EXPLAINER: New players add volatility in Jerusalem tensions

World

In this Thursday, April 22, 2021 file photo, Israeli border police block members of “Lahava”, a Jewish extremist group, from approaching the Damascus Gate to protest amid heightened tensions in the city, just outside Jerusalem’s Old City. A year of relative calm between Israel and the Palestinians has come to an abrupt halt in recent days with the eruption of nightly clashes between Arab youths and Israeli police in east Jerusalem and a heavy barrage of rocket fire launched from the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit, File)

JERUSALEM (AP) — The holy city of Jerusalem, a tinderbox of competing religious and political claims, has repeatedly triggered bouts of Israeli-Palestinian violence.

This time around, there have been some additional sparks, including Jewish extremists who, emboldened by their political patrons’ recent election to parliament, staged a provocative march to Jerusalem’s walled Old City chanting “death to the Arabs.”

Over the course of a few days, nightly Jerusalem street brawls between Israeli police and disaffected Palestinian residents of the city escalated to cross-border fighting between Israel and Gaza’s Islamic militant Hamas. Gaza militants fired an intense barrage of rockets into southern Israel and Israel launched several airstrikes at Gaza.

Political posturing by Israeli and Palestinian leaders has added to the tense atmosphere.

Here is a closer look at what’s been driving the violence:

HEART OF THE CONFLICT:

Israel captured east Jerusalem, along with the West Bank and Gaza Strip, in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians claim all three areas for a future independent state, with east Jerusalem as their capital.

Israel annexed east Jerusalem, home to the city’s most sensitive Jewish, Muslim and Christian holy sites, after the war and views the entire city as its unified capital.

The fate of Jerusalem and its holy sites is one of the most explosive issues in the conflict, and the city has seen many waves of violence over the years.

WHY NOW?

The immediate spark for the current round of unrest was Israel’s decision to barricade a plaza outside of Jerusalem’s Old City during the holy month of Ramadan.

That decision appeared to have been reversed late on Sunday, when the barricades were suddenly removed, setting off joyous celebrations outside Damascus Gate.

Palestinians traditionally gather at the spot each evening after prayers and a daylong fast.

Angry that their popular gathering spot was taken away, hundreds of young Palestinian men have taken to the streets each evening. Crowds have hurled stones, firebombs and other objects at police, while officers have used stun grenades and water cannons to disperse them. Dozens of people have been hurt.

Israel’s apparent reversal late Sunday could help calm tensions. Crowds clapped and chanted “God is great” as people sat on the steps once again.

The crackdown in recent weeks had touched on Palestinian fears that Israel is trying to deepen its control over east Jerusalem.

“All we wanted to do is to be able to sit on the stairs of Damascus Gate at night to drink coffee or tea,” said Rami, a 24-year-old resident who asked that his last name be withheld because he feared arrest.

“It’s a tradition for Old City residents to go outside for refreshments. My father used to sit on the stairs of Damascus Gate before me,” he said before the spot was opened. “What police are trying to do is simply erase our identity.”

On Thursday night, a far-right Israeli group called Lehava staged a massive demonstration just a few hundred meters (yards) from the Palestinian crowds.

It said the march was a response to TikTok videos showing Palestinians slapping religious Jews at random. But the group’s leader is a disciple of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, who promoted the forced expulsion of Palestinians from the Holy Land. Although police kept the sides apart, Lehava protesters chanted “Death to Arabs” and “Arabs Get Out.”

Early Saturday, Gaza militants responded by firing 36 rockets into Israel, the most intense barrage in over a year. Israel retaliated with a series of airstrikes on Hamas targets.

POLITICS AT PLAY?

With the Palestinians scheduled to hold elections next month, both President Mahmoud Abbas and his Hamas rivals have tried to portray themselves as defenders of Jerusalem.

Abbas is threatening to postpone the election unless Israel allows Palestinians in east Jerusalem to vote. Israel has not announced its position but appears unlikely to cave in. That could give Abbas, whose Fatah party is expected to do poorly, a pretext to cancel the vote. But it could also heighten tensions in Jerusalem.

While Hamas is not believed to be directly involved in the latest rocket fire, it has done little to stop it — and may be tacitly encouraging it — as a message of solidarity with Jerusalem Palestinians.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, is desperately trying to hold on to power after Israeli elections last month ended in deadlock for a fourth consecutive time.

Netanyahu has courted the support of “Religious Zionism,” a far-right party with loose ties to Lehava. This outreach appears to have emboldened Lehava. With just over a week to form a new coalition, Netanyahu seems unlikely to rein in the group or its supporters.

“The question lurking in the background is to what extent has Netanyahu’s failure to form a coalition shaped the clashes and the government’s reaction,” commentator Nadav Eyal wrote in the Yediot Ahronot daily. “There are simply too many matches that might get lit.”

COOLER HEADS?

Israel’s decision to allow the Palestinians to remove the barriers late Sunday appeared to be aimed at easing tensions.

Earlier, both Israel and Hamas have signaled they want to cool things down.

Late Saturday, rocket fire out of Gaza resumed, but at a much lower rate, with only four projectiles launched. Israel decided not to retaliate, and the rocket fire subsided.

At the same time, Netanyahu appealed for quiet in Jerusalem. “Right now we demand that the law be followed; I call on all sides to display calm,” he said.

Jordan, which acts as the custodian over Jerusalem’s Muslim holy sites, and Egypt issued a joint call on Sunday for Israel to “stop all attacks and provocative measures” in Jerusalem.

The Jordanian and Egyptian foreign ministers discussed the tensions in a phone call and jointly condemned “violence and incitement carried out by extremist groups against the Palestinians,” the Jordanian foreign ministry said.

While it was impossible to predict whether the clashes will end, the initial reaction to the removal of the barriers outside the Old City appeared to be a positive sign.

But late Sunday, minor scuffles broke out in Jerusalem, while the Israeli military reported two rocket launches out of Gaza, signaling the latest round of troubles was not over.

Early Monday, Israel announced it was closing the fishing zone in the Gaza Strip indefinitely, “due to the continuation of the rocket fire from the Gaza Strip towards the State of Israel during the night.”

Israel did not strike back, though, in what appears to be an effort to de-escalate tensions. Israeli media quoted police as saying the removal of the barricade outside Damascus Gate was a trial, to see if things calm down.

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Associated Press writers Laurie Kellman in Tel Aviv, Israel, and Omar Akour in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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