of forces to guard the outpost and about the danger of terrorist attacks there.

Right-wing demonstrators march towards Homesh earlier this month in the northern West Bank.Credit: Amir Levy

On the other hand, evacuating the outpost in the near future will ignite a new battle front for Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in the face of right-wing opposition, particularly from within his own party, Yamina. Bennett prefers his colleagues in the government not to be purists and to defer the solution to a later date. However, if the case winds up in the High Court of Justice, it’s likely that the justices will order the state to evacuate the settlers.

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