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Analysis

With Jerusalem focus, Hamas touches nerve even friendly Arab states can’t ignore

Rage against Israel spreads through regional states as the Gaza-based terror group positions itself as a defender of Palestinians and Islam

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Fighters with the Izz-Al Din Al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of the Hamas movement, in Nuseirat refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip, on April 18, 2021. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)
Fighters with the Izz-Al Din Al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of the Hamas movement, in Nuseirat refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip, on April 18, 2021. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

The Palestinian national movement was in the doldrums.

In August 2020, the United Arab Emirates agreed to recognize Israel in what became known as the Abraham Accords, followed shortly thereafter by Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco. The willingness of Arab states to strike diplomatic agreements with Israel was a  harsh wake-up call for the Palestinians, making it painfully clear that their longstanding veto over the future of Israel’s ties with the Arab world was gone.

“The sense I get is that the Palestinian political scene right now is similar to where it was leading up to 1948,” Ghaith al-Omari, Washington Institute senior fellow and former PA adviser, lamented to The Times of Israel in the aftermath of the normalization agreements, referring to the year that marks both Israeli independence and Palestinian dispossession. “It is weak, divided, and slowly moving outside the international consensus. There is more and more of a sense that this is the worst moment for the Palestinian national movement since 1948.”

While the movement was adrift, with no clear direction or strategy, the COVID-19 pandemic underscored to Palestinians the impotence of their governing institutions, as Israel became a world leader in vaccination while the Palestinian Authority had to make do with mostly symbolic vaccine shipments from Israel and abroad.

Then, on April 29, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas canceled the scheduled Palestinian elections, blaming Israel for not allowing East Jerusalem residents to participate.

Hamas and its supporters were frustrated by the development, as this was a rare opportunity for the group to deepen its presence in the West Bank — and through democratic means, no less.

But now, suddenly and unexpectedly, Hamas found its groove.

By asserting itself and escalating tensions over Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, Hamas has positioned itself as the Palestinian standard-bearer — without having to worry about winning elections.

Israeli security forces clash with Palestinians on the Temple Mount/al-Aqsa mosque compound on May 10, 2021. (Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)

What’s more, on the issues over which it has chosen to ostensibly base its struggle, even the Arab states that signed agreements with Israel find it next to impossible to oppose Hamas’s position.

From Damascus Gate to Sheikh Jarrah to Gaza

Hamas drastically escalated an already fraught situation on Monday, firing seven rockets at Jerusalem as thousands of Israelis packed the city to celebrate Jerusalem Day, and dozens of rockets at Israeli communities close to the Gaza border.

It was even more aggressive Tuesday, firing hundreds of rockets at the southern cities of Ashkelon and Ashdod. By mid-afternoon, reports of serious injuries and two dead Israelis emerged.

Israelis take cover as a siren sounds warning of incoming rockets from the Gaza Strip, during Jerusalem Day, in Jerusalem, May 10, 2021. (Flash90)

The terrorist group also renewed the launch of incendiary balloons from the Gaza Strip, and warned Israel there would be more rocket fire if it did not withdraw security forces from the Temple Mount.

Palestinian anger has been growing steadily in recent weeks, and Hamas’s escalation is its attempt — effective thus far — to exploit tensions in order to improve its standing among Palestinians, and even on the Arab street throughout the Middle East.

Since the beginning of Ramadan in mid-April, Jerusalem has seen heightened tensions between Palestinians and Israeli security forces. Hundreds of Palestinians protested police restrictions on congregating near Damascus Gate in late April, leading to violent clashes with cops and dozens of injuries and arrests.

After some Palestinians filmed videos in which they attacked ultra-Orthodox passersby, the Jewish supremacist Lehava group responded by marching through Jerusalem’s downtown calling for “Death to Arabs” and searching for Palestinians to attack.

Israeli security forces clash with protesters in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah on May 6, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Police removed the restrictions at Damascus Gate a week and a half after the protests began, but the tension seemed to only move to the contested neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah and its families.

Over 70 Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah are set to be evicted in the coming weeks, to be replaced by right-wing Jewish Israelis. The Palestinians live in houses built on land that courts have ruled were owned by Jewish religious associations before the establishment of Israel in 1948. The neighborhood has seen nightly clashes between protesters and police.

Mohammed Deif, a leader of Hamas’s armed wing, warned last Tuesday that Israel would pay “a heavy price” if it expelled the Palestinian families. “If the aggression against our people in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood does not stop immediately, we will not stand idly by,” the terror commander warned.

Clashes spread to the Temple Mount this week. Police entered the Jerusalem holy site Monday morning after thousands of Palestinians gathered in the compound overnight. According to police, dozens of rioters attacked a police post and hurled rocks from the Temple Mount toward a road south of the compound, blocking the road but causing no injuries or damage.

An Israeli police officer stands guard at the Damascus Gate to the Old City of Jerusalem after clashes at the Temple Mount, May 7, 2021. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

Over 300 Palestinians have been wounded in the confrontations, including several seriously injured by rubber-tipped bullets in the head, eye and jaw, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent. More than 20 Israeli officers were lightly injured.

Monday was also Jerusalem Day, a holiday commemorating Israel’s conquest of the eastern part of the city in 1967 from Jordan that is mostly celebrated by national religious Jews. The ceremonies include a traditional march by Jewish Israelis through the Old City, including the Muslim Quarter.  Though the march was canceled, Israelis clad in blue and white and carrying Israeli flags crowded the Old City and adjacent streets, adding to the tense situation.

Hamas rocket fire at 6 p.m. Monday sent the mostly young Israelis in Jerusalem scattering for shelter.

Then, despite extensive IAF raids on Hamas and Islamic Jihad targets in Gaza, came Tuesday’s deadly barrages.

‘Defender’ of Islam and Palestinians

“Hamas wants to be seen as a national Palestinian state organization,” said Moshe Albo, a modern Middle East historian and researcher at the Dado Center for Interdisciplinary Military Studies, “not just a Gaza Strip organization.”

The events in Jerusalem offered Hamas the perfect opportunity to claim that mantle. By its statements, and by threatening to attack Israel if it did not remove its forces from Sheikh Jarrah by 6 p.m. Monday — then making good on its threat — Hamas demonstrated that it, not the PA, was the defender of Palestinian rights in the contested Jerusalem neighborhood.

Palestinian medics evacuate a wounded person during clashes between Israeli security forces and Palestinian protestors in Jerusalem’s Temple Mount compound on May 10, 2021. (Photo by Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)

Through its attack and its rhetoric, Hamas also positioned itself as the defender of Islam. A narrative has been running through the Arab world throughout the Ramadan month that Israeli security forces have been desecrating the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Haram al-Sharif, the Muslim name for the Temple Mount.

Israel is also accused of preventing Muslims from praying at Al-Aqsa on Laylat al-Qadr, the most sacred night in the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Though some 90,000 Muslim worshipers ultimately attended the prayers, on Saturday, hours before the start of Laylat al-Qadr, buses carrying Arab Israelis to the Temple Mount were held up at a police checkpoint on the major Route 1 highway outside the city.

The move to stop the buses drew harsh condemnation from Arab MKs. Meretz MK Issawi Frej blasted police for “preventing thousands of Israeli civilians from marking the holiest night in Islam, Laylat al-Qadr… trying to stop them from participating in one of the most important events in Islam.” Labor MK Ibtisam Mara’ana tweeted that police were “terribly impeding the freedom of religion and freedom of movement of so many citizens.”

The accusations against Israel in recent weeks have “touched a nerve” among Sunni Arabs, explained Albo.  “Hamas succeeded in creating a move in which it presents Israel as touching on the nerve of every Muslim – harming Ramadan, harming Laylat al-Qadr, harming the right of worshipers to fulfill the commandment of going up to Al-Aqsa, which were broadcast on all the major Arabic networks and present exactly this narrative.”

Hundreds of Arab Israelis marching on Route 1 making their way to Jerusalem, for Laylat-ul-Qadr prayers at Temple Mount, May 8, 2021. Photo by Nowm Revkin Fenton/Flash90

“There is massive support for Hamas’s moves, and there is massive support for Hamas’s move as defender of Jerusalem, which further weakens the PA and Abu Mazen,” Albo explained, using Abbas’s nom de guerre.

“There is pressure in the street in Gaza and pressure on the street in the West Bank  for Hamas to really turn up the heat,” said Joel Parker, researcher at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle East and African Studies at the Tel Aviv University.

Condemnation

The anger at Israel spread rapidly across Sunni states.

Ahmad Al-Tayeb, Grand Imam of Al-Azhar in his office, in Cairo, Egypt, in 2015. (AP Photo/Mosa’ab Elshamy)

Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the foremost institutional Sunni authority as the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar in Egypt — an official government position —  released an especially harsh statement condemning Israeli actions: “Breaking into the blessed Al-Aqsa Mosque is a violation of the sanctity of Allah by blatantly assaulting safe worshippers, and before that, assaulting violently peaceful demonstrations in the Sheikh Jarah neighborhood in Jerusalem and displacing its people.” He called Israeli actions “brutal Zionist terror under a shameful global silence,” and called on the Al-Azhar community to “join the oppressed Palestinian people in the face of the tyranny of the Zionist entity.”

Iconic Egyptian TV host Amr Adib, who is close to the Sissi regime, blasted Israel on his program for five straight minutes over the weekend, playing footage of the violence and saying that Israel attacked innocent worshipers.

Statements from figures as prominent as al-Tayeb provide “a tailwind, or legitimacy, for continued Palestinian resistance to Israel’s moves,” said Albo. “Popular opinion-shapers — broadcasters, actors — are creating a state of mind, a consensus, that is very anti-Israel.”

Media in Turkey and Qatar — countries that have been especially supportive of Palestinian groups and openly critical of Israel — have maintained an intense focus on the violence in Jerusalem.

“Turkey and Qatar have an interest in embarrassing the Abraham Accord countries,” Parker explained.

But even states that maintain a relatively neutral position on Israel and the Palestinians, like Jordan and Saudi Arabia, are “starting to get on the bandwagon,” Parker said. “This can shake up the streets in Abraham Accord countries and in  Egypt.”

Arab governments, including all six Arab states that have diplomatic ties with Israel, have had no choice but to add to the condemnation of Israel.

File: Jordan’s King Abdullah II gives a speech during the inauguration of the 19th Parliament’s non-ordinary session, in Amman Jordan, Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020. (Yousef Allan/The Royal Hashemite Court via AP)

Jordan’s King Abdullah II, who acts as custodian of Jerusalem’s Muslim holy sites, condemned what he called “Israeli violations and escalating practices” and urged Israel to halt its “provocations against Jerusalemites.”

Israel’s Foreign Ministry confirmed that its charge d’affaires in Amman was summoned for a dressing down over “events in Jerusalem.”

The United Arab Emirates, which  has so far had warm ties with Israel, expressed “deep concern over the violence” in Jerusalem. It condemned “Israeli authorities’ storming of the Holy Al-Aqsa Mosque” as well as plans to evict East Jerusalem residents.

Bahrain, which also established ties with Israel last year as part of the Abraham Accords, expressed “strong condemnation” over Israel’s actions on the Temple Mount, saying it must “stop these rejected provocations against the people of Jerusalem, and work to prevent its forces from attacking worshipers in this holy month.”

Saudi Arabia, which does not have formal relations with Israel but is widely reported to maintain close clandestine ties with Jerusalem, also rejected plans to evict Palestinians from their homes in Jerusalem, the kingdom’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Egypt’s Foreign Ministry said Israel “must stop all measures that violate the sanctity of the Al-Aqsa Mosque.” It added that potential evictions were a violation of international law, and reduce the chances of a two-state solution.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry speaks at an international meeting to discuss the Israel-Palestinian peace process, in Amman, Jordan, September 24, 2020. (Khalil Mazraawi/Pool via AP)

But make no mistake. The Arab states condemning Israel have no interest in an escalation, least of all Egypt. Israel’s southern neighbor, which also shares a border with Hamas-run Gaza, is facing a series of simultaneous economic, diplomatic, security, and civil challenges. It must face them while contending with a US administration that has promised to press Egypt over its human rights policies. The last thing Egypt needs is a conflict between Israel and Hamas on its border, which will suck in the country as a mediator and inflame its streets.

Still, even as Egypt and other countries look to de-escalate the situation in Jerusalem, they cannot publicly oppose the narrative that Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa are under assault, and that the dignity of all Muslims is at stake.

As long as Hamas is careful not overplay it, the organization may have found a very strong hand that will alter its place in Palestinian politics, and to some extent across the Arab world.

AP and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report. 

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