Analysis: Tensions high following terror attacks and religious festivals

Jerusalem terrorist attack in 2015 > Israel Police, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Last week’s series of terror attacks against Israel and the start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan have collided to raise tensions in Jerusalem and the West Bank this week.

What happened

  • Following the start of Ramadan last week, Jerusalem’s Old City has seen minor clashes between Palestinians and Israeli police, with rioters throwing bottles, rocks and other objects, and one skip being set alight near the Damascus Gate. At least one police officer and 14 Palestinians were wounded in the confrontations.
  • Police employed riot dispersal measures and have arrested a number of those suspected of violence, some of whom were returning from evening prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
  • Over 8,000 police officers will be deployed across Israel during the upcoming Passover holiday, which this year coincides with both Ramadan and Easter.
  • Following a series of terror attacks against Israelis last month, killing 11, IDF chief of staff Aviv Kohavi reportedly told commanders that the military is preparing to be on heightened alert for a month or more, including the possibility of rocket attacks from Gaza.
  • Prime minister Naftali Bennett has warned that Israel may face “many more” attempted terror attacks in coming months, adding that “our people act with great bravery, around the clock, in a hostile and violent environment” to stop such attacks.
  • On Sunday night, undercover police arrested a Palestinian man suspected of planning a terror attack near Petah Tikva. This followed the deaths of three Palestinian Islamic Jihad operatives in an overnight arrest operation on Saturday, where they were reportedly en route to Israel to launch an attack similar to that in Bnei Brak last week.

Moment of unity

As terror plots were thwarted, this week also saw continuing fallout from the successful attacks that rocked Israel towards the end of March. On Thursday, thousands of people, including ultra-Orthodox Jews, gathered to pay their respects to the 32-year-old Arab Christian police officer, Amir Khoury, who died in a shootout with the perpetrator of the last week’s attack in the ultra-Orthodox suburb of Bnei Brak. A bus from Bnei Brak arrived at the funeral in Nazareth displaying the message “Amir Khoury, hero of Israel”, while Bnei Brak’s city council is reportedly considering naming a street after the late police officer – the first time the city would name a street after a non-Jew.

Working together

Despite the ongoing tensions, security collaboration between Israel and its neighbours to minimise unrest has continued beneath the surface.

  • Speaking on Sunday, a Palestinian Authority representative made clear to the Jerusalem Post that the PA would not sever its ties with Israel nor halt security coordination, despite the latest wave of violence and tensions.
  • The PA spokesperson likewise made clear that the PA was determined not to allow the Gaza Strip-based Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror groups to undermine security and stability in the West Bank, arguing that this would “not serve the interests of the Palestinian people”.
  • Meanwhile, top level discussions between Israel and Jordan have continued in spite of the unrest, with Bennett speaking with Jordanian king Abdullah II on Sunday, in which the leaders discussed “the importance of cooperation between the countries and the continuation of the ongoing relationship and dialogue”.

Meanwhile in Gaza

Despite the spirit of collaboration between Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan, the opportunity to create instability has been seized by Hamas. Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad announced last week that they had agreed to “continue and strengthen their coordination in the political arena and on the ground” following a phone conversation between Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh and PIJ secretary-general Ziyad al-Nakhaleh. “Resistance is the choice around which the free and the brave rally”, Nakhaleh said on Saturday in a speech following the deaths of three PIJ gunmen in Jenin in the West Bank, urging Palestinians to “continue in the path of martyrs until victory […] we will continue our march to Jerusalem and to Palestine until liberation”. In a joint statement, several Palestinian terrorist groups issued a number of threats against Israel, warning that “any criminal act of the occupation will be met by our people and its resistance with stronger and more intense resistance”, calling on Palestinians to “by all forms and means […] strengthen and expand the resistance against the occupation” and asserting their goal to “continue the path of resistance until the occupation is expelled and the lands and holy sites are liberated”.

The politics

Israel’s political leaders have sought to reassure the Israeli people that the Ramadan tensions and security threats are under control.

  • Foreign minister Yair Lapid visited the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem on Sunday, touring the area with Israel police commissioner Kobi Shabtai and pledging his support for the police in this “difficult, tense period”.
  • Visiting the West Bank, Bennett said that Israel was entering a period of “vigilant routine” as security forces work to counter terrorism. “Our goal is to break the wave” of attacks, he pledged.
  • Far right Knesset member Bezalel Smotrich, an ally of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, tweeted incendiary criticism of the government last Friday for “creating a coalition with leftist terror supporters”, a reference to the coalition government’s inclusion of left-wing and Arab-majority parties.
  • Smotrich later doubled down, accusing Bennett of “forming a government with the extreme left and the Islamic Movement”.
  • Bennett responded on Sunday, saying that he “had not had time over the weekend to comment on this horrific post. I was involved in security matters, in the dozens of actions we are taking to stop the wave of terrorism, thwarting the terrorist attack in Jenin and other burning issues”.

What happens next

The coincidence of Ramadan, Passover and Easter next week is unlikely to reduce tensions in Jerusalem, particularly as terror attacks continue to be thwarted. As Israel approaches the anniversary of the start of last May’s 10-day conflict with Hamas, the Bennett-Lapid coalition faces a difficult few weeks ahead.