JERUSALEM – The Holy City of Jerusalem, a pile of competing religious and political claims, has repeatedly launched attacks on Israeli-Palestinian violence.
Over the course of several days, nightly Jerusalem clashes between Israeli police and disgruntled Palestinians escalated into cross-border fighting between Israel and Islamic militant Hamas in Gaza. Gaza militants fired a powerful rocket at southern Israel and Israel launched several airstrikes on Gaza.
The political stance of Israeli and Palestinian leaders added to the tense atmosphere.
Here’s a closer look at what triggered the violence:
HEART OF CONFLICT:
Israel occupied East Jerusalem, along with the West Bank and Gaza Strip, in the Middle East in 1967. The Palestinians are claiming the right to all three territories for a future independent state, whose capital will be East Jerusalem.
Israel annexed East Jerusalem, home to the most vulnerable Jewish, Muslim and Christian holy sites, after the war and sees the entire city as a single capital.
The fate of Jerusalem and its holy sites is one of the most explosive issues in the conflict, and the city has seen numerous waves of violence over the years.
The immediate spark for the current round of unrest was Israel’s decision to ban the barricade in front of the old city of Jerusalem during the holy month of Ramadan.
That decision seems to have been overturned late Sunday, when the barricades were suddenly removed, triggering joyous celebrations outside Damascus Gate.
Palestinians traditionally gather on the spot every night after prayer and all-day fasting.
Angry that their popular gathering place had been taken away, hundreds of young Palestinians took to the streets every night. Crowds of people threw stones, fire bombs and other objects at police, while police officers scattered shock bombs and water cannons. Dozens of people were injured.
An apparent turnaround in Israel late Sunday could help calm tensions. Crowds applauded and chanted “God is great” as people sat on the steps again.
Against recent weeks, they have touched on Palestinian fears that Israel is trying to deepen control over East Jerusalem.
“All we wanted was for us to be able to sit on the steps of Damascus door at night and drink coffee or tea,” said Rami, a 24-year-old resident who asked for his last name to be denied because he feared arrest.
“It is a tradition for the residents of the Old Town to go out for refreshments. My father was sitting in front of me on the steps of Damascus Gate, ”he said before opening the venue. “What the police are trying to do is simply erase our identity.”
On Thursday night, an extreme right-wing Israeli group called Lehava organized mass demonstrations just a few hundred meters from the Palestinian crowd.
The march was said to be a response to TikTok videos showing Palestinians randomly slapping religious Jews. But the leader of the group is a disciple of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, who promoted the forced expulsion of Palestinians from the Holy Land. Although police kept the parties apart, protesters in Lehava chanted “Death to the Arabs” and “Arabs are getting lost.”
Early Saturday, Gaza militants responded by firing 36 rockets at Israel, the most intense barrage in more than a year. Israel retaliated with a series of airstrikes on Hamas targets.
POLITICS IN THE GAME?
Given that the Palestinians are scheduled to hold elections next month, both President Mahmoud Abbas and his Hamas rivals have tried to portray themselves as defenders of Jerusalem.
Abbas threatens to postpone the election if Israel does not allow Palestinians in East Jerusalem to vote. Israel has not announced its position, but it seems unlikely to enter. That could give Abbas, whose Fatah party is expected badly, an excuse to cancel the vote. But it could also increase tensions in Jerusalem.
Although Hamas is believed not to have been directly involved in the latest rocket fire, little has been done to stop it – and perhaps tacitly encourage it – as a message of solidarity with the Palestinians in Jerusalem.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, is desperately trying to hold on to power after Israeli elections ended in a stalemate for the fourth time in a row last month.
Netanyahu courted the support of “Religious Zionism,” a far-right party that has loose ties to Lehab. This reach seems to have encouraged Lehava. With just over a week to form a new coalition, it looks like Netanyahu will not rein in the group or its supporters.
“The question lurking in the background is how much Netanyahu’s failure to form a coalition has shaped conflicts and government reaction,” commentator Nadav Eyal wrote in the daily Yediot Ahronot. “There’s just too many matches to light.”
Israel’s decision to allow the Palestinians to remove the barriers late Sunday was aimed at easing tensions.
Earlier, both Israel and Hamas made it known that they wanted to cool things down.
Late Saturday, rocket fire from Gaza continued, but at a much lower rate, with only four projectiles fired. Israel decided not to retaliate and the rocket fire subsided.
At the same time, Netanyahu appealed for silence in Jerusalem. “We are currently asking for the law to be respected; I call on all parties to show calm, “he said.
Jordan, which acts as a guardian of Jerusalem’s Muslim holy sites, and Egypt issued a joint call Sunday to Israel to “stop all attacks and provocative measures” in Jerusalem.
Jordanian and Egyptian foreign ministers discussed tensions in a phone call and jointly condemned “violence and incitement by extremist groups against Palestinians,” the Jordanian foreign ministry said.
Although it was impossible to predict whether the conflicts would end, the initial reaction to the removal of barriers outside the Old Town seemed a positive sign.
But late Sunday, a minor altercation erupted in Jerusalem, while the Israeli military reported two rocket launches from Gaza, meaning the latest round of problems is not over.
Associated Press writer Omar Akour of Amman in Jordan contributed to this report.