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Uncertainty About Palestinian Election Adds Fuel to Fire Flaring in Jerusalem

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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A police officer and protesters in Jerusalem, this week.
A police officer and protesters in Jerusalem, this week.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

At a time when Israel’s strategic attention is focused on Iran and its politicians are devoting most of their waking hours to desperate survival tactics, a new and explosive Palestinian front is developing in Jerusalem.

It’s a problem that has been impacted by several local incidents, Ramadan tensions, the influence of social media and right-wing Jewish activists. And in the background, a diplomatic crisis between Israel and the Palestinian Authority is brewing over whether voting in the PA’s upcoming election can take place in Jerusalem.

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The pictures from central Jerusalem Monday night recalled scenes better forgotten from the wretched summer of 2014. Seven years ago, the desire to avenge the murders of three Jewish teens abducted from Gush Etzion led to the murder of a Palestinian boy in East Jerusalem, Mohammed Abu Khdeir. This week, too, young Jews hunted Arabs in downtown Jerusalem. Some were beaten.

The spark for this blaze was more modest – a series of video clips on TikTok in which Palestinian teens filmed themselves attacking Jews, mainly religious ones, in Jerusalem’s streets and on its light rail. As usual, right-wing extremists then fanned the flames and demanded vengeance.

Tensions connected to the Ramadan holiday have contributed to the violence. East Jerusalem residents are upset over the police’s decision to ban gatherings on the steps of the Damascus Gate plaza, ostensibly for security reasons.

Clips on social media show Palestinian violence against Jewish passersby and police violence against Palestinians. Hundreds of Palestinians and dozens of police participated in these clashes, and several were injured, albeit lightly.

As Nir Hasson reported in Haaretz, East Jerusalem Palestinians view the ban as a humiliation by Israel and a violation of Ramadan traditions.

Fights over the Temple Mount have added fuel to the fire. Last week, police disconnected the muezzin’s loudspeakers at Al-Aqsa mosque so the call to prayer wouldn’t disrupt the Memorial Day ceremony at the Western Wall.

Moreover, due to the coronavirus, Israel allowed only 10,000 West Bank Palestinians to attend Ramadan services on the Mount, and only if they were vaccinated. But many more wanted to attend. Nor were there any real checks into vaccination status, even though the virus is raging in the West Bank.

Last month, a visit to the Mount by Jordan’s Prince Hussein was canceled due to a dispute with Israel over security arrangements. And this month, Jordan made changes in the composition of the Waqf council that controls the Mount, some of which disturbed the Palestinians.

Along with the events in Jerusalem the last few days have seen flare-ups in Jaffa, in which Arabs beat up the head of a yeshiva and violent clashes between Arabs and police ensued.

And all this is happening against the backdrop of an unusual political situation, in which the United Arab List is trying for the first time to position itself as kingmaker between the bloc supporting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the bloc opposing him. But the far-right Religious Zionism party has vowed never to join a coalition reliant on Arab MKs, even if they support the government from the outside.

Meanwhile, the diplomatic impasse with the Palestinian Authority continues. This is entirely the doing of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who surprised Israel, and perhaps even himself, by deciding last year to call elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip for the first time in 15 years.

Hamas supports this decision, and initially, so did Abbas’ Fatah party, both because it needs renewed legitimacy for its continued rule and because some senior Fatah officials thought elections would put them in a better position in the battle to succeed the 85-year-old Abbas.

But since then, Fatah has become increasingly worried about the election’s outcome and its inability to restrain independent players like Marwan Barghouti – a Fatah activist who has been jailed in Israel for the last 19 years, but now seems determined to find out whether he is popular enough in the West Bank to run successfully for PA president. Israeli officials have warned Abbas repeatedly that he could lose the election and bring Hamas to power, a blow from which Fatah would have trouble recovering.

Senior PA officials have therefore started exploring the possibility that Israel might rescue them from this trap through an inflated crisis over voting in East Jerusalem. Israel’s rightist government will have trouble agreeing to let polling stations operate in East Jerusalem (even though this has been done before, in 1996, 2005 and 2006, under former prime ministers Shimon Peres, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert).

Israel’s refusal could give Abbas a pretext for canceling the elections on the grounds that Israel was making a fair democratic process impossible and he can’t exclude his brethren in Jerusalem. But Israel’s position on the subject remains unclear.

Unofficially, Abbas has been told that Israel’s current political chaos makes it impossible for it to provide a clear answer about East Jerusalem in the near future. So the ball remains in the Palestinians’ court, with only a month to go before the parliamentary election.

But Israelis who are in contact with senior PA officials think the die is about to be cast. Abbas has belatedly grasped the magnitude of the problem, they said, and is now looking for a way to back down without losing face. PA officials are particularly worried by Hamas’ attractive ticket at a time when Fatah is divided and strife-ridden.

Consequently, the Israeli sources said, chances are growing that Abbas will soon postpone the election even without an Israeli excuse. But the closer the election comes, the angrier Palestinians are likely to be about its last-minute cancelation.

This complex maneuvering almost certainly doesn’t interest the young Palestinians clashing with police at Damascus Gate or filming themselves assaulting Jewish passersby. But the uncertainty over the Palestinian elections contributes to the tension in Jerusalem and could provide additional excuses for violence in the coming days.

And given Israel’s political sensitivities, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Netanyahu exploiting the violence in the capital for his own political survival, since he needs support from other rightist parties to cling to power.

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