Israel Girds for Violent Months as Muslim and Jewish Holidays Converge

Following the intercommunal violence seen in mixed Jewish-Arab cities last May, security forces in Israel are preparing for what they believe will be an explosive holiday season

Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner
Palestinian women prepare to pray at the Qalandia checkpoint, Ramadan, 2021.
Palestinian women prepare to pray at the Qalandia checkpoint, Ramadan, 2021. Credit: Nasser Nasser / AP
Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner

The police and the Shin Bet security service view the next three months as having extremely explosive potential for violence between Israeli Arabs and Jews as well as East Jerusalem Palestinians.

Aside from the lingering tensions from last May’s war with Gaza and the accompanying intercommunal riots in mixed Jewish-Arab cities, the fact that Jewish and Muslim holidays, especially Ramadan, overlap this year is another source of tension.

Senior police officers predict that if clashes do erupt, they will be limited rather than leading to a broader security escalation. But given how wrong similar predictions proved last May, they are not ruling out the possibility that Hamas will once again join in by launching rockets from the Gaza Strip.

Several potentially explosive dates are coming up. March 30 is Land Day, when Israeli Arabs commemorate the police’s killing of six people protesting Israel’s expropriation of Arab lands in 1976. Ramadan, which is frequently a trigger for violence, begins on April 2 or 3. Passover begins on April 15, bringing with it the widely attended Priestly Blessing ceremony at the Western Wall and more Jewish visitors to the Temple Mount.

Next comes Eid al-Fitr, which overlaps with Memorial Day this year. A week later, May 10, is the anniversary of the Hamas rocket launches at Jerusalem that were followed by May’s war with Gaza, as well as the killing of Moussa Hassouna by Jewish rioters in Lod. And May 15 is Nakba Day.

The police’s biggest fear is of violent clashes during the Muslims’ regular Friday prayer services at the Temple Mount. Though they are also concerned about violence at other East Jerusalem flashpoints, as well as in mixed cities like Lod and Acre.

An Arab-owned restaurant targeted by Jewish mobs during riots in Bat Yam, Israel, last May. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The clashes in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood are currently dying down despite the best efforts of provocateurs like anti-Arab MK Itamar Ben-Gvir, who opened a parliamentary office there. Localized violence continues, but activists from outside haven’t been joining in. And the status quo has so far been maintained at the Temple Mount, though any changes to it could still spark violence.

Thus, the main concern right now is the Old City’s Damascus Gate. A repetition of the police’s excessive violence in dispersing demonstrations there on another Muslim holiday last month could inflame more widespread violence.

Aside from Jerusalem, police have two other main concerns. One is the Bedouin communities of the southern Negev, near Tel Sheva, where police are particularly worried about the possibility of violence on Land Day. The combination of the Jewish National Fund’s tree-planting in the area earlier this year, which led to violent clashes, and the continued demolition of illegally built Bedouin homes has led senior police officers to fear that the next escalation could start there.

The other major concern is Lod, which senior police officers say is “still bleeding” from last year’s interethnic riots. Relations between Jewish and Arab residents remain poor, and police fear that May 10’s anniversary of the start of last year’s riots and Hassouna’s death – or possibly even Memorial Day before that – could lead to new violence between the sides.

Palestinians pray in front of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem's Old City, in April. Credit: AMMAR AWAD / REUTERS

On the tenth of every month, a few dozen people commemorate Hassouna’s death in Haprachim Square. That is very near an area affiliated with the Garin Torani, a religious Zionist group that runs religious, social and educational activities in city neighborhoods.

Over the last year, police said, nationalist forces on both sides have grown stronger in Lod. The Arab group Al-Khirak al-Shababi sees last year’s riots in Lod as a success, they noted. And the local Garin Torani is planning to bring large numbers of Jews from outside the city on several upcoming Sabbaths and holidays, which could lead to violent clashes.

But police themselves recently began cooperating with the Garin Torani on setting up a Jewish first-responder squad in the city, similar to those in West Bank settlements and border communities. Advertisements for the venture list the Garin Torani as one of its sponsors, alongside the police and the municipality.

The person spearheading efforts to inflame tensions in both the Negev and Lod, police said, is Sheikh Raed Salah, head of the national Islamic Movement’s northern branch. Salah even visited the Hassouna family home in Lod recently for an event attended by only a few dozen other people.

Police said Salah wants to be seen as the leader of the Israeli Arab community in the event of further violence. He is particularly motivated to start trouble by the growing political strength of his ideological rival, MK Mansour Abbas, who heads the Islamic Movement’s more moderate southern branch, as well as the fact that he missed last year’s violence because he was in prison, they said. The Shin Bet considers Salah a key intelligence target.

The latter agency has stepped up its intelligence gathering in mixed cities since last May, especially in Lod and Acre. It has stationed more local intelligence coordinators in mixed cities, though it still has far fewer people inside Israel than it does in the territories. It has also started monitoring activists in Al-Khiraq al-Shababi, which it views as a leading source of nationalist incitement.

Police plan to mobilize another two companies of Border Police over the next few weeks, but they realize that if last May’s events repeat themselves, they will need to immediately call up additional units. But the amount of available manpower hasn’t actually changed since last year, when police were caught unprepared by the wave of violence and it took them three days to start getting it under control. During that time, significant harm was done to people, property and Jewish-Arab relations.

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