Hamas filling leadership vacuum in east Jerusalem

The fact that many residents of east Jerusalem belong to conservative and religious families makes it easier for them to identify with Hamas or any other Islamist group.

People mourn as they carry the coffin of Walid al-Sharif during his funeral on the compound that houses Al-Aqsa Mosque, known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount, in Jerusalem's Old City May 16, 2022 (photo credit: REUTERS/AMMAR AWAD)
People mourn as they carry the coffin of Walid al-Sharif during his funeral on the compound that houses Al-Aqsa Mosque, known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount, in Jerusalem's Old City May 16, 2022
(photo credit: REUTERS/AMMAR AWAD)

To many, the large-scale riots that erupted in east Jerusalem after the funeral of Walid al-Sharif, the young man who died earlier this week of wounds he sustained during clashes with Israeli police officers at the Aqsa Mosque compound, may have come as a surprise

But for those familiar with the situation in east Jerusalem, the riots, during which six officers were injured, did not come as a surprise.

As soon as the police announced that al-Sharif’s body would be handed over to his family for burial, Palestinian activists began calling on residents to participate in the funeral of the “martyr.”

The calls, which were mainly organized through social media, saw thousands of east Jerusalem men converge on Al-Makassed Hospital, where the body was resting before the funeral, and later at the Aqsa Mosque, where the funeral began and ended at the Muslim cemetery on Salah Eddin Street, just outside the Old City.

Hamas and other Palestinian groups joined the bandwagon, publicly urging wide participation in the funeral.

 Palestinians shot fireworks at Israeli police during the funeral of Walid al-Sharif, outside Jerusalem Old City on May 16, 2022. (credit: JAMAL AWAD/FLASH90) Palestinians shot fireworks at Israeli police during the funeral of Walid al-Sharif, outside Jerusalem Old City on May 16, 2022. (credit: JAMAL AWAD/FLASH90)

Hence, it was enough to take a quick look at the social media platforms to understand that the funeral procession would be anything but quiet.

Even without the calls and inflammatory rhetoric on social media, the fact that al-Sharif’s funeral was taking place only days after the violence that took place during the funeral of Al-Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh should have set off alarm bells among the police.

The funeral of Abu Akleh last Friday was seen by many Palestinians as a major Palestinian national event in the heart of Jerusalem. It was one of the largest events of its kind in many years.

On Monday, the Palestinians got another chance to hold a massive show of force in the city, this time through the funeral of al-Sharif, the only Palestinian killed in the clashes that erupted with the police at the Aqsa Mosque compound during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The goal: to show that there is no difference between east Jerusalem and the West Bank or the Gaza Strip.

It's worth noting that in the past the police used to set conditions for handing over the bodies of east Jerusalem residents killed in terror attacks or other forms of violence. The conditions included limiting the number of participants and holding the funeral at a late hour.

On Monday, however, the body of al-Sharif was handed over to his family in the afternoon, allowing enough time for thousands of mourners to converge on the mosque and the cemetery. It also seemed that the police had not imposed any restrictions.

The violence that erupted after his funeral was not unprecedented. Similar scenes of rioting, vandalism and clashes with the police have become almost commonplace in many areas of east Jerusalem, especially in villages like Issawiya, Shu’fat and Silwan.

Tensions in east Jerusalem have been on the rise since the resumption of Jewish visits to the Temple Mount several years ago. Since then, Palestinians have been clashing with Israeli police officers almost on a daily basis in a number of flash points in east Jerusalem.

The Jewish tours of the Temple Mount are portrayed by the Palestinians as violent incursions into the Aqsa Mosque and a “desecration” of the holy site. As a result, dozens of young Muslim men from east Jerusalem have taken it upon themselves to assume the role of “defenders of the Aqsa Mosque.”

In east Jerusalem, these men are known as Shabab al-Quds (Youth of Jerusalem). Their main mission is to “confront” the Jewish “settlers” and prevent them from seizing control of the site.

Most of these youths do not belong to any specific Palestinian group, although many are said to be supportive of Hamas and Hizb ut Tahrir, a pan-Islamist organization seeking to restore the Islamic Caliphate. These are the youths who are always ready to arrive at any scene where the police presence increases tensions. And these are the same young men who heeded the calls to attend the funerals of Abu Akleh and Sharif.

These youths, of course, are often joined by political activists and ordinary people. They show up at any event where they are able to raise their voices, the Palestinian or Hamas flag and banner and shout political slogans.

The residents of east Jerusalem hold Israeli-issued ID cards. As such, they are residents, and not citizens of Israel. That means that they enjoy all the privileges bestowed upon an Israeli citizen with one exception – voting in the general elections.  

The young east Jerusalem residents are not afraid to confront the police or engage in other forms of protest and violence because they know that, thanks to their status as permanent residents of Israel, they are subject to the same laws and security measures as any Israeli citizen.

But, in recent years, these residents, like the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, have also been exposed to massive incitement against Israel, particularly on social media. They are being told, among other things, that Israel is planning to carry out “ethnic cleansing” in east Jerusalem and destroy the Aqsa Mosque.

In the past few years, there has also been a significant increase in the amount of support for Hamas among the residents of east Jerusalem. This became evident during the recent demonstrations at the Aqsa Mosque compound, where they chanted slogans in support of Hamas leaders and called on the Gaza-based group to fire rockets at Israel.

The fact that many residents of east Jerusalem belong to conservative and religious families makes it easier for them to identify with Hamas or any other Islamist group. The Palestinian Authority, on the other hand, is despised by many east Jerusalem residents as a corrupt and traitorous regime.

In a way, residents of east Jerusalem have said they feel like “orphans.”

They don’t feel that they belong to Israel because they are not citizens, and the Palestinian Authority has no control over their lives because Israel does not allow it to operate in the city.

Since the closure of the PLO’s unofficial headquarters - Orient House - in Jerusalem in 2002, the residents have been left without political leadership or address.

It is the vacuum created by this reality that has paved the way for Hamas to step in and become a dominant player in Jerusalem.