Anyone who is familiar with Jerusalem knows that Arab unrest in city’s eastern neighborhoods is nothing new. For years, riots and unsophisticated attacks in these neighborhoods, including in the Old City, have become all too common. Volatility here, however, has increased in recent months. Attacks against Israeli property, citizens, and security forces are a daily reality. Given the frequency of disturbances, Israeli security forces are well-trained for such violence. This ability has thus far contributed to making sure that violence, although increasing, does not spawn a general uprising. Nonetheless, the call by Hamas political leader Khaled Mashal for Palestinians to defend the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, on the Temple Mount, points to a continuation of the current level of unrest in the city over the coming weeks.
As mentioned above, sectarian tensions in Jerusalem are not new and there are realities to life in the city that will make removing them basically impossible. However, the said tensions have seemingly intensified since the summer. Several events may have contributed to this. The abduction and murder of three Israelis in the West Bank, which prompted the murder of a Arab youth in Jerusalem a short time later, is one. Continued anger over the 50-day war in Gaza is another. Also, the recent overnight moving of more Israelis into the heart of Silwan, a neighborhood next to the Old City, has raised tensions in that neighborhood. These factors, however, are secondary. Ultimately, the real issue is that both sides want to control the holy city.
To that point, and if one has ever visited Jerusalem, it does not take long to realize that most Israeli building in Jerusalem’s east is strategic. There are hundreds of thousands of Israeli Jews living there, mostly in large strategically placed neighborhoods. The said neighborhoods generally serve to divide or enclose a similar number of Arabs. Silwan also highlights that a growing number of right-wing Israelis are securing tactical locations for further building in the heart of Arab neighborhoods. Whether they are there for religious or political reasons, most Arabs want to keep the Israelis out or force those already in, to leave. Therefore, unrest around these locations is very common.
With historical tensions in mind, the premier focal point in Jerusalem remains the Temple Mount. For years, Arab leaders have proclaimed that the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem is under threat from an Israeli takeover. Until today, Palestinian religious and political leaders cite Jewish visits to the site. They call the visits by religious Jews, often limited and guarded, as “invasions”, meant to destroy the site and rebuilt the third Jewish Temple. These allegations, in their eyes, provide justification for unrest, as local Arabs, mostly youth, are continually motivated to gather around the mosque to stage riots. Israel’s reaction to the unrest on the Temple Mount is what often makes the headlines. With that in mind, those organizing the unrest likely have little incentive to see it stop. Still, unrest on the Temple Mount generally lasts for several hours. Locals then cool off, and the same episode renews in the coming days.
But the Temple Mount is not the only focal point. Jerusalem’s Light Rail Train, a new and major government project to ease traffic in the city, is attacked daily in the Arab neighborhood of Shuafat in Jerusalem’s northeast. That locale has also been the suspected source of gunfire, on several instances, targeting Israelis in the Pisgat Ze’ev neighborhood since the summer months. Furthermore, Molotov cocktail and rock throwing against Israeli citizens, buses, vehicles, or security forces is reported in multiple locales daily.
It is important to note that recent years saw several waves of increased unrest in the Arab sector of Jerusalem. Those waves, however, did not lead to another uprising against Israel. Likewise, the current wave of unrest has thus far remained just that. Nonetheless, given the importance of Jerusalem in the Jewish-Muslim conflict, the risk of more widespread violence emanating from within the city will persist.