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Exclusive'A recipe for disaster'

US fears repeat of violence in Israel as religious holy days converge in April

Confluence of Passover, Ramadan and Easter has Biden administration urging Israel to thwart fresh conflict reminiscent of last year’s Gaza war

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Israeli security forces and Palestinian Muslim worshippers clash at Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, at Temple Mount, on May 21, 2021. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)
Israeli security forces and Palestinian Muslim worshippers clash at Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, at Temple Mount, on May 21, 2021. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

WASHINGTON — Fearing a recurrence of last May’s violence between Israelis and the Palestinians, the Biden administration is urging Israel to take preemptive actions in order to prevent a similar eruption this coming April, which will see a confluence of the Jewish holiday of Passover, the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the Christian holiday of Easter, US and Israeli officials have told The Times of Israel.

Last spring saw events in Jerusalem surrounding the Temple Mount and looming evictions of Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood snowball into an 11-day war between Israel and terror groups in the Gaza Strip.

Biden officials at the highest levels of the National Security Council and the State Department are concerned developments in Jerusalem could once again spiral out of control, a US official said.

This time, though, the US has identified the risk well ahead of time, as opposed to last May, when some criticized Washington for being relatively unprepared — with the White House not yet filling key positions relevant to the Israeli-Palestinian file — and only beginning to react to developments in Jerusalem in the several weeks leading up to the May war.

Following consultations with diplomats and experts on the ground, the Biden administration has identified the confluence of religious holidays in April as a “recipe for disaster in Jerusalem,” a US official said.

Jews will be celebrating Passover from April 15 until April 22; Muslims will observe the holy month of Ramadan beginning April 2 and Christians will mark Easter on April 17.

Border Police wearing protective masks amid the COVID-19 pandemic walk past closed shops on the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem’s Old City on Easter, April 8, 2020. (Gali Tibbon/AFP)

Each holiday means an increase in religious pilgrims making their way to Jerusalem’s Old City, with its flashpoint holy sites. Police will be tasked with securing the visits of Muslims and Jews to the Temple Mount, also known as the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, during a period where they typically limit access to the Old City in order to allow for Christian pilgrims to reach churches for Easter.

“Customarily, the Old City is the one location where these three often incompatible faiths cohabit and celebrate in the same limited space. But when tensions soar, as well they may this year, Jerusalem can transform “clash of civilizations” into local politics with global shockwaves,” said Danny Seidemann, a leading Israeli expert on Jerusalem.

A senior Israeli official told The Times of Israel that Jerusalem is aware of Washington’s concerns regarding April and that security forces are preparing for the period “with the utmost sensitivity.”

Like last year, much of the tension currently bubbling in Jerusalem surrounds a looming eviction in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood.

Municipal authorities have issued a directive to evict a Palestinian family from their home in March.

MK Itamar Ben Gvir arrives to open his office in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, February 13, 2022. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90

On Friday, a Jewish family’s home in the East Jerusalem neighborhood was firebombed, leading far-right MK Itamar Ben-Gvir to announce that he would set up a makeshift parliamentary office in Sheikh Jarrah until police could ensure the security of the Jews living there.

Ben-Gvir, the head of the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit faction in the Religious Zionism political party, took the same step last spring and it led to clashes between Jewish and Palestinian activists, as it did on Sunday.

Following pressure from the Biden administration, then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to take a series of steps aimed at lowering tensions, including convincing Ben Gvir to fold up the tent and table he set up in Sheikh Jarrah, delaying a court hearing regarding the looming evictions, limiting the number of Jewish pilgrims allowed onto the Temple Mount, and rerouting a parade of religious Jewish nationalists through the Old City.

Ultimately, though, events had already escalated “to a point of no return,” said a former senior US official who regularly consults with the Biden administration on this issue. On May 10, Hamas fired a barrage of rockets at Jerusalem, which became the opening salvo of the Gaza war.

Police deployed in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, February 13, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

This time, the US wants to preempt the violence even further ahead of time.

“We’re trying to urge Israel to act well in advance, so we don’t get to a point where it’s too late and where rogue actors can co-opt the situation on the ground,” the former senior US official said, adding that the Biden administration has had April “circled in their calendars since the beginning of the year.”

Unlike last May, the US now has a full-time ambassador to Israel on the ground in Tom Nides, who can engage directly with the parties to prevent an escalation. While Nides is new to the post and the file, he can be assisted by the new Acting Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Yael Lempert, who previously served as deputy head of the US consulate in Jerusalem.

But contacts with the Palestinians remain limited, as Ramallah has boycotted the US embassy since former US president Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved the mission there. Trump later shuttered the consulate, which served as the de facto mission to the Palestinians, and folded the department responsible for engaging with the Palestinians into the embassy.

The Palestinian Authority began loosening its boycott of the embassy last year when the Biden administration announced that it would reopen the consulate.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas hosts an American delegation led by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Israeli and Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr, who is flanked to his left by US Embassy Charge D’affaires Michael Ratney and Palestinian Affairs Unit Chief George Noll on October 5, 2021. (WAFA)

PA President Mahmoud Abbas met and spoke several times with the acting head of the US embassy at the time, Michael Ratney, who already had close ties with Ramallah from his time as Jerusalem consul general during the Obama administration. But Ratney is now back in the US, and Palestinian frustration with the Biden administration is growing over the latter’s failure to fulfill its promise to reopen the consulate in the face of Israeli opposition.

During the Obama administration, then-secretary of state John Kerry engaged regularly with Israel, the Palestinians and Jordan to limit tensions surrounding the Temple Mount. That kind of senior-level engagement has not been seen since, and the Biden administration has held off on appointing a special envoy tasked with focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian file in one of many signs that its priorities are elsewhere.

“Folks who deal with this issue closely will always say that US engagement is not enough, but [the engagement] you’re seeing right now is much more intense than it was last year,” said a US official. “Hopefully that will help in ensuring that next April does not end [as] last May did.”

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