The firing of hundreds of rockets by Hamas from Gaza into Israeli cities has become the main story. However, the situation evolved from Palestinian planned popular violence connected with the Sheikh Jarrah issue to the rocket fire and subsequent responses.
What is Sheikh Jarrah and why is it relevant?
It is much more complicated than being merely a real estate dispute (i.e. evicting tenants who aren’t paying rent) or being a land grab by nationalist Jews
In the 1947–1949 Israeli War of Independence, Jewish residents were expelled from the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood. Jordan annexed the area.
In the war’s aftermath, there were many Arab refugees in Jordan and Jewish refugees in Israel. Jordan, in coordination with the UN body responsible for care of Palestinian refugees and their descendants (UNRWA), built housing on Jewish-owned vacant land and provided it to Palestinian refugees. (Israel provided vacated Arab houses to Jewish refugees.) Jordan never granted ownership of the land to the new residents. (Here’s a short background on the relevant laws, and here’s a background on the dispute.)
Control of the area passed into Israel’s hands during the 1967 war. Israel subsequently annexed the area and reunified Jerusalem.
Legal proceedings that began in 1982 have a) proven the original Jewish ownership and b) protected the Palestinian residents, as long as they pay rent to the owners. When the residents stopped paying rent, legal proceedings were launched to evict them.
But this focus on the legality risks downplaying the complexities created by the history of warfare and its consequences (not least the changing legal regimes), the nationalist sentiment on both sides and the genuine grievances held by many Arab residents of Jerusalem.
Why is this happening now?
The Sheikh Jarrah dispute is a catalyst, not the cause of the violence.
A confluence of events has led us to this moment:
- Israel’s Supreme Court was due to make its final decision on the Sheikh Jarrah issue, but has delayed the decision until at least 8 June. There have been weekly, low-level protests in Sheikh Jarrah for some time.
- Organised and spontaneous Palestinian violence against Israel has been increasing in recent months. These include 40 rockets fired from Gaza into Israel in April, the filming and sharing on social media of random attacks against religious Jews and a fatal drive-by shooting in the West Bank.
- In response to the violence on social media, a handful of Jewish Israelis conducted provocative protests in Arab areas (these were stopped by Israeli police)
- After the 29 April postponement of the Palestinian parliamentary elections, the Palestinian leadership has sought to deflect criticism by changing the media focus. It has ramped up incitement to violence against Jews since that time. (There is historical precedent of increased incitement to violence leading within weeks to mass violence; two weeks before the second intifada in 2000, a dramatic increase in incitement to violence in Palestinian media was reported)
- It is currently Ramadan, a period in which Palestinian nationalist sentiment is usually intensified. 7 May, the first day of mass violence on the Temple Mount, was the last Friday of Ramadan, which always draws a massive crowd for Friday prayers.
- Monday was Jerusalem Day, the anniversary of the 1967 capture of the Old City (wherein lies the Temple Mount and Western Wall) by Israeli forces. The day is marked by Israelis marching towards and into the Old City, to gather at the Western Wall plaza. (This year, due to the tension, the route was changed).
- The Israeli political system is currently in a state of flux, with the mandate for forming a new (and probably minority) government having been handed to the Opposition Leader.
- There are numerous Palestinian parties that want to fight Israel until it is destroyed. These use any pretext to justify organised and popular violence. The Sheikh Jarrah and Temple Mount situations are examples.
- All of these factors are interwoven and often act as multiplying agents; it is near impossible to separate out individual factors as ‘the’ reason for the sudden violence.
The Temple Mount
The Temple Mount is a huge platform built 2000 years ago on which the Jewish temple was situated. On its site now sits the golden-domed Dome of the Rock. On the southern end of the Temple Mount sits al-Aqsa Mosque.
Mass violence on the Temple Mount began on 7 May after Friday prayers. Palestinians threw rocks at Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall, which is located some 20 metres below the Temple Mount platform.
There is considerable evidence that this violence was planned, with rocks and stun grenades prepositioned (images here and here). On the same day, a Hamas spokesperson called on Palestinians to slit the throats of Jews (note: not ‘Israelis’).
After the violence on Friday, there was an explicit call by the Palestinian Authority’s ruling Fatah party to continue the violence on Monday evening, which is what happened.
Israeli police responded to the violence with teargas and rubber bullets, resulting in 200 injuries on Friday.
Al-Aqsa Mosque is an emotional rallying point for many Muslims, and accusations that ‘al-Aqsa is in danger’ in the face of violence (even when instigated by Palestinians) on the Temple Mount will a) rally many Palestinians and b) bring considerable pressure on Israel. The riots of 1929 (in which all Jews were expelled from Hebron) were instigated because of false rumours that al-Aqsa was in danger, as were in the mass riots in 1996, and so on.
The rockets from Gaza
On Monday, in alleged support of Arabs in Jerusalem, Hamas fired over 200 rockets from Gaza. These were aimed at Israeli civilian areas (which is a war crime). And many were fired from civilian areas within Gaza (which is also a war crime). Seven of the rockets were aimed at Jerusalem. Israel’s anti-rocket system has shot down many of these rockets, although some have hit Israeli homes.
On Tuesday, Hamas launched hundreds more rockets. In a new tactic, it launched many rockets at the same time (one of many videos here), in an attempt to overwhelm Israel’s anti-rocket system, Iron Dome.
Some rockets have successfully hit their targets; a school was hit, as were numerous apartment buildings. At least three Israeli civilians have been killed. The casualties are so few because:
- The Iron Dome system shoots down almost all rockets that were going to land in built up areas (details on the Iron Dome system here)
- Israel has an extensive system of bomb shelters (as well as reinforced rooms in each apartment) to protect its citizens from such attacks
Hamas has also launched dozens of ‘arson balloons’ that cause fires upon landing. There are now at least two dozen fires in Israeli fields near Gaza.
Israel has responded to attacks on its civilians by targeting Hamas military infrastructure in Gaza, including ‘attack tunnels’ that protrude into Israel (to enable attacks). Where targeting this infrastructure would endanger civilians, Israel warns them before attacking.
Hamas claims that 28 people in Gaza have been killed, including nine children. However, the IDF reported that 15 of the dead were killed as they fired rockets, and that three children were killed when a Hamas rocket misfired. A definitive account of casualties, including whether they were civilians or combatants, their ages and who was responsible for their deaths has yet to be established.