The days of unrest in Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip reached a boiling point on Monday evening, when Israel and the Palestinian Hamas movement fired rockets at each other. What’s going on in the area? And why is it restless again?

The causes of the escalating violence are a difficult tangle to unravel. In essence, the current protests are being driven by Palestinian youth. They have little interest in the Palestinian establishment, which means that the Palestinian authorities have little control over them.

Last week’s crisis began with violent protests in Jerusalem. They are inspired by an ongoing legal battle over the evictions of sixty Palestinian families in the Eastern District of Sheikh Jarrah. Jewish settlers claim the land on which their homes stand. The issue now lies with the Israeli Supreme Court, but that is not going to be considered for the time being, because of the violence.

Jerusalem is formally separated into a Western Israeli part and an Eastern Palestinian part. In practice, the eastern part is a patchwork of Palestinian territories and Jewish settlements. On the Temple Mount in the Old City are Jewish and Islamic shrines, where tensions erupt with great frequency.

The protests are mainly coordinated through social media and the movement has no clear leaders. This makes it difficult to reduce tensions: the Israeli government can call the Palestinian Authority (PA) to talk, but as Palestinian youth ignoring them makes little sense.

At the same time, the terrorist group Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, is trying to stir up tensions. Rocket attacks on Israeli territory from Gaza are answered by Israeli bombing.

There is a fear of a third Intifada, a term for broad popular uprisings against the Israeli occupation in the Palestinian Territories. Hamas and Iran (more about this later) like that, but for the other key players in the conflict such an uprising is a less attractive prospect.

The Palestinian question has been swept under the carpet in Israel in recent years. The country has had four parliamentary elections since 2019 (one formation failed after another) and may be heading for a fifth. On top of that political chaos came the coronavirus crisis.

With the help of the United States under President Donald Trump, Israel concluded the Abraham agreements last year, which normalized the ties between the country and various Arab (Gulf)states. These states traditionally gave their support to the Palestinians, so that diplomatic breakthrough also seemed to make the Palestinian question a less pressing problem.

In turn, the Arab states would rather not see the new opportunities for lucrative business with Israel (thanks to the Abraham agreements) threatened.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could use a distraction, because he is in a lot of trouble. His political rivals are at play during the youngest formation, and an anti-corruption case could put him in jail. New elections are a possible way out (a sitting prime minister is inviolable) – and Netanyahu has achieved great political successes as a conservative hardliner with regard to the Palestinians in the past. He must balance the temptation to gain more political support with a show of force against the less desirable consequences of an escalation of the conflict.

Israel should not expect much help from its greatest ally, the US, at the moment.
Netanyahu could read and write with Trump’s government, but his successor, President Joe Biden, would rather focus on a restoration of the core agreement with Iran – which Israel strongly opposes. There is currently no progress towards a permanent solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so there is not much to achieve politically, according to Biden’s advisers.

For Iran, the struggle over a nuclear agreement is also the most important at the moment. It is not bad for Teheran if arch-rival Israel gets busy with a new Palestinian popular uprising.

On the Palestinian side, relations are also complicated. The Palestinian Authority, which controls the West Bank, is traditionally dominated by the Fatah party. Prominent members have recently separated into two splinters. Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas is currently clinging to his dominance.

The radical Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, is gradually gaining more support in the other Palestinian Territories. The group hoped to monetize it during the elections that were due to take place at the end of May, but Prime Minister Abbas stopped it by postponing it. Formally because Israel did not want to guarantee that the Palestinian inhabitants of East Jerusalem could vote, but insiders say that Abbas also fears that Fatah will achieve bad results.

Hamas is now trying to claim a leadership role within the protest movement in East Jerusalem by asserting itself with rocket attacks. Israel Strikes Back hard. Minister of Defense Benny Gantz gave the green light on Tuesday for new air strikes against targets in the Gaza Strip and the call of thousands of reservists for active duty. The use of ground troops is now being discussed.

The big question is whether other parties in the conflict will succeed in curbing or, on the contrary, whipping up the young demonstrators. Because even within these factions there are often conflicting interests, it is currently difficult to predict whether the unrest in Jerusalem and Gaza will extinguish or escalate further.

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