Israel’s security establishment is preparing for several critical days in Jerusalem that could determine whether the country sees a return to calm or a major conflagration, according to media reports Saturday.
Police and the military were bracing for renewed violence a day after Jerusalem saw some of the city’s worst violence for years, with 200 Palestinians and 17 Israeli police officers wounded as hundreds rioted in the Temple Mount and cops broke into the compound to quell the unrest.
Channel 12 reported there are acute alerts of potential terror attacks in the West Bank and Jerusalem in the coming days, after a week that has seen a deadly shooting attack, a failed shooting attack on soldiers and repeated clashes in the capital that have left dozens of policemen and hundreds of Palestinians wounded.
The network cited unnamed security officials as saying that with Saturday marking the holiest night of Ramadan and Sunday-Monday seeing Jewish celebrations of Jerusalem Day, the capital could potentially see an escalation in violence that would lead to a larger conflict.
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 said that in the Gaza Strip, Hamas is currently avoiding firing rockets, but that could quickly change. In the meantime, the terror group is encouraging its West Bank operatives to carry out attacks there and inflame tensions.
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 also making efforts behind the scenes to calm Palestinian spirits.
Meanwhile the Walla news site reported that the Israeli Air Force has been instructed to “refresh” its target bank in the Gaza Strip and be ready for a deterioration in the security situation there.
Security officials are hoping to avoid bloodshed and deaths in the coming days that could spark wider unrest, Channel 12 said.
At the same time far-right MK Itamar Ben Gvir 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. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s organization is thus attempting to focus the outrage on the Palestinian street on Jerusalem alone, to keep the demonstrations limited in scope, as Hamas attempts to widen the front to the rest of the West Bank and Gaza.
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 on Sunday before he died of his wounds on Wednesday night. Israeli security forces arrested a suspect in his killing.
On Wednesday 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 Jews to reclaim property in East Jerusalem from before it fell into Jordanian hands; no similar law exists for Palestinians.
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.
On Friday Defense Minister Benny Gantz held an assessment of the security situation with senior officials from the military, police and Shin Bet.
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.”
Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai also held a “special” security assessment in light of the recent tensions in Jerusalem.
A police statement said Shabtai ordered commanders, in particular in the Jerusalem area, to “significantly” boost their forces ahead of the most sacred night of Ramadan on Saturday evening and “another series of expected events over the coming days.” This apparently was 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.
“I stress here that the right to protest will be preserved but rioting will be answered firmly and with zero tolerance. I call on everyone to act with responsibility and restraint,” Shabtai was quoted saying in the statement.
The Hamas terror group’s official media outlet said Gaza-based groups were calling for demonstrations near the border fence with Israel on Saturday in protest of Israeli actions in Jerusalem.
According to the Ynet news site, it was thought that protestors will confront IDF troops at the border demonstrations, with comparisons made to the violent March of the Return protests.
Saturday saw at least 10 blazes caused by incendiary balloons launched from the Strip.
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.
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.
Hamas leader Ismael Haniyeh said Friday that Israel would “pay a price” for the clashes at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, one of Islam’s holiest sites. The hilltop on which it sits is the holiest place in the world for Jews as the site of the two biblical temples — making it a flashpoint for nationalist sentiment and violence between Israelis and Palestinians.
Islamic Jihad, a terror group that often fires rockets from Gaza into Israeli territory, also threatened Israel over the Al-Aqsa clashes.
Additionally, the Arab High Follow-Up Committee, a body that represents Arab Israelis, called for protests in Arab towns and cities across the country in response to the violence.
The United States said Saturday it was “extremely concerned” by the events in Jerusalem, calling on officials from all sides to deescalate the tensions.
“It is absolutely critical that all sides exercise restraint, refrain from provocative actions and rhetoric, and preserve the historic status quo on the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount – in word and in practice,” the State Department said in a statement. “Leaders across the spectrum must denounce all violent acts.”
Israel’s Arab allies, including Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, have all condemned its actions in Jerusalem.