Four dead and many dozens injured — that’s the region’s toll of bloodshed since Wednesday’s speech in which President Donald Trump declared Jerusalem Israel’s capital. Trump’s declaration has so far not sparked a new intifada, as a few Palestinian leaders had threatened, although it led to a tense weekend in Jerusalem and the West Bank and particularly on the Israeli border with the Gaza Strip.
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Since Trump’s statement, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas have competed in condemning the president’s step and in calling for protests against Israel and the United States. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh went so far as to declare that now was the time for a third intifada, but the public response to his call was rather tepid. On Friday and Saturday, several thousand Palestinians protested across the West Bank, with some of the protests ending with stone throwing at Israeli troops at checkpoints and major highway intersections.
The exacting open-fire directives issued to Israeli army forces led to clashes of relatively low intensity, and a considerable portion of those injured on the Palestinian side suffered from tear gas inhalation. The Palestinian Authority had an interest in demonstrating a broad show of force, while at the same time keeping a lid on things and not harming security cooperation with Israel. Security cooperation was only recently resumed after last July’s crisis in relations sparked by Israel’s installation of metal detectors at the entrance to the Temple Mount.
The limited number of demonstrators was not convincing enough to show that the American declaration on Jerusalem had angered the Palestinian grassroots to the same extent that it concerned their leadership. But in a highly unusual development — and perhaps as a result of the reconciliation talks between Hamas and Fatah — the two groups organized a joint protest in Hebron in which the Hamas flag was publicly displayed in the West Bank for the first time in years.
The focus of tension over the weekend was the Gaza Strip, where members of Salafi Islamic extremist organizations fired rockets towards Israel’s western Negev region three times. In one of the incidents, a rocket was intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, while in another, a rocket exploded in Sderot, causing property damage and leaving several civilians suffering from shock.
The Israeli Air Force responded with bombing raids on command positions and warehouses belonging to Hamas’ military wing. Sources in the Gaza Strip reported that two Hamas members were killed in the raids. The Israeli reaction was part of a policy of holding Hamas responsible for restraining the activities of smaller organizations in Gaza.
Earlier it was reported that two Palestinians were killed east of Khan Yunis in clashes near the security barrier along the Gaza border with Israel. In contrast to the firing of the rockets, in this case, it was clear that Hamas was leading the demonstrations.
But in both Gaza and the West Bank, it is apparent that Hamas is not interested in totally changing the rules of the game with Israel. The Israeli army response has accordingly also been rather restrained and will not prevent the two sides from returning to the tense quiet that has characterized their relationship since the end of the war they fought in 2014.
In any event, the situation in Gaza remains tense for other reasons that are not directly related to Trump’s Jerusalem declaration. At this time, the reconciliation agreement between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas is suspended, its implementation deferred. Public frustration in Gaza over the failure to implement the reconciliation accord and the delay in opening the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt, as the Hamas regime in Gaza had earlier promised the residents of the enclave, could lead to increased tension with Israel.
This comes against the backdrop of ongoing Israeli construction of a wall along the Gaza border to prevent the construction of tunnels into Israel from Gaza. It was in the course of this construction work that a cross-border attack tunnel that Islamic Jihad had dug was discovered at the end of October. These steps by Israel are causing a certain amount of nervousness among terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip.
The reverberations of Trump’s declaration could of course be felt beyond the West Bank or Gaza Strip.
On the international front, it triggered a series of condemnations by Muslim and Arab countries, statements by Western governments expressing their reservations and demonstrations in several Muslim capitals. The most resounding voice was that of parties identified with the Muslim Brotherhood. Unsurprisingly Turkey, which supports the Muslim Brotherhood, responded with strong condemnation of Trump’s announcement and called for the convening of a meeting of the leaders of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in the Turkish capital on Wednesday.