The recent string of events leading to greater clashes in Jerusalem and rocket fire from Gaza is part of the cycle that has led to conflicts in the past.
The recent Jerusalem escalation coincided with Ramadan and TikTok videos of Orthodox Jews being attacked. Numerous arrests were made, but that didn’t calm tensions. A massive far-right rally this past Thursday then led to further tensions, including early-Saturday morning rocket fire from the Gaza Strip.
It is important to understand that this timeline of events is similar to how tensions grew in 2014 as well as other cycles of violence that led to tensions in Gaza and Jerusalem – for example the 2017 installation of temporary metal detectors in the Old City of Jerusalem.
However, there is a central difference.
The July 2017 events and the 2014 war began with terror attacks – specifically, a July 14, 2017 terror attack by a gunman on the Temple Mount, and the June 12, 2014 kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens in the West Bank.
In both cases, Israel responded. In the 2014 incident, a right-wing march led to the murder of Palestinian teen Mohammed Abu Khdeir on July 2, resulting in the Jerusalem clashes and riots.
The “gates of hell” comments from Hamas, which are rhetoric again being used by Palestinian factions, are often a prelude to rising attacks. Similar comments have been heard: On June 30, 2014, and in November 2012.
In December 2017, Hamas said the decision of then-President Donald Trump’s administration to move the embassy to Jerusalem would open the gates of hell. The 2012 comments came after Israel killed Ahmed al-Jabari, a senior Hamas commander.
It is not often remembered now, but the Hamas comments of December 2017 did lead to rising tensions that ultimately culminated with the killing of 58 Palestinians in Gaza during violent protests and riots along the border, as the US moved its embassy in May 2018.
The 2014 cycle of violence culminated in a war in Gaza: Operation Protective Edge. It also led to widespread rioting in Jerusalem that damaged parts of the infrastructure for the light rail in Beit Hanina and to a massive March on Kalandiya checkpoint that resulted in some 287 injuries and two Palestinians killed.
SO WHERE ARE we today? Hamas and Palestinian groups in Gaza have vowed solidarity with Jerusalem.
The dozens of rockets fired on Saturday morning – the most fired in months – are an escalation. The rocket fire is reminiscent of the increase in 2019 that led to some 2,600 rockets being fired at Israel in two years from 2018 to 2019. Around 1,000 of those were fired in 2018.
In November 2019, Israel launched an assassination airstrike against an Islamic Jihad leader. That escalated to further airstrikes, including a strike in Syria that Russia revealed that November 20.
The current tensions are not yet in a cycle like that, involving international repercussions. However, the US State Department has put out a statement about the recent clashes and the far-right march in Jerusalem. America’s concern comes amid discussions about a new or renewed Iran Deal and the planned trip of high-level Israeli security officials to Washington.
The situation is also not like the “stabbing intifada,” a wave of lone-wolf violence from 2015-2016 that led to numerous attacks and the killing of knife-wielding Palestinians. This is because the current clashes have not yet involved terror attacks by Palestinians.
But this does not mean that what is happening is not serious. The linkage of Jerusalem to Gaza and the demands by Hamas to get involved not only in the tensions, but also the Palestinian elections, are a precursor to more tensions.
Hamas and Palestinian factions also want there to be Palestinian elections next month, with voting in east Jerusalem. Elections cannot be held if the Palestinians in Jerusalem can’t vote, the factions say. This could give them an excuse to heat up violence in Jerusalem as a way to cancel the elections or try to force Israel’s hand.
It is not yet clear what trajectory and shape this violence will take. The emergence of hundreds of far-right Israelis chanting anti-Arab slogans this past Thursday has led to a laser focus on Jerusalem. The police have tried and succeeded to reduce tensions.
But the month of Ramadan brings other considerations. Clashes at Kalandiya checkpoint on Friday evening represent the type of wave of clashes that can spread. In Israel’s favor, the country has learned how to prevent deaths as in past clashes.
It is worth considering that the current clashes also come after a year in which the global pandemic mostly helped keep people home and quiet. Under health regulations, there were no large marches, religious events, or far-right rallies that can spark more tensions.
That isn’t the case now, however, because of Israel’s vaccination campaign. The determining factor now is whether agendas in Ramallah, Gaza and Jerusalem may heat up or reduce tensions. And Israel still lacks a new coalition government, which also gives wind to the flames of extremism and chaos because Israel’s parties also cannot seem to agree.