Violence in Israel is getting worse and edging closer to open warfare. Israeli reservists and armor have been called up and Israeli ground forces have joined the assault against Gaza.
Hamas, the terrorist group that is growing increasingly powerful in Gaza, has launched thousands of rockets at Israel. Several of those rockets have fallen short and landed on Palestinian territory, causing more casualties in a situation where already too many on both sides have suffered. Neither side is willing to surrender an inch and hardliners on both sides are controlling the narrative.
Jerusalem may be the most contested city in the world. It is the epicenter of three religions, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. All three have claims to the area and the question of whose sites are “more holy” has been ongoing for centuries.
What Is the Cause of the Violence and Is There Any Hope for Lasting Peace in the Region?
The answer to those questions is as complicated as the region’s politics.
About a month ago, Israeli police began to prevent some of the large gatherings at the Al-Aqsa mosque during the beginning of the Holy month of Ramadan. The month is a time when tensions between Israelis and Palestinians have traditionally reached a fever pitch. Then Israeli security forces began to evict several Palestinian families from neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. This acted as the catalyst for the latest violence.
Temple Mount, Dome of the Rock, and the Claims of Each
The fighting between Israeli police and Palestinians took place around the Al-Aqsa Mosque in the Old City. The Al-Aqsa mosque is considered the third-holiest site in Islam and sits on a wide plateau that is also home to the iconic golden Dome of the Rock. Muslims refer to the area as the Noble Sanctuary. They believe that Muhammad was transported from the Great Mosque of Mecca to Al-Aqsa during a single night, which is known as the Night Journey. Muslims frequently claim that Jews and Christians are “storming” the Al-Aqsa mosque. Non-Muslims are not allowed inside any of the buildings there.
However, among the Jews, the area is known as Temple Mount and is the holiest site in the Jewish religion. This was the site of the ancient biblical temples. The First Temple was constructed by King Solomon around 1000BC During the Jewish revolt against Rome. Roman Legionnaires destroyed the temples in 70AD. Only the Western Wall, derisively called “the Wailing Wall” by the Romans, survived. The exact location of the Temple has always been under dispute, but many believe its location was directly under what is now the Dome of the Rock.
The Dome of the Rock was initially completed in 692AD at the order of Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik on the site of the Second Jewish Temple. The original dome collapsed in 1015 and was rebuilt in 1022-23. The Dome of the Rock is considered one of the oldest examples of Islamic architecture.
The 1967 Six-Day War put the Jewish people back in control. However, while it is essentially Israeli territory, the Jordanians still serve as the custodian of the site, which is operated by an Islamic endowment known as the Waqf.
The rules put down by the Waqf forbid Jews to worship or conduct services at Temple Mount. They are only allowed to worship at the Western Wall. Nevertheless, some members of the ultra-right Jewish religion and nationalist Zionists have been attempting to conduct services at Temple Mount itself. Muslims consider that a provocation and an assault on Al-Aqsa leading to violence.
Many Jews and Christians feel that Temple Mount should be open to worshippers of all religions. Palestinians and Muslims are adamant that this should never happen.
Three Wars Since 2014
Since Hamas emerged as the ruling power in the Gaza Strip in 2007, there have been three full-scale wars and nearly continuous smaller-scale violence. Yet, the status quo remains intact.
Both Israel and the Palestinians realize that violence is not productive, yet they seemingly accept that nothing is going to change.
The recent enormous escalation of violence appears to be a dangerous political calculation by Hamas. Palestinian anger over other Arab states normalizing relations with Israel was boiling over. Hamas wanted to capitalize on this to gain favor with Palestinians who are fed up with the Palestinian Authority (PA).
So, Hamas’s attacks have more to do with Palestinian internal politics than the Israeli cops putting up barricades during Ramadan. Early indications are that Hamas’s tactics are working.
Yet Hamas is playing a dangerous game. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that the rocket crossed “a red line.” The Israelis responded with massive airstrikes, targeting Hamas military headquarters and the living quarters of senior leaders. Hamas, in a tit-for-tat, fired more rockets, resulting in more airstrikes. Now IDF reservists and armor are poised on the Gaza border.
The Israelis normally stop short of open warfare, with Hamas claiming “victory.” But this time the Israel Defense Forces may not stop until much of Hamas’s infrastructure is destroyed. Members of the Israeli right believe that a war with Hamas will result in more Israeli territory and Jewish settlements.
Back in the early 1990s, the Rabin government in Israel tried to placate Palestinians by working towards a two-state solution. But the Camp David Summit failed in 2000 resulting in the Second Intifada. At the core of the issue remains Hamas’s stated goal of the destruction of the State of Israel. In 2017, Hamas softened that approach by mincing words stating that they don’t call for Israel’s destruction but for “the liberation of Palestine and to ‘confront the Zionist project’.”
So the cycle of violence in Israel and Palestine continues.
As Balian of Ibelin said in the movie Kingdom of Heaven,
We fight over an offense we did not give, against those who were not alive to be offended. What is Jerusalem? Your holy palaces lie over the Jewish temple that the Romans pulled down. The Muslim places of worship lie over yours. Which is more holy?… Before I lose it, I will burn it to the ground. Your holy places – ours. Every last thing in Jerusalem that drives men mad.
Sometimes art does truly imitate life.