International Crisis Group / March 21, 2023
As Israeli protesters rage against their far-right government’s anti-democratic legislation, military raids and settler attacks continue in the West Bank. Without steps to de-escalate the situation, violence there or in Jerusalem could spiral during the Muslim and Jewish holidays in the weeks ahead.
Persistent violence in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank could escalate ahead of major Muslim and Jewish holidays – Ramadan and Passover – which will coincide in 2023 as they did the two preceding years. Tensions have been rising for the past few months, fuelled by a combination of factors. Among them are deadly Israeli military raids in Palestinian population centres in the West Bank; killings of Israelis by individual Palestinians; mob rampages by Israeli [Jewish] settlers; incendiary statements by members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new far-right government and the Knesset; a restless and militarily potent Hamas in the Gaza Strip; and a Palestinian Authority (PA) that has, in many Palestinians’ eyes, lost legitimacy as its security apparatus starts to break down. A spark anywhere in the occupied territories could set off a chain reaction throughout Israel-Palestine. East Jerusalem, where Israelis and Palestinians are in constant, unmediated contact, and where turmoil in the spring of 2021 culminated in eleven days of war between Israel and Hamas, requires particular vigilance. In January, an Israeli cabinet member’s provocative visit to the Holy Esplanade (the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount complex, revered by Muslims and Jews alike) highlighted again the sensitivities at the city’s sacred spaces. Without steps to maintain relative quiet, confrontations could grow rapidly.
High and rising tensions
The principal contributor to heightened tensions is Israeli action in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, which over the last year and a half has become steadily more frequent and aggressive, as Israel engages in both pre-emptive and punitive operations. A marker along the way was Operation Breaking the Wave in March 2022, entailing frequent army raids staged in response to lone-wolf attacks by Palestinians in Israel and on Israeli soldiers and settlers in the West Bank. The operation has catalysed anger among Palestinians throughout the occupied territories. The year 2022 saw the highest Palestinian death toll in the West Bank since the second intifada two decades ago, and 2023 is on track to be bloodier still, as Palestinian members of armed groups meet the incursions with stiffer resistance and are increasingly targeted for killing. Attacks by individual Palestinians on Israelis, which the army raids were supposed to curb, have instead picked up pace.
Israel’s campaign in the West Bank escalated dramatically with its extreme right-wing government’s inauguration in early January. On 23 February, Israeli forces conducted a rare daytime raid in the centre of Nablus, in the northern West Bank, killing eleven Palestinians and injuring over 100 more. This operation, which Israel says thwarted an attack, triggered strikes and protests throughout the territory. Then, on 26 February, after a Palestinian gunman killed two Israeli [Jewish] settlers, hundreds of settlers stormed the village of Huwara, not far from Nablus, torching homes and cars and beating residents, with Israeli troops largely standing by passively. Prime Minister Netanyahu first told the Israeli public not to take the law into its own hands, but a few days later, he undercut this message by baselessly comparing the settlers to the hundreds of thousands of law-abiding Israelis protesting his government’s judicial overhaul plan. Members of his cabinet openly incited more such attacks. On the heels of the event, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who is also a minister in the Defence Ministry, called for the village to be “erased”. He later attempted to walk back his comments ahead of a trip to the U.S., where not a single U.S. government official would meet with him. Huwara residents suffered a second settler attack on the Jewish holiday of Purim. While the first of these attacks was especially severe, incidents of settler violence across the West Bank have long been the norm. Sometimes this violence follows Palestinian attacks, which themselves occur amid the continuing encroachment of Israeli [Jewish] settlements onto Palestinian land. All Israeli [Jewish] settlements are illegal under international law.
Violence has spilled over into East Jerusalem. There, Palestinian attacks on Israelis, following a deadly Israeli military raid on another West Bank town, Jenin, in January, prompted Israeli police to resort to forms of collective punishment: closing off neighbourhoods, demolishing homes built without a (practically unobtainable) permit, setting up makeshift checkpoints and stepping up arrests of Palestinian men and boys. In turn, Palestinian residents have erected barricades at neighbourhood entrances, burned tyres and garbage bins, boycotted the Israeli municipality, and stayed away from jobs at Israeli organisations and companies. Increasingly, groups of far-right Israelis have been harassing Palestinians around the Old City’s Damascus Gate, with police brutally beating and detaining those who resist.
Palestinians have expressed their fury by throwing stones and sound bombs at the Israeli fence around the enclave and launching incendiary balloons
In Gaza, meanwhile, Palestinians have expressed their fury by throwing stones and sound bombs at the Israeli fence around the enclave and launching incendiary balloons, actions that escalated following the January Israeli raid in Nablus. Hamas, which controls the besieged coastal strip, has indicated it does not want another war with Israel at this time, but also that it will not stand by in the face of Israeli affronts, especially in East Jerusalem, and is prepared to add fuel to the fire in the West Bank. Hamas has also said deteriorating conditions for Palestinians in Israeli prisons under the new national security minister, Itamar Ben Gvir – the official, from the far-right Jewish Home Party, who visited the Holy Esplanade in early January – could be a casus belli. The prisoner issue resonates widely in Palestinian society, as so many people have relatives behind bars, mostly for resisting the occupation in various ways. This issue, by itself, could generate another bout of unrest.
The PA in Ramallah has largely stayed aloof amid the tumult. It has called on the UN Security Council to protect Palestinians, though at the same time it has continued security coordination with Israel. For his part, President Mahmoud Abbas blamed Israel for the violence, while sending his chief negotiator to meet with Israeli counterparts in Aqaba, Jordan, in late February and Sharm al-Sheikh just before Ramadan in March. The PA appears ineffectual, if not complicit in Israel’s actions in the eyes of many Palestinians. Non-aligned armed Palestinian factions are proliferating across the northern West Bank. Surveys indicate that popular support for armed resistance to the occupation has gone up, now standing at 68 per cent, and that for the first time, a majority of Palestinians (52 per cent) believe the PA’s collapse is in their interest.
The East Jerusalem tinderbox
Growing confrontations in East Jerusalem’s neighbourhoods are reminiscent of those ahead of the 2021 spasm, whose epicentre was the Holy Esplanade but which convulsed the whole land between the river and the sea. In Jewish tradition, the plaza is the location of the ancient Temples, the second of which was destroyed in 70 CE, leaving only a retaining wall, the Western Wall, standing; for Muslims, the al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock on the Esplanade mark the spot where the Prophet Muhammad alighted during his night journey from Mecca to heaven and back. A main conflict driver is the fraying historical Status Quo at this sacred place – the informal arrangement dating from the Ottoman period but reaffirmed by successive Israeli governments and the site’s custodian, Jordan. It provides for exclusive Muslim worship atop the Esplanade and access as tourists for all, including Jews, but with Jewish prayer and religious ritual prohibited. (This injunction is shared by the vast majority of ultra-Orthodox Jews, for whom the site is too holy to enter, though over the last decade or two, debate over the matter has grown in Jewish religious circles as greater emphasis is put on religious Zionism and Israeli sovereignty over occupied territory.) It also gave the Jerusalem Waqf (the Jordanian-appointed Muslim Endowment) authority to manage and protect public order at the site while limiting Israel’s security presence to the site’s perimeter, though Israel sharply curtailed the Waqf’s powers after the second intifada in 2000.
The current Israeli government has accelerated the erosion of this arrangement. Its policy, which is set by its security cabinet, is to facilitate the entry of religious Jews and tolerate de facto individual Jewish prayer there. Since the second intifada in 2000, it has banned non-violent Palestinian protest of Jewish prayer on the Esplanade, which has made harassment of visitors and clashes with Israeli forces by Palestinians invoking the “defence of al-Aqsa”, already hard to prevent, only more likely. In further challenges to the Status Quo, it has stationed more Israeli security personnel at al-Aqsa and limited access to the site for young Palestinian men, who are often already agitated by altercations with settlers at the Damascus Gate. The exclusion of entire categories of Palestinian males under 40 from the site, as Crisis Group has reported in the past, has also been a significant source of friction.
Prime Minister Netanyahu insisted that Ben Gvir’s provocation was not a break from the Status Quo
Ben Gvir’s January visit to the Holy Esplanade was particularly provocative. A settler living in the West Bank city of Hebron, Ben Gvir has several past convictions for incitement to racism and support for the Kach Party, which Israel outlawed as a terror organisation in 1994. He and his party have an open agenda of “restoring sovereignty and ownership over the Temple Mount”. In one of his first acts as minister, on 3 January, a week after assuming the position, he walked up the Esplanade, prompting condemnation from the U.S. and across the Muslim world. Ben Gvir’s notoriety made this visit especially contentious, even if Jewish Israeli ministers have visited and even prayed at the site in past years. It induced Jordan to summon the Israeli ambassador in Amman for a reprimand. Prime Minister Netanyahu insisted that Ben Gvir’s provocation was not a break from the Status Quo, and reaffirmed Israel’s commitment to the agreement, including directly to King Abdullah II of Jordan in Amman on 24 January.
But on the ground, tensions are simmering, not only between Israeli forces and Palestinian residents, but also between Israel’s security establishment and Ben Gvir. The national security minister is sowing discord within the police force, demanding that it crack down harder on anti-government protests and calling for the Tel Aviv district chief’s dismissal. In response to attacks by Palestinian East Jerusalemites on Israelis, including a car ramming that killed seven Israelis on 23 January, Ben Gvir called for a major operation (Defensive Shield 2, a reference to Israel’s massive campaign into the West Bank during the second intifada) throughout the city’s Palestinian neighbourhoods to, as he sees it, combat and uproot terror. Israel’s generals quickly shot down the idea. But the minister, who is in charge of the police, used his authority to deploy more officers, set up more checkpoints and knock down more houses, setting off violent confrontations between Israeli forces and Palestinians, who make up nearly 40 per cent of East Jerusalem’s population.
For Ben Gvir, the fact that Jews are formally prohibited from praying at the Temple Mount and visiting at will amounts to unacceptable discrimination, and he rails against what he sees as Palestinian incitement against Israel allegedly being preached in al-Aqsa and taught in East Jerusalem schools. As a senior adviser to Ben Gvir told Crisis Group, referring to any arrangement that would deny Jewish access and prayer, “This government was elected to make changes to the Status Quo, and no Jewish prayer is not a good Status Quo”.
Behind Ben Gvir stand a gamut of groups known as Temple Mount activists, who have been gathering at the plaza in greater numbers every year and want to expand visiting hours and permission for Jews to pray there. One such group, the Minhelet Har Habayit (Temple Mount Administration, in which Ben Gvir’s wife is active), has long been working with the police to encourage Jewish visits to the site. An activist told Crisis Group, “We want to expand visiting hours. We want Jews to go up there and to do so responsibly. But yes, we advocate for Jews to pray on the Temple Mount. We expect Ben Gvir to enable this. It’s no coincidence that he goes up there. This should be the agenda of every government … to normalise Jewish visits to the Temple Mount”. The most extreme of these groups tries every year to sacrifice a lamb on the plaza during Passover, a ritual that virtually no Jews have practiced for nearly two millennia. So far, police have prevented them from doing so.
50 per cent of Jewish Israelis surveyed in May 2022 support Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount … as a way to impose Israeli sovereignty
Yet if the Temple Mount activists’ tactics are outside the mainstream of Israeli society, their challenge to the Status Quo is not. The issue is arguably not high on most Israelis’ list of concerns. Still, according to the Israel Democracy Institute, 50 per cent of Jewish Israelis surveyed in May 2022 support Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount – the vast majority for political rather than religious reasons – as a way to impose Israeli sovereignty.
For Palestinians – and for Muslims more generally – the sanctity of the Haram al-Sharif is a rallying cry. Israeli provocations at al-Aqsa set off the 2000 intifada, the major wave of violence in 2021, and many other spasms in the city in between. Like in 2000, the unrest that started at the Esplanade nearly two years ago spread beyond East Jerusalem to the West Bank and into Israel’s mixed cities, sparking the eleven-day war in Gaza. Any new Israeli provocations could do the same. An official from the Islamic Waqf that nominally administers al-Aqsa noted, “Jerusalem is on fire, even before Ramadan has started. … No one is optimistic about anything, and this Israeli government is showing no willingness to quiet things down”.
With Ramadan approaching at the end of March and Passover in early April, the risk of further violence is high, specifically at the Holy Esplanade, where Muslims and Jews tend to visit in high numbers during the holidays. Israel’s security establishment, in particular the military command, Shin Bet officers and Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai, are well aware of the danger and have expressed concern about Ben Gvir’s approach. A police officer reportedly said of Ben Gvir, “Everyone’s trying to calm things down, but he wants to inflame them. His behaviour is reckless”. Several former police chiefs have even called on Netanyahu to fire Ben Gvir immediately. Yet the prime minister, reluctant to jeopardise his governing coalition’s survival, appears unwilling to restrain Ben Gvir, Smotrich and the many others who stand behind them.
Talking about lowering the temperature
This risk of another bout of violence persuaded the U.S. to convene the principal players in Aqaba. The summit, hosted by Jordan and attended by senior U.S., Egyptian, Jordanian, Israeli and Palestinian officials, produced several points of agreement. The five parties declared they “reaffirmed the necessity of committing to de-escalation”, “recognise[d] the importance of upholding unchanged the historic status quo at the holy sites in Jerusalem in word and practice” and “emphasise[d] in this regard the … special role of Jordan”. The joint communiqué additionally stated that Israel had given verbal assurances to “stop discussion of any new settlement units for four months and to stop authorisation of any outposts for six months”. Israeli negotiators reportedly also agreed to suspend home demolitions. In exchange, the U.S. pressed the PA not to pursue a Security Council resolution blaming Israel for the escalation or action against Israel at the International Criminal Court or UN Human Rights Council during the same period.
The Israeli government immediately stepped back from whatever its representatives said at the summit. In a tweet, Netanyahu denied any agreement to freeze settlement construction. A subsequent statement by his National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi, the most senior Israeli official in attendance, declared that Israel had not agreed to a settlement freeze. To the contrary, he announced that Israel would “legalise nine outposts and approve 9,500 housing units” in the West Bank. Ben Gvir reinforced this message on Twitter: “Whatever happened in Jordan (if it happened) stays in Jordan”. What Israel will do in practice remains unclear, and such statements are at least partly meant as sops to public opinion. But they are dangers in and of themselves, ratcheting up tension and undermining even the limited goals set at the summit. Meanwhile, house demolitions have continued apace.
Steps to prevent a dangerous escalation
So long as Israel’s occupation and its conflict with the Palestinians endures, it will be impossible to prevent all violence in East Jerusalem or anywhere else between the river and the sea. But the current Israeli government is making a bad situation even worse.
How the current demonstrations against Israel’s democratic erosion might affect the risk of an escalation over the holidays is unclear. Protesters, angered by what they see as the government’s efforts to turn Israel from a democracy into a dictatorship, have said little about Palestinians’ plight or the conflict more broadly, though some do appear to recognise that the government’s authoritarian turn is itself partly a product of the occupation. In principle, Netanyahu, preoccupied by the crisis in Israel itself, may prefer to avoid a major flare-up with the Palestinians that would reflect poorly on his government and further stretch the security forces. On the other hand, he is clearly reluctant to rein in his coalition’s far-right members, despite condemnations by former military and intelligence heads, some of whom even warn that an escalation with the Palestinians may be the distraction he needs. As stresses grow within the government, his hand might be weakened. Either way, today’s repressive actions are consistent with his government’s explicit agenda to annex the occupied territories. Thus far, little suggests that he is much inclined, even under outside pressure, to show restraint, whether during Ramadan or afterward.
Given how grave an escalation could prove, outside actors … should do much more
Still, given how grave an escalation could prove, outside actors, particularly the U.S. and the Arab governments that have recently normalised relations with Israel, should do much more. At the very least, they should push the Israeli government to take the steps it agreed to at the Aqaba meeting, while avoiding inflammatory actions, including, particularly, allowing settler violence to continue. In an indication that the government’s actions may be going too far for Israel’s new Arab allies, the United Arab Emirates announced it is freezing future purchases of military systems from Israel until Netanyahu brings his right-wing coalition partners to heel. In mid-March, Saudi Arabia, with whom Netanyahu is hoping to establish normal ties, obstructed the entry of Israel’s foreign minister to the kingdom for a UN conference. Such measures will not halt Israel’s annexationist drive, but the signal they send could at least help prevent a major outbreak of violence over the holidays.
Access to the Holy Esplanade during the overlapping Jewish and Muslim holidays will be particularly contentious. The Israeli security apparatus, which each year takes tactical decisions during Ramadan based on intelligence assessments and a broad picture of security risks, will likely inform the prime minister of the risks involved in enabling high-profile politicians and activists to enter the site. Netanyahu should heed their warnings and pledge adherence to the custom, as in previous years, of prohibiting Jewish visitors during the last ten days of Ramadan. Senior security officials say such visits serve no public security interest, but instead are a provocative and symbolic show of sovereignty. It is crucial that police commanders, who decide in real time how to operate and with what means, instruct their forces to exercise restraint in the use of force. Israel should also ensure reasonable freedom of movement, access and worship for Palestinians who have obtained a permit to visit al-Aqsa during Ramadan, whether they live in Jerusalem or wish to enter the city from the West Bank or Gaza.
Reaffirming the historical status quo
These guidelines more or less the reflect the 2014 understandings, reaffirmed the following year, that Netanyahu and King Abdullah negotiated under U.S. auspices to clarify certain ambiguities of the Status Quo and contain surging unrest on the Esplanade. They comprise four commitments, three by Netanyahu, one by Abdullah. Netanyahu committed to keep all Knesset members off the Esplanade; refrain from categorical age or gender limitations on Muslim access; and limit the religious Jewish groups permitted to enter, barring especially provocative activists from the site. Abdullah’s commitment was to prevent stone throwing and harassment of Jews on the plaza by keeping the Palestinian youth who were particularly inclined to do so from surreptitiously entering the compound at night, or at least by clearing them out before morning.
Balancing unrestricted access for Palestinians against the imperative of preventing stone throwing was always hard, but the understandings demonstrate what has become clear over decades of occupation: that the ferocity and pace of Israel’s security measures are a main determinant of the ferocity and pace of Palestinian resistance. During the time these understandings were in place, relatively judicious Israeli policing, the widespread awareness of the danger posed by Temple Mount activists, and good-faith efforts by the Waqf mostly restored calm. Today, reinstating this deal seems all but impossible because the Israeli coalition comprises many of the very activists whose agitation made the 2014 agreement necessary in the first place.
In these circumstances, the U.S. cannot simply continue its hands-off approach to the conflict. According to a U.S. official involved in the matter, the 2014 understandings still comprise the relevant “iteration of the Status Quo” as far as the U.S. is concerned, and as such, “it should still stand; it was never superseded in subsequent diplomatic interactions”. The U.S. should affirm this position, demanding that Israel and Jordan adhere to what has worked in the past, unless and until they agree to modify it. If Israel refuses or does not comply with clarifications of the Status Quo that it previously agreed to with the U.S., the U.S. should make that plain.
Complying with the 2014 deal would not be a simple matter for Jordan. The decades-long erosion of the Status Quo has weakened the Jerusalem Waqf’s capacities. Even under better conditions, its ability to rein in violence also would be constrained by the coolness of its relationship with East Jerusalem Palestinians. Today’s conditions are decidedly worse: the Waqf is degraded both materially and reputationally, confronting a coalition of provocateurs who openly aspire to sideline it.
A secure Esplanade requires a Waqf in good standing with the community it serves. That would start with Israel facilitating its re-empowerment, in terms of staffing and resources as well as by respecting the body’s autonomy to the extent it did before 2000. Even better, both Israel and Jordan would recognise the need for East Jerusalem Palestinians to play a greater role in the Waqf. Israel has concerns about some of the Waqf’s past and present activities. But Israel has also constrained the Waqf in order to enforce its political claims over the Esplanade, just as Jordan has limited Palestinian participation in the Waqf to enforce its religious ones. In doing so, Israel and, to a lesser extent, Jordan have compromised the only putative partner Israel has in securing the holy sites. The current Israeli government did not initiate this policy, but its rhetoric and aggressive policing are deepening the risks and increasing the urgency of revising the approach.
More broadly, bolstering stability in the West Bank would require Israel to end its military raids in Area A, which the army enters often though the area is nominally under the PA’s full control. For the foreseeable future, that seems all but impossible, given that Israel believes the raids are necessary to stop Palestinian attacks and arrest perpetrators. With Palestinians essentially barred from peacefully protesting their condition and their leadership in crisis, the only logical outcome of more raids, however, will be greater violence, as these will meet with increased Palestinian resistance and yet further undermine the PA. The army should also clamp down on violent actions by gangs of Israeli [Jewish] settlers, such as those in Huwara, and hold accountable soldiers who aid and abet them. Israel’s abysmal record in this regard, and statements by senior government ministers that appear to encourage extra-legal violence, suggest that this behaviour will continue.
At this fraught moment, even incremental adjustments like restraining Israel’s provocative steps on the Holy Esplanade, limiting military operations to an absolute minimum and containing settler violence will be important if Israelis and Palestinians are to escape the forthcoming season of overlapping holidays without a major escalation. These will not put an end to violence or reverse the entrenchment of the conflict. But in their absence, confrontations in East Jerusalem or the West Bank are that much more likely to spiral out of control, taking even more lives.