Why do Jerusalem tensions fuel regionwide unrest?

Israeli police fire tear gas and rubber bullets at Palestinians stockpiling rocks and fireworks inside one of the most bitterly disputed holy sites on Earth. The violence ripples across Israel and the occupied West Bank

Palestinians hold the Palestinian national flag and the flag of the Hamas militant group during a protest by the Dome of Rock at the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
Palestinians hold the Palestinian national flag and the flag of the Hamas militant group during a protest by the Dome of Rock at the Al-Aqsa Mosque.Mahmoud Illean (AP)

It’s become something of a grim, springtime tradition in the Holy Land.

Israeli police fire tear gas and rubber bullets at Palestinians stockpiling rocks and fireworks inside one of the most bitterly disputed holy sites on Earth. The violence ripples across Israel and the occupied West Bank, and militants from as far away as Gaza and Lebanon respond with rockets.

Similar tensions in 2021 boiled over into an 11-day Gaza war. Violence at the holy site in 2000 ignited a five-year Palestinian uprising and a fierce Israeli military crackdown across the occupied territories. One of the first major outbreaks of Jewish-Arab violence occurred in Jerusalem’s Old City in the spring of 1920, in what became known as the Nebi Musa riots.

What is it about Jerusalem? What is it about the hilltop compound in the heart of the Old City known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount?

Why is the Jerusalem holy site sacred to Muslims and Jews?

The Noble Sanctuary, home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the iconic golden Dome of the Rock, is the third holiest site in Islam. It is also the holiest site for Jews because it was the location of biblical temples.

The Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70 A.D., with only the Western Wall remaining. The mosques were built centuries later.

Neighboring Jordan serves as the custodian of the site, which is operated by an Islamic endowment known as the Waqf. The site is open to tourists during certain times but only Muslims are allowed to pray there. That’s according to informal rules established after the 1967 Mideast war in which Israel captured east Jerusalem where the shrine is located, along with the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israel, Jordan and Muslim religious authorities helped set the rules, known as the status quo. The Western Wall is the holiest site where Jews can pray.

What’s behind the violence at the Jerusalem Holy Site?

The Palestinians view the holy site as the last remnant of their homeland that is not under full Israeli control, and they fear that Israel plans to one day take over the site or partition it.

Israeli officials say they have no intention of changing the status quo that has prevailed at the site since 1967. But the country is currently governed by the most right-wing government in its history, with religious ultranationalists in senior positions.

In recent days, Palestinians have barricaded themselves inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque with stones and firecrackers, demanding the right to pray there overnight, something Israel has in the past only allowed during the last 10 days of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

The Palestinians also say they are seeking to prevent religious Jews from carrying out ritual animal slaughter at the site. Israel bars the ancient practice, but Jewish extremists have called for it to be revived, offering cash rewards to those who try to do so.

In recent years, groups of religious and nationalist Jews escorted by police have been visiting the compound in greater numbers and holding prayers in defiance of the longstanding rules. The Palestinians view the frequent visits and attempted prayers by Jews as a provocation, and it often ignites scuffles or more serious violence.

This year, Ramadan and the Jewish high holiday of Passover overlap, with large numbers of Jews flocking to the site for visits that police typically facilitate in the early morning after forcibly driving the Palestinians out.

Some Israelis say the site should be open to all worshippers. The Palestinians refuse, fearing that it would pave the way for Israel to take full control of it.

Why is Jerusalem important to Israelis and Palestinians?

Israel views Jerusalem as its “unified, eternal” capital. East Jerusalem, captured by Israel in 1967, includes the Old City, with major sites sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims.

The Palestinians want east Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza for their future state, with east Jerusalem serving as their eventual capital. Israel annexed the eastern part of the city in a move not recognized internationally.

The fate of east Jerusalem and its holy sites has been one of the thorniest issues in the peace process, which ground to a halt more than a decade ago.

Jews born in east Jerusalem are Israeli citizens, while Palestinians from east Jerusalem are granted a form of permanent residency that can be revoked if they live outside the city for an extended period. They can apply for citizenship, but it’s a long and uncertain process and most choose not to because they don’t recognize Israeli control.

Israel has built Jewish settlements in east Jerusalem that are home to some 230,000 people. An estimated 360,000 Palestinians live in east Jerusalem. Israel has also severely limited the growth of Palestinian neighborhoods, leading to overcrowding and the unauthorized construction of thousands of homes that are at risk of demolition.

Jewish settlers have also sought to evict dozens of Palestinian families from their homes in sensitive neighborhoods in and around the Old City. A decades-long legal campaign to evict Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood culminated in nightly protests in 2021, contributing to the tensions that ignited that year’s Gaza war. Those evictions were later put on hold.

Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Israeli rights group B’Tselem have cited the discriminatory policies in east Jerusalem in reports arguing that Israel is guilty of the international crime of apartheid. Israel rejects those allegations, saying Jerusalem residents are treated equally.

Why does violence in Jerusalem spread around the region?

Many Muslims view the violence at Al-Aqsa as an attack on the faith. It provides a powerful rallying cry for political factions and armed groups across the region, who blame not only Israel but the growing roster of Arab Muslim rulers who have made peace with it.

The Palestinian militant group Hamas, which rules Gaza, has repeatedly called for a new intifada, or uprising, like the one triggered by an Israeli politician’s visit to Al-Aqsa in 2000.

This week the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group in Gaza and Palestinian militants in Lebanon fired rockets into Israel in solidarity with worshippers. Protests have been held in the occupied West Bank and in Arab communities inside Israel.

Jordan and other Arab nations that have friendly ties with Israel have condemned its actions at the holy site. So has the Palestinian Authority, which cooperates with Israel on security matters.

The U.S. and the EU have also condemned the violence and called for restraint while saying Israel has the right to defend itself.

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