Police on high alert after Palestinian riots in Jerusalem, Gaza rocket fire

Security bolstered in capital ahead of 54th anniversary of unification of the city, which is expected to draw tens of thousands to Old City on Sunday night and Monday

Israeli police officers seen during clashes with protesters at Damascus Gate in Jerusalem's Old City, May 8, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Israeli police officers seen during clashes with protesters at Damascus Gate in Jerusalem's Old City, May 8, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Israel’s security forces were on edge Sunday, after Jerusalem was rocked by violent Palestinian riots over the weekend amid tensions surrounding the Temple Mount, and following the firing of a rocket from the Gaza Strip at southern Israel late Saturday and clashes along the security fence with the coastal enclave.

Police and the military were bracing for renewed violence following the holiest night of Ramadan on Saturday night and with Sunday-Monday seeing Jewish celebrations of Jerusalem Day. Security officials fear the capital could potentially see a further escalation in violence that would lead to a larger conflict.

Ahead of Saturday night’s Laylat al-Qadr, which saw further riots and clashes in Jerusalem, Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai held a security assessment on the recent tensions in the capital and ordered commanders, in particular in the Jerusalem area, to “significantly” boost their forces ahead of “another series of expected events over the coming days.”

That was apparently referring to Jerusalem Day, a national holiday that begins Sunday night, in which Israel celebrates the unification of Jerusalem and religious nationalists hold parades and other celebrations in the city. The main event on Monday, the so-called Flag March, usually draws tens of thousands to Jerusalem’s Old City, including a large contingent of Jewish religious nationalists. Mass prayer services and gatherings were also expected to be held Sunday night.

Palestinians wave flags of the Hamas terror group after afternoon prayers for the last Friday of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City, May 7, 2021. (Jamal Awad/Flash90)

On Saturday, Defense Minister Benny Gantz held an assessment of the security situation with senior officials from the military, police and Shin Bet security service. At the end of the meeting, the IDF said there would be a reinforcement of troop numbers as part of preparations for a potential escalation.

“Extremists on both sides cannot be allowed to cause an escalation of the situation,” Gantz said in a statement. “Israel will continue to act to preserve freedom of worship at the Temple Mount and at the same time not allow terror to raise its head or harm public order.”

Israeli security forces deploy next to the Dome of the Rock mosque amid clashes with Palestinian protesters at the Temple Mount compound in Jerusalem, on May 7, 2021 (Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)

On Friday, in some of the worst violence in Jerusalem for years, 200 Palestinians and 17 Israeli police officers were wounded as hundreds rioted on the Temple Mount and cops broke into the compound to quell the unrest. On Saturday night, as some 90,000 Muslim worshipers prayed at the Temple Mount, the clashes with police continued around the Old City, leading to some 90 Palestinian injuries.

Palestinian terror groups, including Gaza rulers Hamas, have threatened to avenge Israel over its alleged “violations” at the Jerusalem compound, the third-holiest site in Islam and the holiest place in Judaism — as the site of the two biblical temples — where Jews may visit, but not pray.

On Saturday night, hundreds of Palestinians rioted along the Gaza border fence with Israel, burning tires and throwing explosives at Israeli troops before being dispersed by tear gas.

A Palestinian protester burns tires during a demonstration along the Israel-Gaza border, east of Gaza city on May 8, 2021. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

Also Saturday night, a rocket was fired from Gaza at southern Israel, landing in an open field. Sirens did not sound in populated areas. The Israel Defense Forces responded with a strike on a Hamas post in the southern Gaza Strip.

Channel 12 reported Saturday there are acute alerts of potential terror attacks in the West Bank and Jerusalem in the coming days, after a week that has also seen a deadly shooting attack, a failed shooting attack on soldiers by a cell reportedly heading for a civilian target in central Israel.

Israeli riot police clash with Palestinian worshippers at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem Old City on May 7, 2021.(Jamal Awad/Flash90)

The central committee of Fatah, the movement led by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, warned Saturday night that “the continuation of the settler attacks on the holy places and the homes of Palestinian residents, their expulsion and expansion of settlements — will lead to an all-out conflict in all the Palestinian territories.”

According to Channel 12, current discourse in the Palestinian street is of a “war for Jerusalem and the Al-Aqsa Mosque.” The network also said Hamas is encouraging its West Bank operatives to carry out attacks there and inflame tensions.

Palestinian protesters hurl stones at Israeli security forces amid clashes in Jerusalem’s Old City on May 8, 2021. (EMMANUEL DUNAND / AFP)

Israel has boosted its security presence in all potential arenas of conflict, and is also deploying Iron Dome batteries near potential targets of Gaza rockets, while making efforts behind the scenes to calm Palestinian spirits.

Security officials are hoping to avoid bloodshed and deaths in the coming days that could spark wider unrest, Channel 12 said.

Meanwhile, far-right MK Itamar Ben Gvir, who last week set up what he said was a “parliamentary office” in the contentious Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem, on Saturday called to enable policemen “to defend themselves and use weapons including live fire” against “the terrorists in the Temple Mount and throughout the country.”

He said policemen whose lives are endangered “should be firing and not dealing with riot dispersal measures.”

Channel 12 reported that while Fatah and Hamas are both encouraging mass protests in response to events in the capital, Fatah is interested in keeping the events contained, and does not want serious escalation. Abbas’s organization is thus attempting to focus the outrage on the Palestinian street on Jerusalem alone, to keep the demonstrations limited in scope, the report said, while Hamas attempts to widen the front to the rest of the West Bank and Gaza.

Palestinians pray during a protest as local Palestinian families face eviction in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem, on May 8, 2021 (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)

Tensions have been rising across Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza for the past several weeks.

On Friday, three Palestinian gunmen opened fire on Border Police troops in the northern West Bank. Two of them were killed in the firefight and a third was critically injured. Israeli military officials said the three were en route to carry out a “major” terrorist attack on civilians inside Israel, with reports saying they were heading for Jerusalem.

Israeli yeshiva student Yehuda Guetta was shot in a Palestinian terror attack in the West Bank last Sunday before he died of his wounds on Wednesday night. Israeli security forces arrested a suspect in his killing.

On Wednesday, according to Palestinian health officials, 16-year-old Palestinian teenager Said Odeh was shot and killed by Israeli forces who said he was throwing Molotov cocktails at troops.

In recent days, Palestinians have held demonstrations in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. Over 70 Palestinian residents are threatened with eviction and could be replaced by right-wing Jewish nationalists, in a legal battle being waged in the courts.

An Israeli court has ordered the families to leave, as the property was owned by a Jewish religious association before 1948. A 1970 Israeli law allows Israelis to reclaim property in East Jerusalem from before it fell into Jordanian hands. No similar law exists for Palestinians, although the law specifies that they may remain as protected tenants.

The Supreme Court is expected to convene on the families’ appeal on Monday.

Police clash with protesters demonstrating against the pending eviction of several Palestinian families in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah on May 7, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Additionally, at the beginning of Ramadan, Palestinians repeatedly clashed with Israeli police in Jerusalem in protest of restrictions at the Damascus Gate area. Some videos also circulated on Palestinian social media showing young Arab men attacking ultra-Orthodox passersby.

In response, hundreds of Jewish extremists marched through Jerusalem’s downtown, chanting “Death to Arabs.” Others randomly attacked Palestinians across the city. This then led to severe clashes between police, Jews and Arabs in the city.

A Palestinian burns tires during a demonstration along the Israel-Gaza border, east of Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on May 8, 2021 (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

Hamas has rejected a message sent by Israel via Egyptian mediators calling to prevent a further escalation of violence and a potential deterioration into a wide-ranging conflict, a Lebanese newspaper reported on Saturday. According to the report, Hamas responded that “events on the ground” showed that Israel does not wish for a de-escalation and that therefore a truce between the sides was unlikely in the near future.

According to Al-Arabiya, Egypt has urged Israel to halt the evictions of Palestinians from Sheikh Jarrah and has called upon Palestinian leaders to de-escalate tensions.

Israeli security forces deploy to disperse a protest by Palestinians against a possible eviction of local Palestinian families in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem, on May 8, 2021. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)

Qatari mediators are also working to prevent rockets from Gaza from being fired at Israel in retaliation for the Jerusalem tensions, the Kan public broadcaster reported on Saturday night, prior to the shooting of the projectile toward Israel.

Hamas leader Ismael Haniyeh said Friday that Israel would “pay a price” for the clashes at the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Islamic Jihad, a terror group that often fires rockets from Gaza into Israeli territory, also threatened Israel over the Al-Aqsa clashes.

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