(May 11, 2021 / JNS) There seems to be an escalatory effort underway within Israel, in the administered territories in Judea and Samaria, along Israel’s northern and Gaza borders and even globally, which could lead to great tension, even war, in the coming months. This is not a mutually reinforcing cycle of violence between two sides, but a concerted offensive serving the strategic aims of a number of Israel’s enemies.
More than 300 Palestinians were injured near the Temple Mount on May 10 after Israeli police firing tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets clashed with stone-throwing Palestinians. Hundreds of Palestinians and a smaller number of Israelis were injured in other similar attacks over the weekend. The recent violence coincided with the celebration on May 10 of Jerusalem Day, an Israeli national holiday that celebrates the 1967 Israeli capture of eastern Jerusalem and the sacred sites within the Old City walls. The violence also continues a recent escalation of violence in Jerusalem, some of which concerns the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah.
There is no one cause for this escalation. Rather, it results from a collection of forces and strategic interests converging. Like the epic art of Middle Eastern story-telling, the singular “umbrella” theme of escalation is actually the product of many separate sub-tales woven into other tales which align into a shell or framework story. In this case, that unifying shell tying these separate tales together represents a very real moment of danger.
The signs of escalation were building for weeks. As Israeli media research institute Palestinian Media Watch noted, official Palestinian media organs started broadcasts of highly inflammatory and bloody rhetoric starting as far back as March. In early April, there was a sudden escalation of attacks on Israeli Jews, many of which were serious and violent enough to result in hospitalization. Two particularly disturbing attacks, one a beating by three Arab youths of a rabbi in Jaffa, in the southern part of Tel Aviv, and another when an Arab spilled boiling liquid on a Jew entering the Old City of Jerusalem, were followed by violent Arab demonstrations when police attempted to arrest the perpetrators.
Palestinians organize violence against Jews through social media
The perpetrators of these attacks in early April filmed their exploits and posted them to TikTok to compete over the amount of “likes” and “approvals” they could draw. This wave of attacks on unsuspecting Jews became so prevalent that this escalation was dubbed the “TikTok Intifada.”
After two weeks of these violent attacks, a small group of extremist Jews marched in the streets of Jerusalem calling to harm Arabs. Small demonstrations in Jaffa near the area of the April 20 attack on the rabbi also took place. There were no similar acts or Jewish demonstrations prior to this. There were also one or two localized acts of anonymous Jewish vandalism, including hateful graffiti and the destruction of a few trees.
These incidents were isolated and limited. Israeli authorities investigated and will prosecute them. Moreover, subsequent investigations, even by leftist human rights organizations like B’Tselem, have been forced to admit they were misled and thus must retract some of their accusations regarding ostensible Jewish violence, particularly arson, which turned out to have been acts of Palestinian arson. The actual Jewish demonstrations and disturbances were quickly suppressed by Israeli police and largely disappeared.
In contrast, Arab demonstrations have accelerated, expanded, broadened geographically and become increasingly violent. The leadership of the Palestinian Authority continues to use its media outlets not to calm the flames, but to pour high-octane fuel on them. This incitement includes songs and chanting of slogans calling for martyrdom and blood in children’s programs across all age groups, even toddlers.
Another series of attacks centered on the Damascus Gate leading into the Old City. This campaign of violence, especially a series of beatings of Jews and riots in Jerusalem, Jaffa and at the Damascus Gate on April 12, led Israel to set up barriers on April 13 to control flow, keep potentially violent Jewish and Arab extremists separated, and maintain pedestrian traffic control to segment and respond quickly to rioting attempts by either side. When a large number of Arab agitators quickly surged toward the area that evening, the barriers proved inadequate, and several days of escalating nightly Arab riots against Israeli police ensued, which eventually provoked a smaller Jewish demonstration and unrest on April 20.
Hamas joins the violence, rockets fired from Gaza
It was not long before the border with Gaza heated up as well, and rockets began being launched at Israel. One night in late April registered nearly three dozen rocket attacks against Israeli towns and cities near Gaza. The northern border heated up as well, with an increased pace of activity by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to establish its ability to attack Israel, followed by a series of Israeli strikes in Syria to diminish that capability. After one Israeli strike, on April 22 a stray Syrian SA-5 missile flew nearly 125 miles across Israel and landed near Israel’s nuclear reactor in Dimona.
In the first week of May, the escalation continued. The P.A. then formally canceled its planned elections and blamed Israel, after which the long-silent head of the Hamas military structure, Muhammad Deif, suddenly resurfaced to call for violent attacks on Israelis, to include also “hit and run” attacks. On May 2, three Israeli teens waiting at a bus stop at Kfar Tapuach Junction in Samaria were gunned down in a drive-by shooting. One of the victims, Yehuda Guetta, later died of his wounds, and another remains in serious condition. A third escaped with light injuries.
Hamas delivered on its threats very quickly on another front. On May 5, Hamas resumed incendiary balloon attacks from Gaza, which this time included not only incendiary devices attached to set fires in Israeli fields, but also small bombs that could have caused considerable personal injury or death.
On May 7, Israeli forces stopped a heavily armed squad from Tulkarem from entering central Israel. The terrorists were in a minibus with stolen Israeli tags to facilitate entry into Israel. When stopped by Israeli forces near a checkpoint, the three terrorists exited the vehicle and began firing, but failed to injure a single Israeli. Two of the three terrorists were killed.
Finally, by nightfall on May 7, riots had erupted on the Temple Mount, with hundreds injured, including many police. Rioters retreated into the mosques on the mount, and police were forced to take positions up near them. This put Israel in the difficult position of being accused of “aggression” against the Temple Mount and of threatening the “status quo.”
כוחות משטרה פועלים משעות הבוקר מול הפרות סדר והתפרעויות אלימות בהר הבית. הכוחות נכנסו לשטח ההר כדי להדוף את המתפרעים, שירו לעברם זיקוקים והשליכו אבנים וחפצים שונים. בפעילות נפצעו 9 שוטרים, אחד מהם פונה לקבלת טיפול רפואי. נמשכת הכוננות המוגברת ברחבי ירושלים בכלל, ובעיר העתיקה בפרט pic.twitter.com/zCsqCwHF4A
— משטרת ישראל (@IL_police) May 10, 2021
Indeed, there is every indication that this will soon cause a crisis in Israeli-Jordanian relations. In fact, the concept of status quo is odd to begin with since over the last two decades, it has been fluid rather than static. But the flow has always been in one direction. As any visitor to the Temple Mount over the last four decades can attest, the idea of a rigid “status quo” on the Temple Mount has proven to be an illusory concept masking constantly expanding challenges to Israeli sovereignty, let alone Jewish and Christian access to the Temple Mount, at the hands of the increasingly restrictive Muslim Wakf.
Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas and the P.A. elections
Israel faces a concerted escalatory campaign that promises to deliver a hot summer. But why?
The context of this escalation is a willful policy of provocation aimed at fostering a climate of tension, which was first started by Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas but was quickly adopted by other players with equally strategic motivations to seek upheaval.
Early this year, against the advice of most of his closest aides, Abbas called for the first Palestinian elections in well over a decade. The date set for Palestinian parliamentary elections was May 22. Whatever Abbas’s plan was, it appears to have been a horrible miscalculation. By the end of March, it was painfully clear to him, his aides, his allies, his enemies and to most international observers that not only would he not win the elections, but that he would be trounced, with both Hamas and Marwan Barghouti’s faction of the PLO defeating him.
To avoid such a devastating humiliation, it was clear by very early April that Abbas would have to cancel the elections, which as mentioned he eventually did in the first week of May. And yet, canceling the elections was not so simple, since both Abbas’s aides and Hamas leaders made it clear that the latter would take to the streets in a violent upheaval against the P.A. and Abbas if he canceled the elections. The P.A. leader had no way out of this dilemma other than to blame Israel for the cancellation, while simultaneously provoking a series of escalations that would externalize the anticipated violence and deflect it onto Israel.
Outside parties contributing to the violence
A broader context also has intruded, regarding which there is a growing body of evidence. Several actors, both Palestinian factions as well as external actors such as Iran and Turkey, see a need and opportunity to incite escalation against Israel on many fronts, of which popular unrest was the first phase.
In terms of need, the Palestinian Authority, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government in Turkey and the revolutionary regime in Iran are all threatened by domestic unrest. All face grave crises internally that rattle their regimes in dangerous ways. On the opportunity side, all these actors sense that any increase in violence in Israel will cause tensions between Jerusalem and the Biden administration. This sort of escalation has greeted every new U.S. administration which seemed as though it might take a less pro-Israel stance.
The role of Israeli Arabs
Finally, there is an internal Israeli dimension, too. There is great shock and discomfort among traditional Israeli-Arab parties and elites in Israel. In the recent elections, an Arab party, Ra’am, under Mansour Abbas, gained almost as many seats in the Israeli Knesset as the traditional leadership represented by the Joint Arab List, led by Ayman Odeh. Mansour Abbas’s party gained this traction because the Israeli Arab population is facing a series of grave crises in such areas as crime, education and the economy. There is popular erosion of support for the traditional leadership, which has failed to deliver on these issues that are important to average Arab Israelis. And patience is stretched thin for continued sacrifice for the elites’ obsessive, theoretical support of unattainable nationalist aspirations.
In a stark departure from the practice of reigning Arab-Israeli elites, Mansour Abbas’s party promised to work within the framework of any Israeli government, as a normal parliamentary party, to secure the interests of its constituents. Rather than respond competitively, however, the “establishment” Joint Arab List continued peddling an entirely disruptive, anti-Zionist, pan-Arab nationalist agenda, thus sacrificing its ability to enter the parliamentary power structure to leverage and barter for constituent interests. Instead, it continued to opt for international applause for its rhetorical and entirely disenfranchising nationalist behavior.
As such, this internal Israeli Arab traditional leadership anchored to the Joint Arab List also instigated some of the recent violence, with the aim of embarrassing and undermining the rising support for Ra’am. The Joint Arab List even provoked direct violent attacks on Mansour Abbas and some in his party in Umm el-Fahm last month. One of the aims of this tension then is to shame Ra’am’s leadership enough to force it into expressing support for the unrest, which would sabotage the party’s ability to deliver on its promise and enter an Israeli government.
As such, the interests of a panoply of actors now dovetail into a dangerously escalatory and mutually resonating climate inflamed by the Joint Arab List, the P.A., Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Turkey and Iran. Each player has contributed a sub-tale to this story, but the shell, or “umbrella” story, is the larger and unifying tale of escalation.
Thus, the unprovoked Arab rioting, the climate of tension created by Ra’am’s impressive performance in the Israeli elections, followed by the violence instigated at the behest of Abbas and then Hamas and Islamic Jihad, are not the whole story. Given the interests that seem to be in play, it is likely that they are a prelude to attempts to lay the groundwork for a more dangerous escalation in the coming days and weeks, serving not only the interests of diversion noted regarding Abbas, but also foreign actors who seek to drive a wedge between Israel and the United States.
Anti-Israel U.S. think tank takes a cheap shot at Israel
A final, disturbing and novel dimension of this current escalatory cycle is that it is attended by a considerable U.S. footprint. First is the advance propaganda campaign, clearly coordinated, to set a narrative in the United States favorable to this escalation and multiply the tensions it will cause in U.S.-Israeli relations. With blazing speed, after the P.A. and Hamas had signaled there would be an escalatory cycle, pro-Palestinian voices in the United States mobilized to secure this narrative. The Middle East Institute’s Khaled Elgindy, publishing in Foreign Policy, is a revealing example of the effort.
He wrote: “The unrest began on April 13—around the start of Ramadan—when Israeli authorities blocked off the steps to the Old City’s iconic Damascus Gate in Palestinian East Jerusalem. The seemingly arbitrary move sparked several days of clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli security forces.”
Of course, there was nothing arbitrary about Israel’s moves at the Damascus Gate on April 13, since for weeks before the restriction, accelerating numbers of unprovoked attacks, as incited by Palestinian leaders, occurred on Jews in both Jerusalem and in Jaffa. Furthermore, Damascus Gate was a focal point of attacks not only in recent weeks but over the last year, including several attacks there against police. In fact, the restrictive barriers set up at the Damascus Gate on April 13 were the inevitable consequence of an escalatory ramp the Palestinian leadership itself had ascended.
So why did the author choose to single out April 13, a date midway through a series of escalating activities? Because it was the start of Ramadan.
The implication is insidious: The Israelis chose to out of the blue attack Muslims in Jerusalem on that day of all days since it marked the beginning of the holiest month. In other words, Israel is subtly accused of launching a grave religious attack on Islam itself—an accusation with highly incendiary implications.
As such, this article must be characterized not as an attempt to illuminate, but much more as calculated propaganda coordinated with the determined effort of escalation started by P.A. leader Mahmoud Abbas and now joined by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, as well as Iran and Turkey. The use of the word “arbitrary” to characterize Israel’s actions is a clever propaganda device not only to obscure but erase the context of Israel’s actions, rather than an effort to bring about understanding.
Why the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood has become a flashpoint
The Sheikh Jarrah issue is strategic for two reasons. First, the area connects the Jewish areas of Jerusalem to the Hebrew University, Mount Scopus and to several large Jewish neighborhoods to the north. Second, and perhaps much more ominous, if the Jewish property claims there are annulled, this would encourage a massive effort to challenge all Jewish claims to any property in Jerusalem, such as the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, and perhaps throughout Israel.
The Sheikh Jarrah issue is complex. It is the site of the grave of a 12th-century Muslim sheikh who was the doctor of Saladin, the Muslim military leader who captured Jerusalem in 1187, from which the area derives its modern name. It is also the final resting place of the fifth-century BCE Jewish High Priest “Simon the Just.” The Shimon HaTzadik sub-neighborhood is named after him. Beyond the area’s deep historical importance, however, it has even greater legal and strategic importance.
The neighborhood’s three sections housed about 125 Arab families in 1948, who had moved there in the 1930s and 1940s, and about 80 Jewish families. Some of the Arab families, such as the Husseinis and Nashashibis, kept houses in there only as retreats, while since the Ottoman era the Jewish families lived there year-round. In 1948, the area was successfully secured by the Harel Brigade of the Haganah during the Jewish-Arab-skirmishes in advance of the declaration of the state. British soldiers, not Arabs, attacked and removed the area from Israeli control, forcing the Jewish families to leave, and turned it over to Arab forces.
Shortly afterwards, on April 13, 1948, a “British-protected” Jewish resupply convoy to the Israeli enclave on Mount Scopus was attacked by Arab soldiers. The British remained neutral, despite their obligation to protect the convoy, and observed the resulting massacre of 78 Jewish doctors, nurses and civilians. This effectively left Mount Scopus and the Hebrew University cut off from the remainder of Israel. A few years later, when the area was under Jordanian control, the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and the Jordanian government transferred several Arab families into the vacant Jewish houses.
When Israel reoccupied the area in 1967, which is in the strategic triangle between the Green Line, French Hill and Givat Hamiftar that connects Israel to Mount Scopus, the Jewish families which had been expelled two decades earlier brought forward their deeds to the land. Israel’s Supreme Court in 1972 ruled that the Jewish claims were valid, but also that for practical reasons, any Arab family occupying one of the Jewish-owned houses would be protected from eviction as long as they agreed to pay rent.
Recently, Arabs have come forward with counterclaims, all of which are proving to be forgeries. This is not surprising, since land claims from the Ottoman era are in Ottoman archives in Istanbul, and the Turkish government under Erdogan several years ago launched an effort to cull all the land deeds in Israel from the Ottoman era. The Turkish government is strongly suspected of systematically destroying original Jewish deeds and creating new forgeries.
At any rate, in 1972, a number of families did accept the Supreme Court formula and paid rent, but a much larger number of families simply ignored the ruling. The current issue of eviction has to do with those families that have refused to pay rent since 1972 while living in houses whose Jewish title has been incontrovertibly established.
Equally disturbing are the highly incendiary and destabilizing claims of Democratic politicians, such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, that the Jewish land ownership deeds constitute an “abhorrent” and “illegal” act of occupation and settlement. Such statements display such insensitivity to or ignorance of the history of the neighborhood that it should effectively annul the validity of one’s participation in discussions on this issue. Or worse, such claims suggest an antisemitic outlook that holds that Jewish titles and land deeds simply do not count. One can only hope the motivation here is ignorance.
Nonetheless, these statements have encouraged the violence and greatly inflamed the situation as they encourage Arab rioters to believe their mayhem is gaining traction. The statements by the U.S. government, while less flagrantly ignorant or prejudicial, have been weak and disturbingly neutral as well, which also inflames the situation.
The Supreme Court on May 9 decided to postpone a final ruling on the Sheikh Jarrah issue, clearly to buy time and avoid playing into the highly escalatory climate fostered by Hamas and the P.A., but the matter will reappear soon, even if not immediately, since postponing it may not buy calm and the Arab rioters enjoy international support.
The terrorist village of Turmus Ayya
Another disturbing aspect of the current escalation is the role played in it by the village in Samaria that Muntazir Shalabi, the main suspect in the killing of Yehuda Guetta, called home. Not only is Shalabi a U.S. citizen, but 80 percent of the village, Turmus Ayya, is inhabited by U.S. citizens, many of whom are absentees, residing there only during the summer months. This village has become a Mecca of sorts for Western pro-Palestinian activists and radicals. An effort to follow the money behind this is warranted.
The coming months will be tense for Israel, and quite possibly very violent. The failure of the United States to preemptively and strongly signal that it will not allow a wedge to be driven between Washington and Jerusalem, and the strong expectation that the opposite will occur, further encourage the eruption of violence, which aligns with the underlying interests of the various Palestinian factions and Israel’s surrounding ambitious Turkish and Persian neighbors.
Dr. David Wurmser is a Center for Security Policy senior analyst and Director of the Center’s Project on Global Anti-Semitism and the US-Israel Relationship.
This article was first published by the Center for Security Policy.
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