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Analysis

In Jerusalem crisis, Hamas sees opportunity to retake center stage

After incessant rocket barrages, leaders of Gaza’s ruling terror group say they’re not interested in further escalation, but conflict could still get out of hand

Rockets fired toward Israel from Gaza are intercepted by Israel's Iron Dome on May 10, 2021. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)
Rockets fired toward Israel from Gaza are intercepted by Israel's Iron Dome on May 10, 2021. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

Early on Monday evening, as air raid sirens wailed across Jerusalem, the capital’s residents stood for a few moments, shocked, before running for shelter.

Hamas immediately claimed responsibility for the first rocket fire at the capital in years. It and other terror groups fired hundreds of rockets from Gaza into Israel over the coming hours.

Even as the rockets flew, a senior Hamas official took to a Lebanese television station to declare that — appearances to the contrary — the terror group was not interested in all-out struggle. He demanded that Israeli forces cease deploying at the Al-Aqsa Mosque and engaging in pitched battles with worshippers.

Clashes between Israeli forces and Palestinians have left hundreds of Palestinians wounded in recent days in the Old City. The confrontations have been especially intense near the Al-Aqsa Mosque — the third holiest mosque in Islam, which lies on the Temple Mount hilltop revered by Jews as the site of both biblical temples.

“We’re not interested in starting a war, but if Israel continues to harm the al-Aqsa Mosque and worshipers, we will not be able to not respond,” said Hamas deputy Saleh al-Arouri.

Hamas likely wants a short, dramatic conflagration before a return to the status quo, said former senior defense official Michael Milshtein.

“At this point, Hamas has made its point. If there was an offer to cease fire right now, Hamas would sign the dotted line. But Israel, of course, cannot allow that,” Milshtein said.

Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system intercepts rockets launched by Palestinians terrorists in the Gaza Strip, above the southern coastal city of Ashkelon, on May 10, 2021. (Jack Guez/AFP)

The series of recent events in Jerusalem, Milshtein says, have given Hamas a golden opportunity.

“Hamas understands that the circumstances are in its favor: the Palestinian Authority is weak, with its reputation in the dumps, Israel is in absolute internal chaos with no government, the Temple Mount provides legitimacy to anything they might do — this provides it the opportunity to act,” Milshtein said.

A decade and a half of rule in the Gaza Strip by the terror group has brought little advancement to ordinary Gazans. The coastal enclave is blockaded by both Israel and Egypt, and most of the world still boycotts the terror group. The bitter year of the coronavirus pandemic hit Gaza especially hard, sending already sky-high unemployment to unprecedented heights.

“Any war we enter would not benefit Gazans. We’ve yet to heal from the scenes of the 2014 war. The houses and apartments which were shattered that year have not been rebuilt. Hamas can’t go to a war which would bring only destruction,” said Mukhaimar Abu Saada, who teaches political science at Gaza’s Al-Azhar University.

Some 20 Gazans have already been killed in Israeli airstrikes, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry. The Israeli military has said 11 of those killed were combatants.

In the background of the crisis is the recently canceled Palestinian elections.

Hamas officials had publicly expressed hope that the planned Palestinian legislative vote — the first in 15 years — would go forward. After years of isolation in Gaza, the elections offered the promise of a unity government with their Fatah rivals, a widely popular notion among Palestinians.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas indefinitely delayed the elections earlier in May, angering many in Hamas, Abu Saada said. But dismal election surveys had also revealed that Hamas was far less popular than the leadership had hoped.

“The latest opinion polls taken during the elections revealed that Hamas’ popularity was declining. In fact, it was extremely bad,” said Abu Saada.

The elections formed the backdrop. But an unfolding crisis in Jerusalem — which Hamas had little role in sparking — opened the opportunity for Hamas to retake center stage.

For several weeks Jerusalem has lived through a protracted emergency. Hundreds of Palestinians and dozens of police have been injured in clashes across the city, including on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. Police have said Palestinians threw rocks and bottles at cops, leading them to fire stun grenades and tear gas across the holy site.

Right-wing Jewish extremists have marched through Jerusalem’s downtown, seeking to attack any Palestinian in sight. On Monday, a thousands-strong march of religious nationalists were set to march through the flashpoint Damascus Gate area in celebration of Jerusalem Day; Israel’s security services intervened at the last moment to reroute it.

Over the past few days, the tension in the city has reached fever pitch. Nightly protests against the evictions of Palestinian families in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood led to clashes with police, as well as some scenes of officers dispersing seemingly peaceful demonstrators with foul-smelling “skunk” water and stun grenades.

“The central axis propelling this forward has been Jerusalem. There have been other events — the canceling of the Palestinian elections, scattered terror attacks in the West Bank — but Jerusalem is the main story here,” said Milshtein.

Abbas indefinitely delayed the first Palestinian elections in 15 years on the pretext that Israel had refused to allow them to be conducted in East Jerusalem. “I want elections in Jerusalem, just as in Ramallah and in the West Bank,” Abbas told a gathering of the Palestinian leadership in early May.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas speaks during a meeting of the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank city of Ramallah, August 18, 2020. (Flash90)

The Oslo Accords, a series of agreements between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, specify that a small, symbolic number of Palestinians can cast their vote at post offices in the capital. Israel has annexed all of Jerusalem, while many Palestinians hope to see a capital in the city’s eastern half as part of their future state.

Abbas’s opponents protested what was for all intents and purposes a cancellation of the long-anticipated vote, calling for election day in Jerusalem to be “a day of clashes with Israel.” Abbas demurred, in what his critics saw as reflecting a fear of electoral defeat.

And yet, totally unrelated to the pending Palestinian vote, clashes between Palestinians and Israeli forces began to erupt in the contested capital only a few days before Abbas announced the delay.

The confrontations began with hundreds of Palestinians scuffling with police in protest of Israeli restrictions at Damascus Gate and spread across the city. The protests appeared to be leaderless and motivated by local causes.

Last Friday, the clashes reached the Temple Mount, with hundreds of Palestinians wounded near the sacred Al-Aqsa Mosque. On Monday, Jerusalem Day, hundreds more were hospitalized followed clashes with police.

Palestinian violence also focused on the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. An Israeli court has ruled to evict a number of Palestinian families  from their homes, to be replaced by right-wing Jewish nationalists. The families have appealed the evictions to Israel’s Supreme Court.

In a rare statement, the shadowy commander of Hamas’s armed wing, Mohammad Deif, last week threatened Israel over the Sheikh Jarrah evictions.

“This is our final warning. If the aggression against our people in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood does not stop immediately, we will not stand idly by and the occupation will pay a heavy price,” Deif warned.

On Sunday, an Israeli court delayed a potentially definitive hearing on the Sheikh Jarrah evictions. But the terror group launched a barrage of rockets toward Jerusalem on Monday afternoon after issuing a brief ultimatum. Rocket fire continued on southern Israel throughout the night.

Where some saw crisis, Hamas saw opportunity, Milshtein said. The PA is banned from operating in Jerusalem, works closely with Israel on security and resorted to mere condemnations.

Palestinians parade a burning tire as they shout slogans in support of the Al-Aqsa Mosque during a rally in Gaza city on April 24, 2021 (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

But missiles at Jerusalem that sent Israelis scurrying for shelter in their own capital quickly brought Hamas back to the headlines. Moreover, the Palestinian Authority had just given up on Jerusalem when Israel did not approve its request to hold the vote.

“Hamas wants to present itself as the defender of Jerusalem at a moment when the Palestinian Authority is unable to do so,” Milshtein said.

Hamas officials have accused Israel of being responsible for the rising tensions across the region. “Don’t play with fire,” Hamas terror chief Ismail Haniyeh warned as thousands of Palestinians clashed with Israeli police on the Temple Mount on Friday.

The repeated clashes at Islam’s third-holiest site essentially forced Hamas’ hand, those close to the terror group claim.

“Hamas was forced into this,” Fayez Abu Shemala, a Gaza-based political commentator close to Hamas, said in a phone call.

Abu Shemala, who previously served as mayor of Khan Younis, now writes a daily column for the Hamas mouthpiece Filasteen. He argued that despite the shock many Israelis felt upon hearing air raid sirens in Jerusalem, Hamas had done just enough to satisfy public pressure for a significant respond.

“Hamas’s response was six rockets, landing in places near Jerusalem without causing damage or casualties, is a calculated and considered response: we are not interested in escalation,” Abu Shemala argued.

“The message is simple: stop aggressing against Al-Aqsa Mosque,” Abu Shemala said.

Palestinians clash with Israeli security forces on Temple Mount aka the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem’s Old City, May 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

Abu Shemala protested that the remaining rockets were fired at more traditional targets near the Gaza Strip, such as Sderot and Ashkelon — ones whose constant bombardment has rendered it part of the give and take between Israel and the terror group.

“The remaining missiles and shells have been fired at the Gaza peripheral area, which is the same rules of engagement there were before,” Abu Shemala said.

Milshtein rejected Abu Shemala’s argument, pointing to Deif’s ultimatum. “Hamas begins, Hamas sets the pace [of the escalation], and sets the timing. Israel is being dragged along here,” he said.

Late on Monday night, Hamas’s military wing gave a statement that could be read as a call for both sides to step back from the brink.

“Jerusalem called us, and we fulfilled its call. If you continue, so will we,” Hamas’s military wing said in a statement.

Israel has grown used to managing repeated rounds of escalation with the terror group in Gaza. The escalations follow a clear pattern: rockets from Gaza, followed by Israeli airstrikes. Tensions rise for a few days before Egypt, Qatar and the international community intervene and the two sides seek a truce.

But war is messy; should there be a major slip-up, there is always the potential for matters to get out of control, Milshtein said.

“Israel has a big dilemma on its shoulders. On the one hand, Israel has to restore its deterrence and conduct an operation that leads to meaningful damage to Hamas… But as soon as Israel does this — and if it begins to get entangled — then it could get out of control,” Milshtein said.

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