A day of violent clashes in Jerusalem and a deadly exchange of fire in and around the Gaza Strip has put the spotlight on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, two veteran antagonists who appear to be nearing the end of their long reigns.
Whether Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Abbas will pull back from the brink – or see political advantage in escalating the situation – is a central question after weeks of mounting violence in Jerusalem, the city both Israelis and Palestinians claim as their capital but which Israel has controlled since a 1967 war.
On Monday, at least 330 Palestinians and 21 Israeli police officers were injured on a chaotic day that saw Israeli security forces use stun grenades and tear gas to storm al-Aqsa Mosque, one of the holiest sites in Islam, for the second time in less than a week to break up a sit-in protest by Palestinians. Israel said police responded after the Palestinians started throwing stones at them.
Hamas, the Islamist militia that controls the Gaza Strip, responded by firing at least 150 rockets in the direction of Jerusalem, according to the Israeli military. The rockets set off air raid sirens in the city and prompted the evacuation of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset. Israel retaliated almost immediately with air strikes targeting parts of Gaza. The Health Ministry in Gaza said 20 people, including nine children, were killed, making it one of the deadliest days the region has seen in years. The ministry attributed 13 of the 20 deaths to the Israeli attack.
Israeli military spokesman Brigadier-General Hidai Zilberman said the targeting of Jerusalem represented a significant escalation. “Hamas will feel our response to this event,” he said. “It will not last several minutes, but days.”
White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said U.S. President Joe Biden was closely monitoring events. “We have serious concerns about the situation, including violent confrontation that we’ve seen over the last few days,” she said.
Mr. Netanyahu, 71, who has led Israel since 2009, finds himself staring – not for the first time – at the possible end of his political career after recently trying and failing to form a coalition government.
Mr. Abbas, meanwhile, cancelled a May 22 vote that would have been the first Palestinian election in 15 years. The 85-year-old blamed Israel’s refusal to allow Palestinian voting in East Jerusalem, but many analysts believe Mr. Abbas was motivated by polls that show he and his Fatah party were headed for embarrassing defeats.
Mr. Abbas leads the Palestinian Authority, which governs parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank. But the PA has only limited influence in East Jerusalem – which Israel annexed in 1980 – and none over what Hamas does in Gaza.
“We have a lack of leadership, a lack of statesmanship, a lack of governance on both sides,” said Gershon Baskin, a veteran Israeli peace negotiator. “The amount of violence will depend on the responses of both sides and their ability to control what they have let loose. Events could get out of control.”
In a sign that Mr. Netanyahu’s government was seeking to de-escalate the situation, a march by right-wing demonstrators – to celebrate Israel’s 1967 capture of East Jerusalem – was prevented by police from entering the Muslim Quarter of the Old City after the al-Aqsa incident.
But anger remains dangerously high. Israeli police released a video of Palestinians pelting a car with stones before the car sped up and drove into the crowd, injuring at least one person. The bleeding driver was then surrounded and dragged from his car before a policeman saved him from the crowd.
Another flashpoint is a long-running dispute over Israeli plans to demolish Palestinian homes to make way for Jewish settlements in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah.
While Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party emerged from a March 23 election with the largest number of seats, he was unable to cobble together a coalition government that would have the support of the 120-seat Knesset. Last week, President Reuven Rivlin formally asked Yair Lapid, whose centrist Yesh Atid party finished second in the election, to try to form a government.
For now, Mr. Netanyahu – whose political allies include religious conservatives and nationalists – remains Prime Minister, even as he simultaneously stands trial on corruption charges. On Monday, he appeared to be trying to stir up, rather than calm, emotions. He praised Israeli police for “taking a strong stand” and said “a struggle is being waged now for the heart of Jerusalem.”
Analysts say he could gain politically from the violence, since it will complicate Mr. Lapid’s effort to persuade a broad spectrum of Mr. Netanyahu’s opponents – including right-wing Jewish nationalists who have become disenchanted with him, as well as an Israeli Arab party – to work together.
Mr. Baskin said he believed the police action at al-Aqsa Mosque was intended to generate a Palestinian response. The mosque is built atop the Temple Mount, the most sacred place in Judaism.
“Whenever one side or another – usually the Israeli side – does something there, it touches off a round of violence,” said Mr. Baskin, alluding to the most recent Palestinian uprising, or intifada, which began in 2000 after an Israeli politician’s provocative visit to the al-Aqsa compound. More than 3,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis were killed in the 4½ years of violence that followed.
Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh warned Monday of unspecified “consequences” of the police action at al-Aqsa, as well as the effort to change the demography of Sheikh Jarrah.
But Ghassan al-Khatib, a former Palestinian cabinet minister, said the lack of popular political leadership on the Palestinian side meant there was no one who could rein in the angry youths confronting the Israeli police. The Palestinians in East Jerusalem, he said, were now responding “spontaneously” to events at al-Aqsa and in Sheikh Jarrah.
“I don’t think any faction has control over what is happening in East Jerusalem,” said Mr. al-Khatib, who now teaches political science at Birzeit University in the West Bank. “Both Fatah and Hamas are trying to give the impression that they’re contributing to events, but they’re not. … From an Israeli point of view, that means there is no one to put pressure on, there is no one to negotiate with.”
Mr. Baskin said the violent events on Jerusalem Day – a holiday meant to celebrate the city’s “reunification” under Israeli rule – “illustrates how divided this city really is.”
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